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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 45

Terror, Batla House and the Indian Police

Monday 27 October 2008, by K S Subramanian


Reports on the anti-terror action by the ‘Special Cell’ of the Delhi Police in the Batla House area of Jamia Nagar, New Delhi, on September 19 are shocking indeed. The ‘Special Cell’ had come into adverse public notice on several occasions in the past. The serious human rights violations by the Cell in connection with the Parliament attack case in December 2001 are well known. The corrupt and high-handed head of the Cell, Rajbir Singh, was done to death not very long ago by one of his own victim-collaborators. Any operation by the ‘Special Cell’ would thus have to be viewed with some disbelief. In the present case, the puzzling, major question of how Inspector Sharma leading the team into the operation got killed has led to several contradictory explanations. The uncritical acceptance of the police version in the case by some sections of the media appears hasty and uncalled for.

There are better ways in which the ‘Special Cell’ could have achieved its purposes in the Batla House case. Nothing prevented it from surrounding the suspected premises and with the help of the local police station staff and the local people in the congested area, getting the inmates to come down and surrender to the police. This would have helped the police elicit valuable further intelligence on terrorist activities but also saved the life of Inspector Mohan Sharma and avoided injuries to others. On the face of it, the police action appears hasty, premature and botched. Highly skilled and professional training is required to carry out such operations delicately and successfully. The world has seen how the London Police not long ago shot dead a foreign national on suspicion of his being a terrorist in a public place and had to pay a heavy price for it when the police action turned out to be a mistake. This is despite the fact the London Police are far more professional than ours. Sophisticated training and respect for human life rather than keenness to obtain recognition and rewards are to be the objectives of police action in such cases.
That some blunders had occurred in the course of police action in Batla House is acknowledged by senior policemen in private. These can be placed on record only by a proper judicial probe. Saving the life of Inspector Sharma and those of the suspected terrorists was more important than desire for quick results. Following the operation, politicians, bent on vote-banks, have rushed to make a martyr out of the dead Inspector Mohan Sharma. They did not bother much about the families of the slain ‘terrorists’, their relatives and the extremely worried local population of their village Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, who live in inter-communal harmony.

One report hints at professional rivalry behind the clumsy operation conducted by the Delhi Police at Jamia Nagar. The operation is said to have been the outcome of a lead provided by the Mumbai Police, who had advised a watch on the suspected premises. However, the Delhi Police are said to have gone on an overdrive to carry out the ‘encounter’ even before the Mumbai Police could proceed further with their intelligence gathering. The Delhi Police’s attention-grabbing ‘encounter’ is said to have annoyed the Mumbai Police who felt compelled to release their own list of alleged ‘masterminds’ as against the one released by the Delhi Police!

The British had said that the Indian Police were ‘all but useless’ in the prevention of crime and ‘sadly inefficient’ in its detection. ‘Unscrupulous’ in the exercise of their authority, they had a ‘generalised reputation for corruption and oppression’. This assessment holds true today since the centralised paramilitary and repressive command structure of the Indian Police borrowed from the Irish colonial experience, has been retained intact in independent India. The author of the borrowed Irish model was Sir Charles Napier, then Governor of the Sind Province in undivided India. His name does not figure at all in the police reform discussions!

Not just the police structure but also the legal structure of India is colonial and repressive not in tune with the recent legislations relating to Panchayati Raj, human rights, Right to Information et al. The Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), the Police Act and the Evidence Act put in place a legal framework and a police force equipped to maintain in India British rule by force. The IPC prioritises offences against the State and maintenance of public order. It begins consideration of traditional crime only from Section 299 in Chapter XVI onwards. The CrPC begins with the ‘arrest of persons’ and the ‘maintenance of public order and tranquillity’ before getting into criminal procedure with regard to investigation and trial of cases. The Police Act, despite its preamble, prioritises collection and communication of intelligence relating to public order and peace. The prevention and detection of crime is included among the duties of the police only in Section 23. The Act further provides for ‘punitive policing’ at the cost of the local people in the event of ‘disturbances’ and for the appointment of private persons as ‘special police officers’. Thus, structural reform of the police must go hand in hand with far reaching legal reforms.

Some police chiefs have held that the job of the officers of the elite Indian Police Service (the British called it the ‘Indian Police’, reserving the term ‘service’ only for the ‘Indian Civil Service’) is essentially to control, if not eliminate, the inherited oppressive conduct of the subordinate police and prevent them from misusing the law against the public. The District Magistrate, belonging to the ICS, was placed in firm command over the district Superintendent of Police belonging to the IP. While being posted in a North-Eastern State in the early 1970s, I came across a district police chief who was scrupulous in controlling the illegalities of the subordinate police to such an extent that the local press called him a ‘terror to the police’! A newly-appointed District Magistrate insisted on visiting him at his office rather than the other way round and in justification said that he had heard of the police being a ‘terror to the public’, but never of a police officer being a ‘terror to the police’!

