Borrowing from Gopal Krishna Gokhale, one can conclude that what Bengal has been doing today unchecked will be done by the rest of the country tomorrow.
Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun, said Mao Zedong. Lest we forget the famous phrase, first uttered in August 1927, there used to be wall-full of reminders in Kolkata of 1960s and 70s. Many of us in our 60s and 70s now have the pearl of wisdom etched in our mind deeply and perhaps resort to using the same when the position we occupy allows the same. The use, though critics call in misuse, of the West Bengal police by the current state administration may be read in this context. Only the state police can use the gun, therefore the barrel of power remains with the police force. This is more than adequately evident in how the police uses its power in the state.
Police has the power to investigate crimes, enforce laws and maintain law and order in a state. The operative part of this sentence is order first, law comes second to match the order. That this is not mere view of an ordinary and irrelevant scribe could be seen in the decisions of the Calcutta High Court in asking the Central investigative agency CBI to investigate the complaints of certain seekers of school teachers’ jobs which shook the entire state administration. Had the state police been adequately armed with law, less with order, such investigations ordinarily should have gone to its investigative wing only. What is more interesting are several instances of the state police filing cases where the central agencies are already investigating and had registered cases in court. For instance, in September this year, the Calcutta High Court had to bar the state’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) from investigating the multi-crore coal smuggling case since the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was already working on it, the case the State agency had no business to intervene in the matter. This is yet another case of order taking precedence over law.
Recently it has been observed that several police stations in the state are hyperactive in reining in the “YouTube” channels of certain individuals who had been seen critical of certain events in the state. Those who had been detained by the police or were asked to submit themselves for interrogations, stated that the primary reason for umbrage of the interrogators had been criticism of the state’s Chief Minister or certain members related to her. While unsavoury mentions of people in power can never be supported, there has not been any record of these “YouTubers” crossing the Lakshman Rekha. On the other hand, a certain junior minister of the state was heard bad mouthing the President of India, Draupadi Murmu but went scot free. This is curious to say the least for three reasons.
First, the President, as Babasaheb Ambedkar had pointed out, is the symbol of the nation. Any insult to the President is an insult to the national symbol and should be examined under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act of 1971. Second, this is an insult to a member of the SC-ST community and needs to be filed under the “Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989’. Apparently, even granting of bail in such a case rests only with the special court created under the Act, said the Kerala High Court in a recent judgement. Third and no less grave is the fact that our President is a woman. The insulting remark therefore crosses the limit enunciated in Section 509 of the Indian Penal code. It states inter alia: “Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any words, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, … shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, and also with fine.” The very fact that the offence went unrecognised by the West Bengal police illustrates that order there is more important than upholding law.
There are instances of interference by the state’s Chief Minister in the investigative process; the most blatant had been her dharna against the CBI trying to interrogate the then Kolkata police commissioner Rajiv Kumar, who has heading the special investigative team (SIT) on the infamous Saradha Ponzi scam. In fact, the CBI had filed a contempt case against the Mamata Banerjee administration and the state police for failing to follow previous Supreme Court orders on cooperating with the investigative agency. It had mentioned that the then Kolkata police chief Rajeev Kumar had created obstacles in the probe. Nothing much has been heard of the plea or the investigation of the scam, which siphoned off money from ordinary people in West Bengal. Another glaring example of police officers acting unfairly.
In 1996, a petition was filed by the retired DG of police of Assam, UP and BSF, Prakash Singh and others before the Supreme Court on the police abuse and misuse of their powers. The judgement was delivered by the three-judge bench of Y.K. Sabharwal, C.K. Thakker and P.K. Balasubramanyan in September 2006. The bench addressed the allegations of non-enforcement and discriminatory application of laws in favour of persons with clout, and also raised instances of unauthorised detentions, torture, harassment, etc. against ordinary citizens. The court issued various directions to the Centre and states like setting up of State Security Commission, Police Establishment Board for deciding on postings, transfers and promotions for officers below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police, and make recommendations to the state government for officers of higher ranks, constitute Police Complaints Authorities at the state and district levels to inquire into allegations of serious misconduct and abuse of power by police personnel etc.
A NITI Aayog paper in 2016 entitled “Building Smart Police in India” captured the status of implementation of the SC directions and concluded it as a dismal picture. “In what is considered to be bypassing court the directions, seventeen states (Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttarakhand) passed new laws legitimizing status quo while other states passed merely executive orders.” Evidently states, not West Bengal alone, feel that their power emanates from the barrel of policemen where even the country’s highest court cannot intervene.
Meanwhile, the police force in West Bengal illustrates how the condition have worsened since the 1996 PIL. It is alleged that vacancies in the force are not filled. Instead, since 2012, the state started a civic police volunteer force. These volunteers are enrolled at the thana (police station) level and are recruited on no-work no-pay basis. Earlier, for doing duties for maintenance of law and order in elections, religious festivals like Durga puja or disaster management, West Bengal used to hire home guards, but now it claimed that the state created a trained pool of police volunteers. The members of the civic police with a minimum educational qualification of 8th standard passed, are trained for 10 days and were given Rs 141 per day as remuneration (this was in 2012—Rs 9,000 a month now).
These apart, the abysmal level of training and expertise of Kolkata police was seen recently when an official, Eva Thapa, bit a job seeking demonstrator in Kolkata’s Camac Street. What is more, even after such an incident was beamed by the TV channels, the Kolkata police ordered an inquiry only after a few days of public outrage. This clearly shows how much the law enforcement agency in West Bengal has turned bankrupt of rules, procedures and discipline.
When the courts find that any sensitive investigation needs to be undertaken they called upon the national investigative agencies, even constitute SITs with senior officials drawn from forces. But when the entire system of a police establishment turns out to be faulty, biased and indulging in not so legal activities shouldn’t the courts take suo moto cognizance? It seems mere pronouncing judgment, as the Supreme Court did in 2006 (that too ten years after a PIL was filed) will not be enough to clean the Augean Stable of law and order enforcements but constant monitoring of political interferences, corruptions and unlawful activities of police needs for personal freedom of a civilised and democratic individual. Without such a safeguard, all powers, elected either through democratic process or the way Mao Zedong was elevated, will use the barrel of the police gun and exhibit their powers.
Borrowing from Gopal Krishna Gokhale one can conclude that what Bengal has been doing today unchecked will be done by the rest of the country tomorrow. West Bengal police minister Mamata Banerjee has done a great service for the nation’s top court to take up a challenge—pending police reform bring certain police chiefs under its authority, like it does in certain cases—and re-rail the faulty system to uphold the rule of law for the sake of ordinary citizens. Only the top legal body can fix the badly mauled system of law enforcement.
Author Sugato Hazra’s latest book is “Losing the Plot: The Political Isolation of Bengal”.