Sunday, September 16, 2007

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Scarcely a day goes by when we do not hear of some or the other alarming report of police high-handedness, and indeed, criminality. But perhaps the worst crime that our custodians of law are guilty of is to concoct false cases against people. Even worse is when many of these cases concern Muslims and the charges are related to terrorism. It does not take a genius to figure out that such actions, which are undoubtedly accompanied by torture at the hands of investigators, and harassment of the families of the people in question , are the worst possible advertisement for why the secular, democratic system is superior to whatever paradise that the terrorists have on offer. Without doubt they help to widen the pool of recruits for terrorism.

India may have made great strides as an economic power and the electoral aspects of its democracy are indeed a matter of satisfaction. But when it comes to the rule of law and the manner in which it is applied, we are definitely in the Third World category. Torture is the chosen method of solving all crimes, be they big or small, and planting of evidence and concoction of false cases routine. Just how skewed the system is against the minorities is borne out by the fact that perpetrators of the Mumbai blasts of 1993 have all been tried and punished, yet those, particularly Shiv Sena members, responsible for the horrific riots that triggered the blasts have yet to be charged, leave alone punished. And it is not just Muslims because we know that those guilty of the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 remain largely untouched.

In February 2006, the Delhi police announced the arrest of Irshad Ali and Mohammed Muarif Qamar, two alleged Al Badr terrorists, with great fanfare and spun out the usual story of how they had smuggled the RDX and the plans they had for using it. According to the Times of India the CBI found that the RDX was planted on them. The key to the CBI breakthrough was that an Intelligence Bureau official who lured Qamar to his arrest had used his own cell phone. When the authorities can frame people with such ease, we need to take all claims relating to terrorist arrests with a large dollop of salt.

A confirmation of how this works is now available in the Delhi High Court’s acquittal of six people accused of being a part of the Lashkar-e-Taiba attack on the Red Fort in 2000. While the main accused has been sentenced to death, the High Court did not mince words in questioning the prosecution’s case, as well as the judgment of the lower court in finding them guilty.

According to the Indian Express the High Court Bench observed, “We became anxious to find out as to how these six accused were found guilty by the learned trial judge when despite our digging deep we could not find sufficient evidence against them.”

The pathology of the police’s attitude does not relate merely to terrorist cases, though they are the most serious. The manner in which the Delhi police continues to harass Uma Khurana, the victim of a sting, is an indicator of its mindset. Such incidents raise serious doubts about the convictions that have already taken place using the now repealed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities(Prevention) Act (TADA) and its successor Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).

Such serious, and perhaps routine, instances of police chicanery is the reason why India cannot get a consensus on an anti-terror law. It is common knowledge that our State governments have used TADA and POTA to railroad political opponents, and any other inconvenient person or persons. In these statutes, a confession made by the accused in police custody was considered valid evidence. Fighting terrorism without a anti-terrorism law has handicapped Indian security authorities and has paradoxically encouraged extra-judicial killings of the suspects. But the security officials are themselves to blame for this. Having been empowered by TADA and POTA, they chose to misuse them flagrantly to the detriment of the country's security. The leaders of the police forces do not realise that the short cuts they take do not get them anywhere and that is the reason why they are stumped by the series of terrorist strikes in the last three years where nameless and ruthless people have set of blasts across the country and have yet to be brought to account.

There are no easy answers to resolving the problem. But a beginning can be made by a government that understands that there is a problem in the first place. The problem of errant police or security personnel is not new. The Roman poet Juvenal, who lived 2,000 years ago, is said to have first asked Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guards?) All countries have gone through the process of getting their law officers to remain on the straight and narrow path. At the end of the day, the police needs to police itself, and the system must ensure that there are laws and procedures in place to ensure that.While there are many suggestions in police commissions about arbitrary transfers and and promotion of police officials, we think they are missing the point. There is no doubt that the system must do what is required to insulate police personnel from the vagaries of politics and politicians. But that is only one part of the problem.

There is also, more importantly, a need to institute deterrent penalties on police personnel for not doing their duty. Once such a system is in place, the police-politician nexus will come apart on its own.

My view is that the only way to police the police is a “zero tolerance” approach. While I believe that "zero tolerance" is not always the best way to fighting crime in general, I think it is the only way to deal with criminal activities of those who are are custodians of the law.

So, first, there should be be no tolerance of any wrongdoing by the police (and no means zero). Second, all cases of police high-handedness must be tried by special fast-track courts and third, and this is important, any violation of the law by police personnel must merit double the quantum of punishment that is reserved for other law breakers.

No comments: