The death of the Delhi gang rape victim in Singapore is poignant beyond words. We still don’t know her name and how she looked like. We may never know these, perhaps for a long time to come. But then that is not very relevant. A precious life has been snuffed out for no fault of the 23-years-old physiotherapy student or her near ones.
We understand from snippets of information flowing from Delhi that the victim definitely wanted to live. This is the worst possible irony. The foremost question that is tossed around across the nation is whether a force more efficient and humane than the Delhi Police could have averted the gory happening.
I don’t think even a police officer with a good track record has intelligent views on this. As I have maintained every murder or rape is a slap on the face of the government and a failure of the Establishment’s duty to protect its citizens. No amount of theorizing will salvage the image lost by those in power, both in government and administration. Many heads will have to roll. However any exercise aimed at this purge will look unjust and irrational if carried to the extreme. There is the need for a sense of balance that would look for accountability without diluting police morale.Did the Delhi Police fail in its duty to protect the hapless victim? On the face of it the gang rape could not have been averted. This is because the aggression took place in a speeding bus that was mostly covered in curtains. The culprits took advantage of the privacy provided by this ambience, raped and severely injured the girl and thereafter threw her out of the bus along with her male friend who was also in the bus. The police did not initially have a clue. Later with available inputs provided by private citizens who happened to see the two injured persons and the bus operator and others, the police sprung into action and cracked the case in no time. All six accused (including a reported juvenile) were arrested, and they will face murder charges in a Fast Track Court.
A few Delhi policemen have been suspended for not acting fast enough. There is a demand for more scalps including senior officers. It is possible the Union Home Ministry (MHA) will oblige, if only to save themselves from any odium.
In purely technical terms the Delhi Police could not be faulted. In a huge megapolis like Delhi it is easy to commit crime and skulk away. Remember the city has a mind-boggling diverse population which can hide criminals and information on them. Viewed in this perspective the police in the city are not culpable at least in this instance. They would have blotted their copy book if they did not act fast once information on the occurrence was received. Fortunately they were not guilty on this score.
But then public opinion is not rational and it is known to succumb to emotions. It has certainly done so in this case. One cannot ignore public perceptions, and in a democracy they matter a lot. In this case there is a huge swell of opinion that the police have failed, and this is why I expect the MHA to find a few scapegoats. That should appease the community for a while. This is a measure of immediate expediency. What about long-term measures which go beyond the mere cosmetic changes?
There are several issues which cry for attention here. First is the status of the Delhi Police. Successive Delhi Chief Ministers have complained that they have no control over the police which reports to the MHA. Whenever an incident of the magnitude of the gang rape reported recently occurs, Chief Ministers go to town and cite this anomaly as reason why they were helpless and could not be held responsible. They cannot be easily faulted for taking such a negative stand. The argument in favour of the status quo however is that, being the nation’s capital, Delhi cannot be on par with other States, and its police should not be subjected to the caprice of a political-appointee, whose party allegiance may be different from that of the government in position. The MHA control was rational until Delhi was not accorded Statehood.
It is dubious whether this position should continue even after the city became a State by itself. The stand that MHA is apolitical unlike a popular government in Delhi does not any longer bear scrutiny. Several decisions by the MHA in the recent past had smacked of crass politics and it is therefore time that there is a fresh look at the status of the Delhi Police. Also requiring a review is the stipulation that the Delhi Police Commissioner will have to be only from the Union Territory IPS Cadre. The job is too big and contentious to restrict the field of choice to just a few.
There is now possibly a case for nationwide selection as in the case of the CBI. If an internal candidate is overwhelmingly eminent the job should go to him, and none else. Otherwise a talented officer from elsewhere who has an outstanding track record and a sound knowledge of Delhi derived from his stint in a Central Police Organization (CPO) could fill the bill. This is not a panacea for all the shortcomings of the police in the city. But it could bring in the much needed fresh air to a force that is constantly stressed and criticized for either overreaction or perceived sloth.
Finally Delhi shares many of the ills of urban policing in the country with other cities. While it stands on a distinct footing as far as VIP security is concerned, in respect of other problems it has a lot in common with other big cities. Chief of these is protection of women which, more than others is going to figure prominently in the days to come. Priorities will have to quickly change.
Gender sensitivity cannot any longer be contrived. It has to be genuine and suave. Otherwise the community will not forgive governments and police forces. There has to be a major exercise at visible policing of areas where women are employed or go to educational institutions, ignoring the possible loss of privacy and the injection of heavy footed policing.
Deterrent sentences even for minor acts of annoyance aimed at women are only a half-way measure. Community support will have to be marshaled with great care and sincerity. Educational campuses will have to chip in for this massive endeavour. More women police is not exactly a substitute for intelligent policing. This is because policewomen in many urban centres have been high handed displaying no great regard for human rights. This is huge disappointment. I am not very sure any measurable improvement in their quality of recruitment and training could do the trick. But it is certainly an area for intense research and action thereafter, especially in the context of the Delhi happening.
In sum there is a case for several bold experiments which shun conservative policing. There is no place for politics here, and all political parties should be closely associated with whatever the MHA plans to build public confidence.
(The writer is a former CBI Director.)