The Delhi Police Degrades Democracy - by Ramachandra Guha

Unlike (for example) the Indian Army or the Indian Space Research Organization, the Delhi Police is not an arm of the Indian State that has, in recent years, enjoyed a high reputation for competence and efficiency. Yet, even by its rather lax standards, its ongoing investigations into the riots that took place in the capital in February have set a new low. Thus, in an analysis of twelve 'confession' statements, The Indian Express found that nine were more or less identical, repeating themselves word-for-word, phrase for phrase, this strongly suggesting that they were fabricated. Another story in the same paper showed perhaps an even greater degree of malign intent. Here, a doctor who had treated riot victims in his hospital found himself named in a murder charge.

That the humanitarian doctor, as well as those from whom word-for-word confessions had been allegedly obtained, were Muslims was unlikely to be an accident. For, as one careful investigation of the FIRs filed in the matter has concluded, it is 'clear that the Delhi Police has turned the investigation into a witch hunt. The authorities are targetting Muslims, despite the community being the disproportionate victims of the riots. Activists who supported the community during the riots and the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act that preceded them are also being unfairly prosecuted.'

Among the activists who are being unfairly persecuted is Harsh Mander, who gave up a career in the elite Indian Administrative Service so that he could more directly serve the disadvantaged sections of society. He has since done important work on tribal rights, access to food, and the promotion of Hindu-Muslim harmony. This writer has had the privilege of knowing Harsh Mander for 45 years. On many policy debates, we have stood on the same side; on some issues, we have disagreed. But even our disagreements have only served to increase one's respect for the man, and the sheer decency of his character. No Indian I know is more committed to non-violence in thought and in deed. And yet, a charge-sheet filed by the Delhi Police astonishingly accuses him of seeking to provoke violence, citing a speech where, in fact, Harsh Mander said, "Darkness can be fought only with light. We have only one answer for their hate, and that is love", while adding "We have learnt from Gandhiji how we must respond to violence and injustice. We will fight with non-violence."

Harsh Mander's real 'crime' in the eyes of the Delhi Police (and their masters) is that he took a principled stand against the Citizenship Amendment Act. So did many young students, who likewise find themselves targeted by the Delhi Police. Some have even been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, an obnoxious piece of legislation whose passing by parliament casts grave doubt on our claims to being a constitutional democracy. The UAPA is far more arbitrary and draconian than any law that was prevalent in colonial times. It is a matter of shame that the Supreme Court has allowed this act to stand on the statute books, to be willfully misused by the state to suppress all forms of dissent, even those that were (as in the case of the anti-CAA protests) almost wholly non-violent. As one legal scholar has written, "the offence provisions of the UAPA are criminally overbroad, excessively vague, and nothing short of a legislative carte blanche to state-sponsored violations of fundamental rights".

While peaceful protesters are being savagely set upon by the State, those who openly called for violence before and during the Delhi riots remain free and at large. These include the BJP leader Kapil Mishra, whose incendiary speeches just before the riots took place are on tape. Also on tape is an open incitement to violence made by the Union Minister of State of Finance, during the campaign for the Delhi elections. No FIR has been filed against these men, presumably because they belong to the ruling party.

How does one seek understand these perversions of justice? I think that part of the answer surely lies in the fact that the Delhi Police reports to the Home Minister. And it was the Home Minister who was instrumental in the framing and passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act. The CAA was widely seen as discriminatory, as presaging a second-class status for Indian Muslims. It prompted protests across the country, as well as strong condemnation of the Modi Government in the international media. The condemnation intensified after the Delhi riots, which occurred when the US President was on a state visit to the Indian capital.

The passing of the CAA by the Modi Government has done more than anything else since the Emergency to undermine India's status as a pluralist democracy. Yet, rather than reflect on its own mistakes, the Union Government has embarked on a policy of harsh retribution, with the Delhi Police as its willing instrument. The examples offered in this column are merely illustrative, there are more such cases that have been reported in the shrinking but fortunately not yet fully extinct spaces that exist for independent media in India. Indeed, in their spite and vindictiveness, the authorities have not even spared noble-minded Sikhs who opened a langar or food kitchen for peaceful protesters at Shaheen Bagh.

These ongoing perversions of justice by the Home Ministry have attracted the attention of the United Nations. In a statement issued in late June, a dozen UN rapporteurs from different countries remarked that the arrest of peaceful protesters "seems clearly designed to send a chilling message to India's vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated". The experts called on the Indian Government to "immediately release all human rights defenders who are currently being held in pre-trial detention without sufficient evidence, often simply on the basis of speeches they made criticising the discriminatory nature of the CAA".

It is unlikely that the Public Relations Officer of the Delhi Police would have read this indictment by UN experts. Some babus in the Home or Foreign Ministry might have, but one wonders whether they would have the courage to bring it to the attention of their respective ministers. Or, if they did, that the ministers would seek to course correct. For the abuse of public institutions in pursuit of absolute power is second nature to the Modi Government. One could place hope in the courts, but that, too, must be a very qualified hope, given that in recent times the judiciary has not been particularly keen (or willing) to defend liberty of thought against arbitrary and excessive state power.

To be sure, all through our history as an independent Republic, there have been parts of the country where the rule of law has had a rather uncertain status. The state of Bihar was once a byword for lawlessness; some parts of Uttar Pradesh still are. Kashmir and the North-east have witnessed large-scale human rights violations by the state and by non-state actors. Even so, the recent depredations of the Delhi Police, their absolute disregard for truth, justice, and due process, represent something qualitatively different. That, in the country's capital today, a non-violent, peace-loving, citizen cannot expect fair treatment from the so-called custodians of the law merely because of her religious or political affiliation, is a chilling marker of how degraded our democracy has become.

(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include 'Environmentalism: A Global History' and 'Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World'.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.