Death of due process in UP

Many years ago, a plainclothes police officer known as an “encounter specialist”, that uniquely Indian term that has sadly become part of everyday usage, sat in his office in the Western suburbs of Mumbai for a long conversation in which he explained upfront how he was not the last word in honesty. In a frank chat, not uncommon when you know police circles well, he explained how he could afford the fancy sports shoes he wore, how he had two guns on him and how he could get a parallel SIM to listen in to conversations of those he wanted to – some so-called suspects. It doesn’t take long to realise that this is a parallel world in which power, money, glamour and the underworld mix in ways that it is possible, indeed inevitable, that the police do not know what the police are doing.

Individuals are allowed to assume undue importance while the system is taken for a ride, justice becomes a casualty and leadership is rendered meaningless because it chooses to keep a safe distance, conveniently, conspiratorially and in a cowardly fashion, from reality on the ground. The superior of this “specialist” was no less popular, and no less culpable. It didn’t take long for the junior officer to come under scrutiny and face a full-fledged inquiry as all the rottenness poured out. Eventually, “encounters” were brought to an end but this is a malaise that has spread far too wide and deep into into the DNA of the Indian policing system.

Individuals are allowed to assume undue importance while the system is taken for a ride, justice becomes a casualty and leadership is rendered meaningless because it chooses to keep a safe distance, conveniently, conspiratorially and in a cowardly fashion, from reality on the ground.

On the surface, these extra judicial killings are in response to a judicial system that is said to be too slow, too lax and allows too much space to people who should be behind bars. But that is only a part of the story. The reality also is that there is so much to make by taking the law in your hands and going to the extreme end by killing in cold blood, counterbalanced very poorly by too little punishment for those who do walk this miserable path and are willing to have blood on their hands.

None of this will happen if leadership is held to account for “encounter” killings. A simple step like a judicial inquiry into all encounter killings, accompanied by restraining measures against the senior most officer in charge pending the judicial report, will bring an immediate halt to the terrible tales that lie behind many of the fake encounters. But we are driving quite in the reverse. In a State like Uttar Pradesh, encounters are not discouraged, they are actively encouraged. A varying number of encounters and deaths in these encounters of the “wanted” are now bandied about. The high number was touted as the achievement of the government on Republic Day earlier this year.

One account has it that since the government of Yogi Adityanath (who keeps a total of 38 portfolios, including Home) assumed office in March 2017, the State saw more than 3,000 police encounters in the first 16 months with about 70 alleged criminals killed and five policemen also dying in the line of duty. This number alone tells us that, as reported, UP had 6.25 encounters per day on average! It cannot be that police received tips of such a high order, precision and seriousness that they scrambled SWAT teams, rushed to find suspects fire at them, so that they returned fire in all these cases and killed the attackers. The numbers itself tell the story. Of course, no policing of the police is possible when the State leadership itself has directs and supports these operations and cites them as an achievement on Republic Day – celebrating the day we received our constitution with acts that violate the constitution.

One account has it that since the government of Yogi Adityanath (who keeps a total of 38 portfolios, including Home) assumed office in March 2017, the State saw more than 3,000 police encounters in the first 16 months with about 70 alleged criminals killed and five policemen also dying in the line of duty. This number alone tells us that, as reported, UP had 6.25 encounters per day on average! It cannot be that police received tips of such a high order, precision and seriousness that they scrambled SWAT teams, rushed to find suspects fire at them, so that they returned fire in all these cases and killed the attackers. The numbers itself tell the story.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that UP has built its own encounter specialists, and one team went on to see themselves as heroes who filmed and put up on social media a promotional video that shows them on the prowl, guns in hand and a Harayanvi song playing as background music. The video was apparently put up by one of the team members and went viral. It is commendable that the Director General of Uttar Pradesh O P Singh has ordered the transfer to police lines of this team. A tweet by the UP police said: “Regarding a viral video of SWAT team of Basti Police, DGP UP OP Singh has directed SP Basti to transfer entire SWAT team to police lines and get the matter enquired by CO city. We do not sanction unprofessional display of weapons & grotesque caricaturing of police.” This public display of disapproval will do its bit to restrain those who think they have the license to kill under a regime that has, from all indicators coming from the highest level, no qualms about encounters that are staged. The ones who pull the trigger, who celebrate these roles and are not ashamed to put out videos showcasing their unique talents are guilty, no doubt, but equally guilty are those who allow this to happen under their watch.

Those who have the experience of administration would know that a unidirectional focus on numbers never solves a public issue but only exacerbates the problem. Numbers of people killed cannot be an achievement of a popular government. The end result – maintaining law and order – is important but so are the means. Anything less is a recipe for long term disaster and deep corruption of a force that is not seen as clean already. When blazing guns are celebrated and rewarded, then regular policing will naturally and quite obviously take a beating. For an example, the State has not put out a list of people wanted and what the alleged offences registered against them are, a demand made by the Opposition in the State.

When killing becomes glamorous, everyday crime will not get investigated. Excesses will rise across the board. The system will take a beating. Investigation is a difficult, laborious task, collecting evidence even more so and getting a conviction in court is the ultimate test of good policing. None of this can get old fashioned because that is the only way crime can be fought and the credibility of the police system built. That is a path that is connected with India’s growth story.

On the UP Police website, there are 22 on the “most wanted” list, with rewards ranging from Rs. 200,000 to Rs.50,000 for their capture, yet there are no details of the offences, the dates when the list was created or updated and if any of them have since been arrested. Damage is done is also in several other violations of due process, many of which will never get reported but will kill the system from within. Further, when killing becomes glamorous, everyday crime will not get investigated. Excesses will rise across the board. The system will take a beating. Investigation is a difficult, laborious task, collecting evidence even more so and getting a conviction in court is the ultimate test of good policing. None of this can get old fashioned because that is the only way crime can be fought and the credibility of the police system built. That is a path that is connected with India’s growth story. We cannot be a USD five trillion economy, the vision the Union Finance Minister Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman set out in the Union budget earlier this year, with policemen killing off the “bad guys” in Western-style shootouts, no questions asked. That is plunder of the constitution and is a path to doom. Those in uniform should know, as many others before them have realised, that there will be no one to protect them once the real investigations begin.

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)