“Converting our hard earned democracy into a police state is simply unthinkable and if the Assam police is thinking about the same, the same is perverse thinking..” Barpeta sessions court judge Judge Aparesh Chakrabarty while granting bail to Gujarat MLA, Jignesh Mevani and criticizing the state police for filing a ‘false FIR’ and ‘abusing the process of the court and the law’.
It has taken a courageous judge in a small town to remind the police of their foremost constitutional duty to the rule of law. Ironically, just a day after this stinging judicial pronouncement, India’s power elite were assembled at a conference in the capital’s Vigyan Bhavan at a meeting of chief justices and chief ministers being held after a lapse of six years. Amidst the familiar hand-wringing over judicial delays and vast number of under-trials, the chief justice of India, NV Ramana did well to raise troubling questions over legislative processes and executive capacity but didn’t quite nail the real elephant in the room: the utter contempt our political leadership, both at centre and in states, have for the rule of law and criminal justice system.
Don’t forget that amongst the front row attendees was Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s all powerful chief minister who is also the state’s home minister. Could an opposition MLA like Mevani have been suddenly picked up at midnight from Gujarat by the Assam police and brought to distant Kokrajhar without the knowledge of the chief minister, or indeed the Gujarat law enforcement authorities? Two BJP-ruled states ‘conspiring’ with each other to teach a lesson to an MLA who had tweeted against the prime minister: could there be a more glaring example of misuse of state power to settle political scores?
Sarma is of course not alone. Also in attendance were Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP colleague from Punjab, Bhagwant Mann. Within days of the new regime taking over, the Punjab Police has filed a series of FIRs against critics of the AAP supremo, including Kejriwal’s friend turned foe Kumar Vishwas who had to seek judicial protection from arrest. Also seated amongst the high and mighty was West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamta Banerjee whose police force is accused of viciously targeting her government’s opponents. In close proximity to her was UP’s Yogi Adityanath, whose government has routinely slapped a slew of criminal cases on critical journalists, including sedition. Maharashtra’s Uddhav Thackeray was missing at the event but don’t forget the manner in which his government too stands accused of misusing police powers to intimidate detractors. Indeed, is there any chief minister who can sincerely claim to have not abused their executive authority for practicing ‘revenge’ politics?
On the podium was the prime minister who as the dominant national figure is expected to set the tone for the rest. But can he or the Centre effectively combat the oft-repeated charge by opposition leaders of exploiting central agencies to browbeat potential rivals? The manner in which the Enforcement Directorate in particular is accused of targeting only opposition leaders while giving relief to those who profess loyalty to the Centre leaves the Modi government vulnerable to the charge of setting the stage for vindictive politics.
It isn’t as if this vengeful streak in Indian politics and the well-oiled neta-police nexus surfaced only in 2014. We can stretch the time machine back to Indira Gandhi and the Emergency and every regime since to find cases of obvious police partisanship backed by executive overreach that mock at the very core of a rule of law. Recall how the Jayalalithaa-Karunanidhi ‘war’ in Tamil Nadu in 2001 led to the DMK patriarch being dragged out of his bed at 2 am by the TN police and bundled into a police van like a convicted criminal. Intense personal animosities in states like Tamil Nadu made its political culture particularly prone to such acts of brazen retribution.
The difference is that what was once seen as the exception is now the rule across India, leaving no political party in a position to claim the moral high ground. Barely a week passes without a case in some corner of the country where law enforcement forces overstep their jurisdiction to act in a manner that is prima facie excessive and in some instances downright illegal. The Mevani case is perhaps the most stark example but can there be any justification for the jailing and sedition charges slapped on the Rana husband-wife, MLA-MP duo, for threatening to recite the Hanuman Chalisa outside the chief minister’s residence in Mumbai?
The other difference is that many courts, instead of acting with a sense of urgency, tend to procrastinate or take a politically expedient stand. Why, for example, did the courts delay in acting on the habeas corpus petitions challenging the mass detention of Jammu and Kashmir politicians after the abrogation of Article 370? Why should a Delhi high court be sermonizing on the use of words like ‘jumla’ by student-activist Umar Khalid while allowing his bail petition to simply drag on? And how can the Supreme Court square the remarkable alacrity with which it granted bail to prime time star anchor Arnab Goswami – justly one might add — with its unconscionable failure to grant relief to a less known journalist Siddique Kappan. After all, if the UP police is allowed to detain a Kappan for over 20 months now on highly specious ‘terrorism’ charges, then we may as well write the obituary of constitutional guarantees of life and personal liberty.
The biggest difference though now is the absence of a concerted citizen pushback in the face of patently mala fide actions by state agencies. Why for example isn’t there greater outrage over the manner in which the civic authorities in Delhi and other parts of the country used bulldozers to demolish homes in riot-hit areas with scant regard for due process? Instead we have hyper-partisan cheerleaders who have allowed personal and political prejudice to influence their better judgement as citizens. Then be it the case of ordinary Indians, or politicians in the public eye like a Mevani or a Navneet Rana, the law must not be subverted with such impunity. The men in khakhi uniform need to be sent constant reminders that their loyalty is not to their political masters but the constitution first and last.
Post-script: Within a week of the Barpeta judge hard-hitting observations in the Mevani case, the Assam high court put a stay on the adverse comments. Which raises several concerns: will the judge be transferred out for taking a stand in a high profile case? And will the police officers who were willing accomplices in framing false charges be penalised or be promoted instead?