The political discourse in UP has always given disproportionately high weightage to law and order. Every government proclaims its success in providing an ‘apraadh mukt’ (crime-free) environment where investment and industry can thrive, while opposition parties use every crime incident to pick holes in the government’s claims.
Since 2017, the current government has been aggressively projecting UP as a state where criminals have no place to hide. Police have been given a virtual carte blanch to use every means possible to break the back of criminals and those who are perceived as not falling in line. Police excesses, insensitivities and complaints of unprofessional behaviour have been repeatedly condoned as long as law and order was maintained. As a result, the message that has gone down the line in the police hierarchy is that legalities, niceties, and such transgressions will be ignored as long as the job is done.
Hathras exemplifies the perils of such a policy. It must be said that the national outrage against the grossly inhuman, insensitive and unprofessional handling of the affair could not have come a day too soon. Images of a hurriedly made funeral pyre burning in the fields in the middle of the night have severely dented the good governance image assiduously built by the regime. Now, the high court has asked extremely difficult questions about the ability of officers to appreciate the law as it stands and their commitment to protecting the fundamental rights of a person, including those of a deceased person.
It is very revealing that in his deposition before the high court, the district magistrate of Hathras, who seems to be leading a charmed life, acknowledged that the decision to cremate the body of the deceased girl in the odd hours and without the consent of the family was taken jointly by the SP and other senior officials of the division. I dare say that the worthies who took this decision had over 100 years of combined experience in handling law and order issues. Yet, they failed to appreciate the horrible consequences of trampling on the fundamental rights of the deceased and of the family members, who rightly wanted to perform the last rites of their daughter. The only defence that the district magistrate had was that he had to maintain “law and order”.
An insensitive system failed to recognise that the authority to maintain order is predicated on the enforcement of laws and the boundaries prescribed by the Constitution. It was these very laws that are the source of their own authority. By undermining the law to bring about order, they were all guilty of failing the Constitution and the authority that devolves to them therefrom.
The court is seized of these matters and more need not be said. Surely, the law will be upheld and may bring some closure to the victim’s family. Hopefully, the CBI, which is now investigating the case, will redeem its fast-depleting goodwill by conducting a fair and transparent probe.
The incident has brought into focus the malaise in the functioning of the criminal justice system. One can pray it will give an opportunity to policymakers to revisit their positions.
The stance of the state government before the court gives hope. The government counsel categorically stated that they would not see the hearing as an adversarial litigation. This is very welcome, as it could be the starting point for a rebooting of the machinery to make it an agent of the law and not allow it to remain a law unto itself. The message must go down to the ‘thanas’ that the law is the guiding light and procedures and processes are sacrosanct. Till the mantra is drilled into the minds of every police functionary, short-term expediency will compel the police to spin fairytales about hundreds of agitators coming to Hathras to disturb law and order or police vehicles turning turtle, allowing dreaded criminals to try to escape.
The author is former DGP of UP. The views expressed are his own)