The video clips of clashes between the lawyers of Tis Hazari Court and the Delhi Police personnel from last week are revolting to look at. Two days ago, a hapless policeman in uniform was manhandled and slapped repeatedly at Saket Court. Similar scenes were reported from Karkardooma Court as well.
Whatever the provocation, nothing justifies the lawyers’ actions. These incidents clearly show that the lawyers have become a law unto themselves and wouldn’t think twice before attacking a police officer on duty.
So far, no punitive action has been taken against any lawyer and it seems unlikely they will be punished, despite their vandalism and assault caught on camera. Clearly, a section of society sits comfortably above the law while its most visible upholders become easy targets as nobody’s heart bleeds for police officers who are bound by strict conduct rules.
But the worst was yet to come. The police leadership, or whatever goes today in that name, in quick compliance of a Delhi High Court order, transferred a Special Commissioner of Police and an Additional DCP, and suspended a couple of junior officers. Nobody higher up in the Delhi Police thought of appealing against the erroneous order. I say erroneous because the high court has no authority to order such administrative actions against the police. The move was uncalled for and the alacrity with which it was implemented has hurt the morale of the force.
On Tuesday morning, family members of the officers began to gather at the Delhi Police Headquarters in protest against the assault. Gradually, the numbers began to swell as police officers themselves — some in uniform — joined them. They raised slogans, held placards and addressed the media on camera. I spotted a few of them on TV who had in the past risked their lives fighting terrorists and gangsters. A rookie female cop in uniform said on camera, “Is it our destiny that we first get assaulted on duty in full public view and then get suspended before we are dismissed?”
Many observers said poor service conditions were one of the reasons for the police protests. I disagree. It is the utter absence of leadership in the police forces in this moment of crisis that led to this unfortunate situation.
Why didn’t the leadership immediately think of challenging the high court order instead of executing it? Why didn’t the police leadership come forward to condemn the attacks and take immediate legal action? Why is it that not a single lawyer was arrested or reprimanded by the court? In fact, the police was forbidden to take any coercive action against them.
The last time such disaffection in the rank and file of the Delhi Police was seen in the mid-1960s when the resentment was primarily against poor service conditions. It was unfortunate that the police stir had to be broken with the help of the Border Security Force (BSF). Many police officers were dismissed while many were arrested. A judicial committee headed by Justice G.D. Khosla was appointed that went into the entire gamut of policing in Delhi and recommended path-breaking reforms.
Repeat from the past
This is not the first time that clashes with lawyers have taken place where the police officers have been at the receiving end. In the 1980s, a celebrated police officer was brutally assaulted for taking on the lawyers in similar conditions. In another incident, the lawyers had surrounded a high court and the Chief Justice had to lock himself up for several hours. He was finally rescued by the armed forces.
To see one part of the criminal justice system violently take on the other is an unfortunate sight. It goes against the popular narrative — that we are a great nation on the path to becoming a world leader. Such incidents show that we are uncivilised with scant respect for the rule of law. The police officers, who symbolise governmental authority, can be assaulted with impunity in full public view, and CCTV footage be damned if it catches black coats attacking men in khaki.
To any self-respecting citizen who would like to believe in the rule of law, these incidents are portents of that sinking feeling that something is seriously wrong with our system. It is certain that the lawyers who indulge in such violence could not be the meritorious ones. Lawyers with briefs would neither have the time — for them, this commodity means money — nor the inclination to indulge in street fights. It is said that a sizeable chunk of the Bar consists of lawyers with questionable backgrounds. They have law degrees from shady universities that are not verified by any regulatory body. The office-bearers of the Bar Council are elected by the lawyers and no one dare touch them. Even the judges, particularly of lower courts, are supposedly scared of them.
So what becomes of those upholding the law? It is clear to the police force that, leave alone the apathy bordering on animosity of the court and, dare I say, the Indian society at large, their own leaders are also no different. They have feet of clay and they are only interested in saving their own skins and protecting their own job prospects. Those on the verge of superannuation only bother about the post-retirement sinecures. The cliché that there are no poor troops, only poor generals couldn’t have rung home more tellingly than now.
While joining the police force, everyone knows that it is a hazardous job with long working hours. Most join the force for the pride of the khaki and the thrill of going after criminals, and for upholding the law. It is a highly hierarchical and regimented force where the subordinate ranks look up to their seniors to show them the way and come to their rescue in hours of crisis. When they see that the leadership is failing them, they feel rudderless and orphaned.
The 11-hour police stir is a manifestation of the feeling of being let down by their seniors. It is a manifestation of being dressed in khaki that has, instead of being a uniform for upholders of the law, come to symbolise an easy punching bag, which any passerby, including goons in black coats, can kick around and walk on merrily. These are difficult times for the force. As someone who has been a part of it for nearly four decades, it hurts to see where the police force stands today. Not only do I hang my head in shame at the miserable failings of my IPS colleagues but also shed a tear for the outstanding men and women I have had the privilege of leading with pride.
Neeraj Kumar is former police commissioner of Delhi. He set up the Special Task Force in the Central Bureau of Investigation in 1993 that probed the Mumbai blasts. He was chief advisor to the BCCI on corruption and security-related matters. He is the author of books Khaki Files and Dial D for Don. Views are personal.