Protests against the release of 'Padmaavat' took its ugliest form on Wednesday when a school bus was attacked by agitators. The reactionary response of the police highlights the need for their independence. Can the long-awaited police reforms be the solution?
The protests around the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus ‘Padmaavat’ took a really ugly turn on Wednesday when a group of agitators attacked a bus carrying school children in Haryana’s Gurugram. While the film – with claims and counterclaims on the alleged distortion of history and Rajput honour – continues to be at the centre of attention, one wonders if that is really where the buck stops. Could Wednesday’s attack on innocent school children, that has sparked immense outrage, and rightly so, have been avoided?
“For the police, prevention is always better than reacting to an incident,” former DGP of UP and Assam and ex-DG of the BSF, Prakash Singh, tells FinancialExpress.com. “What has happened with the attack on the school bus is reprehensible. I do not know whether the Haryana police had prior information about the violence that was to follow, but if they did, they should have acted in time.”
Can police feign ignorance?
So, was the police unaware that several groups had issued open threats if the film was allowed to release? Sample the following:
* On November 20, Haryana BJP leader Suraj Pal Amu, offered Rs. 10 crore to anyone who beheads Deepika Padukone for her role in “Padmavati” and its director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali while addressing a gathering of Rajputs in Bhondsi village in Gurgaon. The gathering, which was also attended by Karni Sena president Lokendra Kalvi, unanimously decided to prevent the screening of the film in entire Haryana.
* On January 22, Karni Sena activists handed over letters to several theatre managements in Gurugram asking them to not to screen the films. The outfit said it will be forced to launch a movement if multiplexes screen the movie.
* On January 18, members of the Karni Sena attacked a theatre and set it on fire in Haryana’s Faridabad city in anger after SC lifted the ban on ‘Padmaavat’. An FIR was registered against unknown people.
* On January 19, senior lawyer and counsel for the ‘Padmaavat’ producers Harish Salve told Supreme Court that the Karni Sena had threatened him with dire consequences. According to reports Salve said: “Karni Sena called my office to threaten. They dared my office to complain.”
* On January 21, when asked what they would do if the film was screened on January 25 as per the Supreme Court’s orders, the answer was: “Wait and watch what happens on the 25th”. The comment was reported by news agency ANI.
* On January 23, Karni Sena said a ‘Janta curfew’ will be imposed on cinema halls across the country if ‘Padmaavat’ was released on January 25. “We will go among public now. Janta curfew will be imposed on film halls across the country when the film is released,” Lokendra Singh Kalvi, chief patron of the group, told PTI.
The ‘silent sanction’
Call them the fringe or outright hoodlums, the ‘Karni Sena’ and similar groups have today brought life in several states to a virtual standstill through their sheer audacity. “In many such cases, hoodlums infiltrate the protests and create a nuisance. I do not know what the case here was…I am sure the investigation will take its course. But if the police had prior information of any particular group threatening to indulge in violence in a particular area over a particular issue. they should definitely have acted,” Singh, a former IPS officer, adds. He does, however, give the police credit for arresting 11 people in connection with the incident.
Today, the result of allowing such alarming levels of audacity is there for all to see. This raises some very pertinent questions for the police which is tasked with maintaining law and order. Is the role of the police limited to reacting to an incident and not preventing it, especially when the threat loomed large? More importantly, is the police or the law incapable of dealing with such incidents?
“The silent sanction of the political class in power is what makes things difficult for the police,” says former Supreme Court judge and Karnataka Lokayukta Santosh Hegde. Terming the attack on the school bus as deplorable, Hegde said such incidents need to be dealt with the iron hand of the law. “But that is not happening because of the silent sanction of the ruling leaders. Be it in Haryana or in Karnataka, where the bandh has affected common people who may not have anything to do with any political agenda or any other state, the situation is the same.”
The curious case of Haryana
The state of affairs in Haryana is a peculiar case in point. For, this isn’t the first time that the state’s police force is in the dock – the Jat agitation and violence in Panchkula following the conviction of Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim being two of the most recent and prominent cases. In each of them, the police have drawn flak for failing to act on time.
Consider the 2016 Jat agitation. Between February 7 and 22, 2016, the violence led to the death of 30 people. The report by the one-man committee of Prakash Singh set up to investigate the acts of “omission and commission” by the police and civil administration during the period, was scathing in its findings. A total of 90 police and administration officials were indicted for their failure to act. “What was lacking was the will to act, the determination to prevent riotous mobs from assembling in the first instance and then dealing with them effectively while they were committing acts of violence, arson, loot or vandalism,” the report said.
The Panchkula violence, where the followers of the religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda indulged in widespread violence and arson following the conviction of its head Gurmeet Ram Rahim for rape on August 25 last year, is another glaring example. The police department was heavily slammed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court as Dera followers descended to Panchkula ahead of the court’s verdict despite prohibitory orders in place. The court rapped the Director General of Police and said that it would act against him for allowing matters to come to such a pass. Over 30 people lost their lives in the violence that ensued.
Need for police reforms
In each of the cases listed above and in others across the country, the police force is seen as being bystanders as the political class – the state governments – take the final call. “The police are trained to protect and to serve, but often under such tense situations, they look up to the political leadership for orders. That should not be the case. That is not what they are trained for,” says Hegde. “Why should the police have to wait for orders from the Home Minister or the Home Secretary to act in times of crisis? The law doesn’t say so,” he adds.
The need for the police to break away from the shackles of political influence is not new and this has been one of the primary outcomes of a landmark judgment by the SC in 2006. Setting out clear directives for police reforms, the court asked the setting up of state security commissions. Their primary objective – to “ensure that the state government does not exercise unwarranted influence or pressure on the police”.
Sadly, despite clear-cut instructions by the top court, nothing much has moved on police reforms. “The progress on police reforms has been extremely slow. 17 states have acted on the SC’s 2006 directives regarding police reforms, but the intention has been to circumvent the order. There has been no concrete progress on the agenda of police reforms by states,” Prakash Singh, who championed the cause of police reforms in Supreme Court leading to the directives being issued, rues.
“Till a few years back, the Supreme Court used to monitor the case on a regular basis. But for the past few years, that is not happening. I can’t ask the SC to take up the matter, but I am planning to have an advocate mention it before the top court,” he adds.
Ironically, the first call for police reforms came way back in 1902, when the Indian Police Commission set up by the British to review the working of the police in India concluded that India’s police force was in the “most unsatisfactory condition, that abuses are common everywhere, that this involves great injury to the people and discredit to the government, and that radical reforms are urgently necessary”. This happened to be the first time that a responsible body talked of police reforms. 120 years down the line, the genuine intent at reform is missing. The more things change, the more they stay the same?