The tragic loss of 22 policemen in a Naxalite ambush in the jungles of Chhattisgarh on 4 April invoked memories of earlier such incidents with the worst being the loss of 76 lives in Dantewada in 2010. As part of an old pattern, political and institutional homilies followed promises of revenge. One can be fairly certain that the matter will be officially investigated, and a politically patronised cover-up carried out, with only the lower-level officials facing the brunt. Life will continue as before, till another incident comes along, and the cycle will be repeated ad nauseam. The police leadership will continue to promise solutions to politicians as long as their numbers are increased, and going by the recent raising of CRPF battalions, financial constraints do not seem to come in the way of pumping up numbers. If only somebody educated India’s politicians that the qualitative inadequacies in the CRPF cannot be made good by numbers.
The bigger picture and the truth is that for a long period of time, nearly 4,000 square kilometres of territory in south Bastar was in control of the Naxals. In a recent interview, the IG Police, Bastar, said that it has now been shrunk, but an area of 1,000 square kilometres is still with the Naxals. The executive is fully aware of it. Parliament and the media have chosen to remain silent.
Running in parallel is l’affaire Param Bir Singh, the former DGP of Maharashtra, who after being sacked went to court complaining against former state home minister Anil Deshmukh. From what is publicly known so far, the role of the toxic underbelly, which is an admixture of corruption, criminality and political chicanery involving the nexus of political executive-bureaucracy, seems all too evident. As details keep emerging, it seems that the political-police nexus was all-pervasive. It stinks.
No doubt, both these incidents have completely different contexts. One is about the avoidable loss of lives in a situation of armed uprising in the tribal belt of central India. The other is about corruption and possible murder by the law keepers themselves under the tutelage of their superiors. Both these incidents may seem unconnected, but even a casual look reveals that the dramatis personae remain unchanged, except they appear in different forms and contexts. Both incidents relate to politicisation and control by the executive of the police, and in both, the executive and the police lack accountability.
Lapses over and over
In the Chhattisgarh CRPF ambush case, the politicians have been deluding themselves and the general public that a closed-fist approach should be the main prong of their strategy. It completely ignores the fact that the tribal people are among the oldest residents of India that is Bharat. Many of their socio-economic grievances are genuine and their basic human rights have been violated time and again. And that is how they came under Naxal influence.
Political incompetency has combined with gross operational stupidity of the police leadership to use large groups that can never retain the element of surprise, which is the key to success. No wonder the CRPF, supposedly the hunter, is often the hunted.
The political leadership at the Centre and the states must take responsibility for failing to implement reforms against politicisation and criminalisation of police, deepening parliamentary oversight of the executive, loosening political control by the executive, and the lack of accountability to the people. This is despite continued lapses and many studies and reports calling for reforms. The contents of the E.N. Rammohan report that examined the Dantewada incident in 2010 has never been publicly revealed.
The current Mumbai DGP case reveals the politicians’ nexus with pliant police leadership to operate above the law. The N.N. Vohra Report of 1993 and many reports after have all flagged the linkages between the underworld, politicians and the bureaucracy. But any approach for rectification must deal with the criminal justice system of which the police is only a part.
In 2003, while examining the criminal justice system, the Justice Malimath Committee Report had stated: “The police system in the Country is functioning under the archaic Indian Police Act which was enacted in 1861 for the perpetuation of the British Empire. The police now have an obligation and duty to function according to the requirements of the Constitution, law and democratic aspirations of the people. Further, the police is required to be a professional and service-oriented organisation, free from undue extraneous influences and yet be accountable to the people. Besides, it is necessary to have the police force which is professionally controlled and is politically neutral, non-authoritarian, people friendly and professionally efficient.”
To be fair, all politicians and police leadership cannot be tarred with the same brush. However, the number of politicians with criminal backgrounds have been on the rise, and calls for electoral reforms to improve the quality of political leadership have been studiously ignored by all parties. In addition, there is a complete lack of political will to enforce police reforms despite the Supreme Court judgment more than 15 years ago. Political leaders have increasingly chosen to rule by laws of their own preference instead of by the rule of law. With so many broken parts of the criminal justice system, some states have clearly empowered the police to deliver ‘justice’ through illegal killings. Both at the Centre and the states, neutralising political opponents through abuse of power vested in intelligence and investigative agencies – that became a widespread practice with Indira Gandhi – has in its recent manifestations become equally, if not more, malevolent.
Time for Modi to step up
In contemporary times, a large part of India’s citizenry under the impact of Covid-19, seems to be under duress and is expecting the State to protect it, politically, economically and socially. They have lost trust in the State over the years. But they have not lost trust in Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The pertinent issue is that trust in Modi is directly experienced as an emotion. However, the distrust of the State and its organs is like a bad odour that refuses to go away. This is not to say that certain sections of the citizenry are not culpable. They do not often fulfil responsibilities of citizenship. They may have learnt to survive by paying their way out of trouble. But with the example the State has normally been setting, the loss of trust of citizens in the Indian State does not augur well for India’s future. The country cannot find its potential if the character of elected leaders is moving steadily towards criminalised probity, the police deliver justice and the judiciary is ineffective. No amount of defence preparations against external enemies can protect the Indian State from this type of threat it may pose to itself. The threat is insidious. But the silver lining is that India’s main hope can be Narendra Modi.
But only if Modi, the immensely popular leader, can privilege the Indian State over the Bharatiya Janata Party. It would require risking short-term for long-term gain, without any reassurance of how this will pan out for his own political survival. It requires a leap of faith. But lots of people now have blind faith in what Narendra Modi says. This can be his Sudarshana Chakra, a weapon he idolises. Whatever he does, massive public support is assured. If he announces a major process to reform India’s foundational systems like the electoral and the criminal justice system, then the Indian State has a good chance to redeem itself. It might well turn out to be his lasting legacy.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)
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