That's how respect for khaki crumbles

The last two years have been the worst for the police with its institutional reputation crumbling due to infighting, corruption and misdemeanour

Vappala Balchandran May 27, 2019 13:16:18 IST
That's how respect for khaki crumbles
  • The last two years have been the worst for the police with its institutional reputation crumbling due to infighting, corruption and misdemeanour

  • The battle between Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana of the CBI resulting in a midnight ‘coup’ last year was the first blow to police prestige

  • The CBI-police clash involving former Kolkata police commissioner Rajiv Kumar was the second blow

The relationship between the police and society is like that of grammar  and a language. Just as grammar sets rules to maintain linguistic discipline and quality, the police should ensure measures to protect society after gaining its confidence. Vice-President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan eloquently spelled out the relationship between the police and public as he addressed us—the 12th batch of Indian Police Service (IPS) ‘probationers’—on October 24, 1960.

Fifty-nine years on, we are staring at a situation where people’s confidence in the police has plummeted. There are various reasons for it but the biggest is the infighting among the brass. Admittedly, there were differences earlier too but these never played out in public. In November 1964, we were upset when during the 38th International Eucharistic Congress in Bombay, the instructions of the inspector general of police, then the state police chief, were countermanded by his junior, the Bombay commissioner of police, asserting his operational autonomy from the British days.

On July 1, 2010, an ungainly situation arose when the Chhattisgarh director general of police told the media that he “cannot teach” the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) “how to walk”. A grossly insensitive remark that came after the CRPF suffered serious losses in Maoist ambushes in the state. The remark provoked a strong riposte from CRPF’s additional director general, also a senior IPS officer. The last two years, however, have been the worst for the police, when its institutional reputation has crumbled due to infighting, corruption, excesses and misdemeanour.

Aggrieved parties had to seek judicial intervention at the highest level since the political leadership, administrative machinery and regulatory institutions, created to protect citizens’ rights, were seen indifferent to the grievances due to their political alignments.

The slide into ignominy was complete with the Alok Verma vs Rakesh Asthana battle resulting in a midnight ‘coup’ on October 24, 2018, to forcibly effect change of leadership at the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The country’s top investigation agency received its ultimate disapprobation on February 12, 2019, when the Supreme Court punished its ‘interim’ director, M Nageswar Rao, and his aide for contempt and ordered them to sit in a courtroom corner like errant students. They were also fined Rs 1 lakh each.

During this period, a lot of dirt flew—cross-criminal complaints and even operational details involving the national security adviser and a Research and Analysis Wing special secretary were made public.

The other incident that was a blow to police prestige was the CBI-police clash involving former Kolkata police commissioner Rajiv Kumar. The CBI, for reasons not known, decided to “visit” Kumar’s residence on February 3, 2019, a Sunday, for alleged lapses in the Saradha chit fund investigation. The agency ignored a July 16, 2018, Supreme Court order that required it to approach the Calcutta High Court if it faced any ‘obstruction’ from the local government in its probe.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee interpreted this as New Delhi’s high-handedness and staged a 70-hour sit-in in central Kolkata. On February 19, Kumar was transferred as additional director general of the Criminal Investigation Department. However, the government gave him extra responsibilities that overlapped Kolkata commissioner’s jurisdiction, which was unusual.
Kumar was moved again—to the home ministry in an unprecedented transfer—after violence broke out in Kolkata on May 14 during an election rally of Bharatiya Janata Party national president chief Amit Shah. Kumar’s second plea to protect him from arrest was rejected by the Supreme Court on May 24.

How did things come to such a pass? Those calling for police reforms might say it is because the 2006 Supreme Court order on police reforms has not been implemented properly. But I would argue that there is nothing in the seven-point directive to guarantee better police-public relations as envisaged by Radhakrishnan.

The CBI imbroglio was the result of government’s own action. It was the abrupt transfer of special director RK Dutta to the home ministry on November 30, 2016, two days before the retirement of CBI director Anil Sinha, that set off the chain of events. In the normal course, Sinha should have handed over the charge to Dutta and retired. But Dutta’s transfer allowed additional director Asthana to take over as ‘interim director’from December 3, 2016, to January 31, 2017.

On December 9, 2016, the Supreme Court questioned why Dutta, who was supervising the 2G and coal scam cases, was transferred without its permission. On October 8, 2018, Dutta, who finally went back to his home cadre and retired in October 2017, blamed the chief vigilance commissioner for keeping silent about his abrupt transfer. Thus, the public was not wrong in concluding that the seeds of CBI’s internecine war were planted by the government. The present government’s predatory political strategy since 2014 has resulted in extreme political polarisation of the polity, which has also affected the police and security services as is happening in the United States.

Rachel Kleinfeld, a Carnegie Endowment scholar in her paper The Politicization of our Security Institutions (April 25, 2018), has concluded that the highly polarised American polity under President Donald Trump has adversely affected US security institutions, including the police, the Immigration Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “When one party is politicising institutions, it’s nearly impossible for the other side to refrain from similar tactics—pushed by political opportunism or the demands of base voters who want to see their party fight with the same strong tactics they see being used against them,” she writes.

Israel’s police, an apolitical force that indicted several politicians like former president Moshe Katsav and former prime minister Ehud Olmert and also interrogated prime-minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu (2017-18) too is facing a challenge. It could find its independence curtailed if Netanyahu has his way. He has until May 29 to form a government. He is busy cobbling up a coalition that will support him by amending the laws granting him amnesty in three police cases. There is also a distinct possibility of Netanyahu recommending fresh elections if he doesn’t get the numbers to amend the law that will also restrict the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review.

On May 14, 2019, Supreme Court chief justice Esther Hayut voiced her disapproval in a speech at Nuremberg in Germany which, according to The Times of Israel, “expressed implied criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned judicial reforms and invoked the Nazi takeover of Germany in the 1930s”.

Vappala Balachandran is a former special secretary, cabinet secretariat

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