THE public and political outcry against the police action in the Batla House case, the discrepancies and contradictions in the police version of events surrounding the ‘encounter’, the puzzling death of Inspector Sharma, the findings of civil rights agencies on the event and so on have been clear. The revelation of many and contradictory names as ‘masterminds’ behind recent terrorist incidents by policemen in Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh has added to the public dismay. Some former policemen have said that the differences of opinion among policemen on this issue are due to professional rivalries, lack of proper communication, and the desire for publicity. None of them mentioned deficiencies in intelligence collection. Such deficiencies prevent intelligence officers, mostly policemen, from grappling with the nature and complexity of the problem of terrorism in India. Muslims are poorly represented in the Indian police. The Indian Police lack reliable sources of information from the Muslim communities. They lack the ability to penetrate and smash terrorist networks.

Speculative, unreliable and contradictory information rules the roost. There is pervasive prejudice and suspicion of Muslims even in the higher reaches of the administrative structure. A former Secretary of the Union Home Ministry, the first ever Muslim to hold the post, once complained to me that the IB did not show its reports to him! He was the formal boss of the organisation! Police forces in large parts of India are heavily communalised and politicised. Politicisation of the police at its worst was seen during the religious terrorism against the minority community in Gujarat 2002, for which no one has been held politically accountable leave alone establishing criminal responsibility! Such lack of accountability and impunity is a potent source of retaliatory terrorism. With rare exceptions, the Hindu-dominated police tend to view the Muslim community as a whole as terrorist-inclined. Police officers in India are “preoccupied with politics, penetrated by politics and participate in it individually and collectively,” said David Bayley in 1983. The process has only worsened since then. The Union Home Ministry, in overall command of the police forces in India, has failed to introduce steps to depoliticise and humanise the Indian Police force.

Intelligence officers do their work in closed, secret organisations with hardly any public contact. They fail to develop a feel for the complexity of ground realities, which they view in simplified categories. Working with one-track minds, they focus wholly on loosely defined concepts such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘national security’. Their mindset is predisposed to magnification, exaggeration and simplification of perceived ‘security threats’ and to perceive them where they do not exist. When a fire accident took place in the Police Lines of a North-Eastern State, a senior officer just returned from a long stint in the claustrophobic environs of the IB in New Delhi was asked to look into incident. He produced a report which found an ‘international conspiracy’ behind the event, noting that the State had a porous border with a foreign country. It was, however, established later that the fire had been caused by a minor act of negligence on the part of the chief of the Police Lines!

With regard to the Naxalite movement, regarded as ‘terrorist’ in intelligence and police circles, it may be noted that the State Police and the Central IB (manned entirely by the police) are dominated by the cult of secrecy and their reports, often faulty and misleading, are not subjected to proper scrutiny. The Research and Policy Division (R&P) of the Union Home Ministry was set up by a former Union Home Secretary who was unhappy with ‘over-classification’. In its first report in 1969, the Division had stated that the Naxalite movement was as an outcome of agrarian tensions, which called for far-reaching agrarian reforms. The Division was wound up later. At present, the Ministry relies entirely on classified information provided by the IB and the State Police forces on Naxalite activities. These reports are not questioned within the Ministry. Any attempt to query them is frowned upon as a violation of security concerns. These reports are often biased, self-serving and misleading and contain factual inaccuracies.

A serious information gap has thus arisen in the Union Home Ministry with regard to the analysis of the Naxalite and other similar movements. A comparison of the information emanating from public sources on the Naxalite activities in, say, the Central Tribal Belt with the information produced by intelligence sources reveals a huge gap. Public sources focus on information from the victims of violence but intelligence sources focus on State security and stress police requirements in terms of fire power, mobility and manpower. Human security is lost sight of with the emphasis placed on law and order rather than on law and justice. Human rights violations and police brutality are overlooked or justified. This leads to further alienation of the government from the people, ironically lending credence to Naxalite theories on the nature of the Indian State!

A former Union Home Secretary had suggested the setting up of several multidisciplinary study and action teams of scholars, social activists and civil servants to go into conflict situations in different parts of the country and prepare policy papers. The suggestion was not taken seriously. The Ministry, which had a developmental role with regard to Dalits and adivasis and received special annual reports from State Governors on the security and safety of these deprived and marginalised communities, has now lost it and has become virtually a para-military agency. The Naxalite movement is now handled on military lines and the developmental approach downgraded. IB reports, while stressing Naxalite violence, fail to take note of the increasing violence against Dalits and adivasis, who are the backbone of the Naxalite movement. The displacement, disorganisation and destitution arising as a consequence of official development processes, which strengthen the Naxalite movement, are not addressed. Though a recent report on the development challenges in extremist-affected areas prepared by the Planning Commission interestingly adopts a developmental approach, it is likely that the Union Home Ministry will find it difficult to accept and change its prevailing repressive approach to the Naxalite movement.

The author, a former member of the Indian Police Service and Director of the Research and Policy Division of the Union Home Ministry, is currently Visiting Professor in the Jamia Millia University, New Delhi. He is the author of Political Violence and the Police in India (Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2007).

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