How the Delhi tragedy could have been avoided

Justice Markandey Katju-

The tragic violence in Delhi would never have happened if the Delhi police had acted in the manner the police is meant to act in a democracy, as described in the speech of Sir Robert Mark ( quoted herein ), that is, in a totally neutral, non-political and non-partisan manner, regarding only one master above it—the law.

The moment the BJP leader Kapil Mishra gave his incendiary speech in Jafrabad the police should have told him in no uncertain terms that if he or his followers broke the law they will be arrested and chargesheeted for inciting violence. Instead, throughout the mayhem and fracas in Delhi the police remained mute, indifferent bystanders, turning a Nelson’s eyes at the rampaging goons, somewhat like the German police when Nazi strong arm S.A. and S.S. thugs let loose a reign of terror on Jews on Kristallnacht in November 1938.

Justice Markandey Katju

It is true that civil servants and police officers are subordinate to their political masters. Nevertheless, they are also servants of the law, and must refuse to carry out illegal orders of the politicians. In the Nuremberg Trials after the end of the Second World War, the Nazi war criminals took the defense that they were only carrying out orders of their superior Hitler, but this plea was rejected, and many accused were hanged.

For some time after independence, the Indian bureaucracy and police officers maintained high standards. The political leaders would not ordinarily interfere with their functioning, and the senior officers would boldly and fearlessly object to such interference by their political masters. Sardar Patel, in the Constituent Assembly Debates (vide volume 10, page 51), said, “My Secretary can write a note opposed to my views. I have given that freedom to all my Secretaries. I have told them that if they do not give their honest opinion for fear that it will displease their Minister, they had better go. I will bring another Secretary. I am never displeased over a frank expression of opinion.”

The eminent jurist Seervai, in his ‘Constitutional Law of India’ writes, “If a civil service is to command the confidence of the people it must be a non-political civil service, discharging its duty fearlessly, no matter which political party is in power for the time being.”

I remember when my grandfather, late Dr. K.N.Katju, was Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, a complaint was made to him about serious misbehavior by a police officer. Dr Katju was thinking of suspending him, but then the Inspector General of Police (there were no Director Generals then ) K.F.Rustamji ( perhaps the most outstanding police officer India has known, who was later awarded the Padma Vibhushan ), met him and said, “Sir, if you do that, it will have a demoralizing effect on the entire police force. Permit me instead to handle the matter.” Dr Katju agreed, and Mr Rustami took appropriate action himself.

Unfortunately, thereafter there was a steady decline from these high standards, and particularly over the past several decades in India many bureaucrats and police officers aligned themselves and became toadies of some political leaders, and would do their illegal/improper bidding, obviously for getting some plum posting and/or other personal benefits. Some even collaborated and also shared in the benefits of corruption by politicians.

The Second Report of the Police Commission (published in 1979) stated,  “Interference with the police system by external sources, especially the politicians, encourages the police personnel to believe that their career advancement does not at all depend on the merits of their professional performance, but by currying favor with politicians who count. Politicking and hobnobbing with politicians appear very worthwhile to them, and takes up most of their time to the detriment of performance of their professional jobs. This process sets the system on the downward slope to decay and total ineffectiveness.”

We may contrast this with the position in England.

In his book ‘Comparative Government’ Prof. Finer writes:

“Two American political scientists (Professors Gabriel Abraham Almond and Sidney Verba ) made a survey of what they called ‘the civic culture’ in five countries. These were USA, Britain, Germany, Italy and Mexico. Answering the query (in the opinion poll they held) ‘Which aspect of national life do you take most pride in? ‘, two and a half percent Italians named their governmental arrangements and only four percent of the Germans.

In Britain, however, 33% named their governmental arrangements. Furthermore, four-fifths of the respondents believed that the civil servants would treat them fairly, and no less than nine-tenth believed that the police would. By international standards, these proportions are very high indeed, and they express what has been asserted: that, on the whole, the British esteem their political arrangements, and have confidence in them “.

How police officers should function was best laid down by Sir Robert Mark, former Chief Commissioner of Police in a speech he gave to policemen in London:

“In the legal and constitutional framework in which society requires us to enforce the law, the most essential weapons in our armor are not firearms, water cannons, tear gas or rubber bullets, but the confidence and support of the people. This confidence and support depend on our personal and collective integrity, and in particular, on our long tradition of constitutional freedom from political interference in our operational role.

It is important for you to understand that the police are not the servants of the government at any level. “We do not act at the behest of a Minister or any political party, not even the party in government. We act on behalf of the people as a whole, and the powers we exercise cannot be restricted or widened by anyone, save Parliament alone “.

What a contrast with the situation in India!


[Justice Markandey Katju is former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own].

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