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FIR against Jignesh Mevani, Umar Khalid: Indian police system needs to break free from colonial hangover, political masters

The Pune Police have filed a first information report against Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid alleging that their speeches at the Elgaar Parishad "promoted enmity between communities", might have caused public mischief and amounts to abetment of offences by others under the relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code. The content of the speeches, on a plain reading, don’t immediately identify any community as an enemy of the Dalits.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The FIR seems like an attempt at trying to change the well-documented sequence of facts of what happened on 1 January at Bhima Koregaon.

This isn’t the first time that this is happening of course. This isn’t even the first time for either Khalid or Mevani – where their political speeches are being clamped down upon by the ruling dispensation. Khalid has been accused of chanting slogans which amount to “sedition” at an event to protest the hanging of Afzal Guru. Mevani has been slapped with at least four different cases and multiple offences by the Gujarat Police as part of the Dalit agitation sparked by the floggings at Una.

In such a situation, it is tempting to make this about free speech laws and the guarantee under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. It is, of course, a free speech issue, but merely looking at the laws will not get us very far. Why do police routinely interpret the IPC and other laws limiting free speech as widely as possible (as if the Constitution of India didn’t exist)? Why do the police routinely ignore even the Supreme Court’s relatively liberal and expansive judgments on free speech and contours of reasonable restrictions?

A recent book by Abhinav Chandrachud makes the provocative argument that the passage of India’s Constitution did nothing to improve freedom of speech in India when compared to what persists. Going by the judgments and developments discussed therein (such as the constitutional challenge to criminal defamation), one cannot but agree with it in so far as the courts are concerned and the norms of what constitutes free speech are concerned. Judgements such as Shreya Singhal v Union of India, feel like outliers for having set aside Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, especially since the Supreme Court has not deigned to apply it once in any of the free speech cases before it.

But why did the Constitution “fail” (as it were) to promote free speech? One answer is what the Dalit rights movement has said for a long time and, in light of the events at Bhima Koregaon, only stands re-inforced: that “Independence” was really just a transfer of the colonial State machinery from the British rulers to “upper” castes. That though the objectives of the State were sought to be re-aligned to the goals of the Constitution, (articulated in the Preamble, Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy) the nature of the State itself continued to be the same – one geared towards serving the interests of the ruling elite, though the ruling elite had only changed identity but not character.

In as much as the Constitution had a far-reaching charter of human rights and social-reform, it did only half the work needed to ensure that these things are meaningfully achieved.

Whereas some of India’s colonial institutions such as the judiciary underwent a modicum of reform (in this case, to ensure independence), the one institution that has seen little or no reform in any meaningful sense has to be the police. Across India, police forces continue to be structured and run along pretty much the same lines as they were in the 19th century with little effort being put into diversifying the force, re-orienting their role towards citizens or ensuring independence in their functioning from the government. Although states in India have been given the power to legislate on the topic of police, little or no substantial reforms have been initiated in most states to fundamentally re-imagine the role and place of the police in post-independence India. Even the Supreme Court’s very limited effort to reform the police in Prakash Singh v Union of India has met with almost unwavering resistance by the states across the country.

So long as state governments (and the Union government for Delhi) continue their iron grip over police forces, it would be impossible to expect a neutral and sensible application of law by the police. So long as the police force is incentivized to believe that its job is to protect the ruling regime, we will continue to see it being used to stifle dissent and crush opposition. The best-drafted laws and the most expansive judgments will be set at nought as long as the issue of police reforms remains on the permanent backburner of Indian politics.

Updated Date: Jan 05, 2018 17:58 PM

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