Exotic Land Of Kangaroo Courts

Blustering cops, diffident politicians & intimidated journalists make for utterly pointless TV panel discussions. High time journalists take a stand.

I just finished watching a debate on the most appropriate punishment for the errant senior policeman in Uttar Pradesh who had, by implication, suggested ‘honour killing’ (how I hate the term -a real oxymoron if there was any for this dishonourable act!). The debate took place on NDTV 24X7 and was moderated by Sonia Singh. The participants were Samajwadi party spokesperson Shahid Siddiqui, BSP spokesperson Bhadoria, Aruna Roy, Suhasini Ali, Harish Salve, former Director General Police of Uttar Pradesh Prakash Singh, and Kalikesh Singh Deo from the BJD in Orissa.

What stood out were the tenor of the debate and the absolute cluelessness of any possible measure that can put a lid on police cowboyishness. As expected,the politicians were busy scoring political points over each other,the social activists expressing outrage (justified in this case) and the lawyer expounding on the dangers of having an unbridled police force. The most pathetic statement came from former DGP Prakash Singh who came up with the usual lament about the police being used for political purposes. He also stated that the bulk of the blame be apportioned to politicians who had misused the police at every opportunity and dilly-dallied on police reforms.

To be absolutely fair to Singh, he has been candid enough to admit that the police have lost all public sympathy and confidence. After his retirement he worked towards introducing police reforms by approaching the courts repeatedly. Therefore it was with some dismay that I watched his performance in the debate today.

As the facts stand, the Deputy Inspector General of Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Satish Kumar Mathur was caught on camera telling a man whose daughter had eloped, to shoot his daughter. If that was not enough, he went on to say that had his own sister eloped he would have shot her.

This comment by Satish Kumar Mathur goes against the stated policy of both the State and Federal Governments which have publicly denounced this practice of ‘honour killing’. One would think this is an open-and-shut case for this officer’s removal from the service and maybe even grounds for prosecution.

But no! All that the government of AkhileshYadav could think of was a transfer and that too grudgingly after there was a national outcry. Was that sufficient? Aruna Roy, Suhasini Ali and Harish Salve were pretty clear that transfer per se did not constitute punishment and that Mathur deserved to be sacked. Predictably, Siddiqui was equivocal, Bhadoria busy making political capital and Kalikesh Singh Deo incomprehensible.

Prakash Singh was of the view that the quantum of the punishment should be left to those in power which was equivocal to say the least. It was left to Salve to remind Singh that departmental action was not the same as criminal prosecution and that in a case as blatant as this, the officer can easily be suspended as he could influence the enquiry. Singh could not respond to that. Salve also took a parting shot at the politicians on the panel by stating that the difference between the political parties in India was akin to the difference between ‘tomatoes’ (English intonation) and ‘tomatoes’ (American intonation).

Fair enough. But are we not being unreal over here? Perhaps some of the members of the panel had never had any occasion to deal with the police across India. The tenor and irresponsibility of Mathur’s comment would be familiar to all the panellists, especially Prakash Singh who was a policeman for over 35 years. We, the general public, have to deal with this sort of police conduct day in and outand this is responsible for the overall distrust that Singh has rightly identified. The only difference here is that the officer was brazen enough to vocalise this on the camera- unwittingly I presume.

What intrigues me though is how these police officers brazenly defend the misdemeanours of their brethren every time they are on television. They are rarely ever challenged by the anchors and when they are,a simple display of anger and raised decibels subdue most of the journalist anchors. This phenomenon though, seems peculiar to India and in my view suggestive of a general hesitancy among the journalist class to uncompromisingly help in the enforcement of accountability from the police force.

In this context I was specially dismayed by the performance of another retired police officer, Maxwell Pereira on Headlines Today a few days ago. A similar debate was taking place, this time on an incident in which the Delhi Police had fatally manhandled a senior citizen when he asked for water. Pereira was the former Joint Police Commissioner in Delhi. He set about the same task of defending his brethren, by using the oldest trick in the book-when you do not have logic or morality on your side, just raise your voice and do not allow the other person to speak. His entire demeanour was that of the feudal zamindars so aptly depicted in Bollywood films. He kept shouting at the other panellists, in particular Madhu Kishwar. He was reminded by Kishwar of an instance when she had approached him to plead on behalf of street vendors who were facing massive extortion from the Delhi Police, and his response then had been that these vendors were vermin who deserved this treatment. This led to Pereira shouting at her again, denying that he had used that epithet but still agreeing to those sentiments -despite the seal of legality that street vendors have from the Supreme Court. Clearly Pereira was not going to countenance any reduction in illegal fiscal gratification for his colleagues which all of us know goes on. But what was worrying was how easily he managed to bludgeon the debate with the young anchor who was clearly intimidated. An effort at intimidation that seemed intentional on Pereira’s part.

The failure of the press to enforce total accountability from the police has led to a series of disasters over the years, globally. I was reliably informed that Radhey Shyam Gupta, a Police Commissioner, had presided over a period when a person was locked up in Tihar for 9 months on charges of murder -except that the deceased person turned up alive. In no other functional democracy would the head of the police force survived. Gupta did. He was never questioned by the media and was also witness to one of his Assistant Commissioners being sentenced to death for custodial killing.

I was in the US when the Rodney King incident took place in Los Angeles. Darryl Gates, the Police Chief at the time had the backing of George Bush Sr. However it was the media which saw to it that Gates was sacked. Even conservative commentators like George Will rooted for his sacking. There is a lesson for the press in India. If the police break the law-as they do all the time- then the media should be relentless in seeing that they are brought to book. Only then would the survival of democracy be guaranteed.

And I would not be apologetic about the application of higher standards of accountability to the police. John Stalker, a very meritorious police officer in the UK, had risen to the level of Deputy Chief Constable (Chief Constable in the British terminology is the equivalent of Director General of Police). He was discovered by a journalist to have given a lift to his friend in his official car. He was immediately suspended and after a long battle resigned from the police.

Can we expect that here?


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