"The role of civil servants is not merely to implement policies but to be the keepers of the nation's conscience and its basic values." - Lal Bahadur Shastri
“We are constrained to say, that it appears, that in its anxiety to suppress dissent and in the morbid fear that matters may get out of hand, the state has blurred the line between constitutionally guaranteed ‘right to protest’ and ‘terrorist activity.’ If such blurring gains traction, democracy would be in peril” said the two Justices while granting bail to Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal who had been booked more than a year ago under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) as they were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The key here is whether the Police Officers had acted on their own to book these and other students under the draconian law to please their political bosses or was it under directives from them. In either case, it brought disrepute to the police force. Whether a particular act should be prima facie treated as a criminal one is a part of the criminal justice system and politics has no role to play. An officer fails in his duty if he looks over his shoulder to seek directives or to please political “masters” to determine this.
It was 1991 and the call was from the Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav. He appeared quite agitated.
I had been District Magistrate in Lakhimpur-Kheri for about a year. Since 1990 the country was facing an unprecedented crisis on account of the ‘Rath Yatra’ being taken out by the Bhartiya Janata Party leader, Lal Krishna Advani, to advocate the construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya. As Ayodhya was in Uttar Pradesh, this State became the epicentre of all the agitations that were taking place in the context of the building of the temple. It had created law and order problems in all the Districts of the State. All Districts surrounding Lakhimpur Kheri had been put under curfew (an order issued under section 144 of the CRPC, imposing severe restrictions on movement during certain periods of the day and night). Kheri was the only District where even though orders were issued under section 144, they were not as restrictive and normal life was not disrupted. This was primarily on account of the trust that the residents of Lakhimpur had in the administration. Any mischief was dealt with firmly without any fear or favour, including those involving people and issues that were connected with the ruling party.
A murder had taken place. It was purely a criminal act, but the District President of the ruling party wanted to make political capital out of it by taking out a funeral procession. If allowed, this could have been a recipe for disaster and would have led to communal riots as was the case in neighbouring Districts. Permission to take out the procession was not granted. However, as the District President insisted on taking out the procession, he was arrested and put behind bars under the provisions relating to preventive detention. Though this arrest took care of the law and order issues, it didn’t go down well with the ruling party. Those were the days when the only industry flourishing in the State was the transfer industry. I was, however, prepared to face the consequences but determined not to allow the district to slip into chaos.
It was late that night when the call came from the CM. He got down to business immediately without bothering to exchange the usual pleasantries, “DM sahib, why have you arrested and imprisoned my District President?” His question was straightforward. My response was equally forthright, “Sir, a murder had taken place and he insisted on taking out a funeral procession that would have destroyed the peace in the city. Given the charged atmosphere, it would have led to communal riots. I tried to persuade him not to take out the procession but he was not relenting. Hence, we had no option but to arrest him in the interest of sustaining peace.”
There was a brief pause at the other end but he came with another question “Isn’t there some other way?” I was firm but polite in responding, “Sir, had there been some other way, we would not have arrested him. The only possible way now is for someone from Lucknow to speak to him so that he doesn’t insist on taking out a procession. We can then release him.” I carried on, “Sir, you are aware that Lakhimpur Kheri is the only District where we haven’t had to impose curfew as everyone believes that we will take action without any favour”.
There was yet another pause before he responded, “Theek hai (okay).”
He apparently spoke to the District chief of his party himself. Consequently, the local chief agreed not to take out of the funeral procession. The dead man was buried in the dead of the night and the chief was released later during the day
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Lakhimpur remained peaceful during the trying period of the Babri Masjid agitation. I was surprised when I was awarded by the CM himself for handling the law and order in the district adroitly. Peace in the District could be maintained on account of an absolutely amazing team of officers comprising the likes of Harish Chandra Singh, Superintendent of Police, Rudra Pratap Singh, Sub-Divisional Magistrate, R K Chaturvedi, Circle Officer and many others.
Unlike the arrest of the likes of Natasha and Devangana, the police officers allowed the ruffians to run riot at Jawahar Lal Nehru University around that time. They awaited instructions from the “top”, as the crisis spiralled. It is not a question of hindsight wisdom as a former Delhi Police Commissioner stated while trying to defend the indefensible. The writing was on the wall. It was building for the past few days. It didn’t really require a lot of wisdom. It required action. Lives were lost. It allowed “VIPs” to get away with inflammatory speeches. It was not on the sly. It was all too visible but some chose to ignore it. It gave the impression that what was happening was happening in collusion with the police force. This was perhaps an unfair assessment of the police force but total inaction was indefensible.
Some elements in the police force were perhaps waiting for “orders” from the appropriate level. They should have instead marched forward to apprehend the rioters and not allowed them to run riot. Yes, there was a risk of getting “marching orders” in case the action on the ground did not match the “wish” of those that mattered. But it is a risk worth taking to prevent mayhem. In any case, for a civil servant, transfer, like death, is inevitable. Why worry? And, if he believes in Hindu philosophy, he will be born again and continue to act on the basis of his convictions instead of “directions”. Likes of Julio Ribeiro did that and are venerated. The choice is ours. We can blame the politicians for many wrongs but when it comes to the maintenance of law and order, it is the constitutional obligation of civil servants on the spot to carry out their task without fear or favour. The problem arises when civil servants start expecting “returns”.