Ineffective police caught between devil and deep sea as goons rule the roost in Bengal

Throughout the 80s and 90s, cops got a rough deal in Bollywood.

They were the perennial whipping boys, punctuating the screen with comic relief in between intense, angst-filled moments dished up by the hero. Like bumbling idiots, they'd either reach the crime scene too late or fly away at the first hint of trouble.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Their lot has changed in recent years with new wave of Bollywood directors serving up an image makeover for the hapless cops. They are now macho and respect the "wardi" more than their lives.

West Bengal police, though, are still stuck in the 1980s.

Leave alone evoking fear in the minds of law-breakers, cops in Bengal now evoke laughter and derision, their nonexistent spine replaced by a pliable apparatus that nods in favour of the criminals.

An independent, bold police force that is subservient to no one has always been a pipe dream in the state, if not in the country. Ruling parties have always treated law enforcement agencies as their tools.

But what has changed in the last four and a half years since the Trinamool Congress came to power is a near-total erosion of authority. The police's will to act has been systematically grinded down and a situation created where officers are scared of losing their jobs while imposing the rule of law.

Last Sunday, for instance, the local police station at Kaliachak in Bengal's Malda district was set on fire, many important and incriminating documents burnt to ashes and around 40 vehicles, including police and BSF cars, torched when a massive Muslim protest rally turned violent.
Subhabrata Ghosh, the inspector-in-charge of Kaliachak police station, and other officers were wounded when protesters drove them out and set on fire part of the police station including the barracks and then ransacked the nearby houses. Two persons reportedly sustained bullet injuries.

Malda south Congress MP Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury claimed that Sunday's violence was another evidence of "utter lawlessness in the state”.

"None has been arrested even 24 hours after such an alarming incident in Kaliachak under my parliamentary constituency. Police personnel were attacked, documents were torched. Police had to flee. Despite being so badly humiliated they could not nab any one yet," Choudhury was quoted, as saying.

Local TV channels, however, reported late on Tuesday that police have made some arrests while 10 have been chargesheeted.

Incidentally, Sunday also saw a bizarre defence by the police who refused to come in aid of Kazi Masum Akhtar, the headmaster of Kolkata's Talpukur Aara High Madrasa, who has reportedly been banned from its precincts and assaulted for training students to sing the national anthem ahead of the Republic Day.

Akhtar, who on earlier occasions had courted the wrath of local clerics over issues such as modern syllabus, education of girls and child marriage, cannot set foot in his madrasa and has to record his attendance at an education department office to draw his salary.

Expressing his helplessness, Kolkata Police Commissioner has written to the chairman of the Minorities Commission, stating that he was not in a position to provide security to Akhtar as “his presence in the area might lead to communal tension”.

With the Assembly elections due in four months and ruling Trinamool Congress going all out to ensure that the minority vote stays firmly in its kitty, the police have learnt not to upset the powers-that-be. They know that if they do, the pink slip won't be late in coming.

In 2013, Kolkata's top cop RK Pachnanda was summarily removed from his post two days after a sub-inspector died in the city's Garden Reach area during clashes between Congress and TMC workers at a college election.

According to a report in The Telegraph, Pachnanda was removed as police commissioner for not framing the FIR in the murder as dictated by a TMC minister and approved by the party leadership.

The Kolkata police chief was shocked at the idea of a false FIR to save some goons who had killed an officer-in-duty. His force, too, was angry.

A senior colleague had reportedly told the commissioner: “Sir, we have to act now or the morale of the police will collapse. A sub-inspector has been killed and there can be no further excuse for us.”

Pachnanda defied the diktat. An FIR was filed against the key accused and 10 persons, many with TMC links, were rounded up.
His sacking was made official less than 48 hours later by the Chief Minister on her return from Digha.

That the police have learnt their valuable lesson became clear when last year, in a re-run of the Garden Reach murder, another police officer took a bullet, this time during the Kolkata Corporation elections. Sub-inspector Jagannath Mondal was shot at while trying to disperse a group who were allegedly led by the husband of a TMC candidate.

Mondal survived the attack but key culprits remained untouchable amid a blizzard of complaints that the police were shielding TMC supporters.

City police commissioner Surajit Kar Purkayastha, who apparently had no knowledge even one hour after his colleague was wounded, visited Mondal at the hospital but that failed to rev up a demoralised police force.

"After spending a day like puppets in the hands of a ruling party, getting a bullet was the last nail in the coffin. Even a police officer being shot in daylight in the heart of north Calcutta did not appear to have stirred the conscience of our higher-ups. The probe is now progressing at its own pace. It is clear the allegiance of the bosses lies with the political masters and not the foot soldiers," an officer was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.

Mamata Banerjee, who visited the officer in hospital along with the police commissioner, praised the police's handling of corporation polls: "Calcutta police is the man of the match. I thank and congratulate my entire Calcutta police family."
CPI(M) MP Md Salim blames Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who has kept for herself the police portfolio, for subverting the power structure and demoralising the force.

"Law, police manual, orders from the High Court or Supreme Court are no longer the guiding principles for the police in Bengal.

"For every action, they wait for a decision from the CM. They are dependent on her whims and fancies. This has completely sapped their morale and destroyed their prestige. They are unsure whether to save their jobs or act in accordance with the law," the CPI(M) Politburo member told Firstpost.

The optics aren't good. In November 2014, a TMC-backed mob barged into the Alipore police station, ostensibly enraged over the administration's attempts to evict encroachers from a piece of land owned by the state public works department.

In a scene straight out of a Bollywood potboiler, law-enforcement officers were seen hiding behind cupboards, diving under the table and using files as protective shields to save themselves from being beaten up right inside a police station. The five perpetrators who were arrested were later released on bail.

Or in May last year when the chief minister criticised her own cops in the state Assembly for booking five youngsters, including the niece of the Kolkata mayor, in connection with a road accident.

The constable in question later told reporters that the occupants of the car shouted at him, snatched his notebook and threatened that they would have him kicked out of the job.

When incidents such as these take place, it serves to not only take away the fear of the law and deterrence perception leading to less compliance from citizens, the cops conversely suffer a crippling blow to their confidence that they will be backed by the system in discharging their duties.

And each time, the bar is set even lower.

In December last year, the high court had to issue a threat of calling in the Army because the police have failed to carry out its order of forcing encroachers to vacate a plot in the city's Naktala area.

“There is lawlessness… how is it possible that some people would agitate right in front of the city police commissioner? One person threatened to end his life with kerosene. I have come to know that the commissioner was there with a 500-strong force. Why could he not do anything? I will not spare anybody… if needed, I will call the army to tackle the issue,” observed Justice Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya.

The commissioner's dilemma is understandable since the plot has a club backed by TMC leaders and a defunct pumping station.

"When top cops are busy clubbing or staying in the good books of the CM, why would constables or sub-inspectors risk their lives or their jobs?" asked Md Salim, adding, "This has become an administration run by criminals."

A charge reiterated by Sidharth Nath Singh, the BJP national secretary.

"There is no rule of law in the state. The goons, backed by the ruling party, have no fear of the police as we saw during last year's municipal elections," he told Firstpost.

It isn't the opposition alone who are crying foul.

“There is no control. Those who are assaulting policemen on duty and ransacking police stations are being patronised by a section of the ruling party. Senior police officials who should intervene are silent. This trend is dangerous and can have serious consequences," AP Mukerjee, former director general of WB police, has been quoted as saying.

Updated Date: Jan 06, 2016 01:20 AM

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