The recent clashes in Delhi between lawyers and the police, and its aftermath, have highlighted three distinct issues, which if not addressed immediately, could lead to a total breakdown of the criminal justice system. It goes without saying that all lawyers are not, from afar, saints but as a matter of fact some of them are goons who have degraded the sanctity of their profession by indulging in behaviour least expected from officers of the court.

The demonstration by police personnel outside their headquarters is completely indefensible, and there is no justification for it in a uniformed and disciplined force. The agitation brought into focus the absolute failure of the top police leadership which was reflected both when the commissioner was heckled as he came out to address his men, as also the inability of the seniors to reassure their juniors that their rights, at all cost, would be safeguarded. Finally, the one-sided order issued by the honourable High Court created an impression that the judiciary was prejudiced against the police, and had, without holding an inquiry, ordered the removal of two key functionaries from their jobs. The combination of all these elements has resulted in a stand-off which would require level-headed representatives on both sides to resolve it.

It is not for the first time that the lawyers and police have come to blows. In 1988, when Kiran Bedi was the DCP, North, the lawyers had a prolonged agitation to protest the assault on their colleagues, by hoodlums allegedly instigated by the police. The stand-off lasted several weeks, ending after a judicial inquiry indicted police officials, including Bedi. Curiously, Kiran Bedi continues to have innumerable admirers in the Delhi police as many of the protestors at the Police Headquarters displayed her photograph to demand that their officers should be as bold and effective as she was. It is another matter that on account of the 1988 lawyers’ strike, Bedi thereafter, was not posted in any key position in the Delhi police.

Even during the tenure of Ajai Raj Sharma as the Police Commissioner in 2000, there was a confrontation between the lawyers and the police. Lawyers had attacked the police outside the Parliament precincts, and video footage bore testimony to this charge. The late Ram Jethamalani, who was the Law Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, threatened to teach Sharma a lesson, but the CP stood his ground apprising members of the Human Rights Commission headed by Justice J.S. Verma that his force was not at fault. Eventually, the issue was defused.

In 2005, Dr K.K. Paul, as the Commissioner, ensured that the striking lawyers in Tis Hazari were deftly handled and this task was ably accomplished by Joint CP (Range), Deep Chand and the then DCP, North, Rajesh Khurana.

The present crisis would not have precipitated to this point had the Police Commissioner, Amulya Patnaik stepped in on the first day itself, providing an assurance that he would ensure that guilty lawyers would be booked. He could have lifted the morale of his force by visiting the injured police personnel in hospital. The police should have appealed against the High Court directions that were construed as one-sided, and moved the Apex Court for justice. Why standard operating procedures were not followed, is something which needs to be duly inquired.

The stir by police personnel reminded many veterans of a major revolt in the Delhi police ranks in 1967. However, at that point of time, the demands of the police personnel pertained to their service conditions and emoluments. The demonstrations led by some disgruntled elements, such as Bhagwan Dass, Sardari Lal Bakshi and Mahendra Nath Bhagat occurred during the period when B.B. Mishra was the Inspector General of Delhi Police. The Central government took a serious note of this indiscipline when the police workforce gathered near the Gole Methi Chowk, to protest outside the residence of the then Home Minister Y.B. Chavan.

Ashwani Kumar—a distinguished police officer who at that period was the IGP, Punjab and was also playing a role in raising battalions for the Border Security Force—was summoned to quell the uprising. What followed were arrests and dismissals of a large number of police staff, some of whom were physically dragged out from their barracks and beaten up by the young recruits of the Punjab police at the New Police Lines at Kingsway Camp.

The present demonstration had more to do with the lack of decisive police leadership than anything else. It has become a serious matter of concern, since it is widely anticipated that the Ayodhya land case verdict would be delivered next week and there could be law and order issues that may consequently arise. If the police-lawyers’ confrontation goes unresolved, it would have a bearing on the ground situation.

It is also important that the Centre, through the Lieutenant Governor, initiates measures to ensure that there can be a harmonious co-existence between the lawyers and police. Coordination committees can be constituted, with representatives of lawyers and police officials in all the seven district courts as well as the High Court. The lawyers association must also rein in erring colleagues who seem to be under the false impression that they could get away with any infringement of law merely because they donned black coats.

The bottom-line is that the Khaki, at all cost, has to be protected. Any attack on the Khaki is an assault on the authority of the government. A demoralised force cannot uphold the rule of law. Between us.