City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Lawlessness of the Law?

The police force exists to maintain law and order, and to act decisively and impartially in order to do so. This is hardly a revelatory note to begin an article on. However, in the current scheme of things, it needs to be said. For what we have been seeing in the past few months is that police are playing a significant role in disturbing law and order and actually enabling trouble. Innumerable videos are in circulation that document police excesses. A bunch of Muslims made to lie down on the ground and sing the national anthem punctuated by lathi blows (with one protester later succumbing to his injuries). Policemen storming the library of a university and attacking students indiscriminately. A group of policemen being caught destroying CCTV cameras in the same university, and in the troubled streets of Delhi. A group of policemen running amok, smashing cars in a Muslim neighbourhood in Uttar Pradesh.

Excesses by police have always taken place. There is an impunity with which police acts that is new. As a country, we are used to the incompetence of our public institutions. We know how government offices work and have adjusted to the difficulties of getting any bureaucratic body to simply do its job. Police incompetence is galling, but familiar. What we are seeing today, however, is a special kind of competence. The cops are selectively targeting who they go after, and this is a pattern that we see time and again. No action has been taken in the JNU case, where the right-wing perpetrators have not only been caught on camera but have confessed to their actions. We have seen instances where police have acted through their absence or their inaction. Innumerable reports, including one by an NDA partner MP, have documented police’s lack of response to urgent calls for intervention. In other cases, we have video evidence of police ignoring attacks that are taking place right in front of their eyes as in the instance of someone brandishing a gun and shooting a Jamia student. Overt violence, passive encouragement, strategic non-interference, total absence, erasure of evidence, torture in incarceration — a sophisticated array of techniques is being deployed to ensure that one section of the community faces the brunt of the consequences of the violence, no matter who was responsible for instigating it.

Admittedly, the cops have a difficult job when dealing with communally sensitive riots and there is no question that they are in the firing line of violence. They work under difficult conditions and face enormous pressure, suffering significant injuries and not a few casualties in the process. They have a right to use force, on occasion, even of an extreme kind, in order to quell rioting and other acts of violence, but they are meant to act in a tightly controlled and calibrated way. Their excesses cannot be justified using the language of revenge. They cannot mirror the actions of lawbreakers; at all times, even when responding to the gravest provocation, police have to act within the parameters set by the law. And at all times, their actions need to be even handed. Anyone breaking the law, regardless of who they are, needs to be dealt with equally. The religion, caste or background of the lawbreakers should not be a factor of any kind.

Of all the egregious actions taken by the cops, none is perhaps as indicative of their strategy as the act of destroying CCTV cameras. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can justify this action. In the overall scheme of things, this might seem like a relatively minor infraction, but in terms of communicating their intent, it speaks the loudest. It shows forethought and deliberate planning, it signals that the cops are aware of the illegality of their actions, and are choosing to go ahead, nevertheless. It is interesting that all those who have suddenly discovered the value of public property and use its destruction as a justification for police action, have nothing to say, when the cops are caught coldly and deliberately destroying the same prized public property. Also, as is apparent to everyone, while police can erase evidence of their actions once the video cameras are destroyed, the act of destroying them cannot be hidden. That they choose to go ahead regardless tells us how little they have to fear from anyone.

The support base of the government will cheer them on. The media will focus only on the violence perpetrated by the other side, working assiduously to build a narrative that absolves the government of any responsibility. The government on its part will support every action taken by the police.

While the use of the police as an extended political arm of the government is worrying, it is the judiciary that gives reason for the even deeper concern. As many newspaper editorials have pointed out, the courts are delivering judgments, or withholding any action as the case might be, in a manner that raises questions about the role it intends to play in keeping the state in check. Greater vigilance from the courts would go a long way in ensuring that the guardians of the law do themselves operate within its ambit.

The judiciary is the ultimate crucible that holds the very idea of law and order together. The edifice of the law is a wholly constructed one; unlike the physical world, nothing can happen unless by design. Every piece action or inaction by judiciary has consequences- it serves to either enable or circumscribe the actions of those in power. The exercise of the law depends on keeping alive the integrity of its core principles. If those are lost sight of, the judiciary can turn into the harshest and most repressive instrument of the state, for it has untrammelled powers. The lawlessness of the law then becomes a real possibility, and while governments come and go, once our confidence in the rule of law is dismantled, it is very difficult to put it together again.

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