First task: S N Srivastava should try to restore belief in Delhi police

Delhi commissioner of police, S N Srivastava
Have you watched Die Hard 4.0? Every television channel in the US is taken over by terrorist hackers, who send the same frozen image of the White House everywhere, and the same ominous scroll at the bottom of the screen: “What if this is just the beginning? What if you are alone and dial 911 and no one answers?” it says.

This was the chilling reality for those in northeast Delhi (and elsewhere) who tried to call the police last week and no one picked up the phone. We now know from painstaking research by NDTV that altogether around 13,000 calls were made by terrorised people seeking police help: and no one answered.

This was not all. In some cases, policemen openly sided with the rioters. They also ignored arson and looting happening below their noses.

An investigation will reveal where the blame lies. But apathy and demoralisation of the Delhi Police are at an unprecedented low. And it is now the responsibility of the commissioner of police (CP), S N Srivastava, who took over on February 29, to wrest back the respect of his colleagues and restore the credibility of the Delhi Police.

It is easy to blame Srivastava’s predecessor Amulya Patnaik, who was considered competent and efficient enough to be given a month’s extension by the central government after he retired. There have been no cases of corruption against him in the three years that he was CP. However, in the fag-end of his career, the bad news just wouldn’t stop. In January, a masked mob attacked students and faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University, but the police failed to make a single arrest. The Delhi Police used excessive force inside Jamia Milia Islamia — officers beat up students, damaged university property, and broke CCTV cameras (this was a contributory cause to the extended anti-CAA protests by women in Shaheen Bagh who are convinced the minorities would never get justice in the tenure of the BJP-led government). Before this, in November last year, Patnaik’s lower-ranked colleagues bluntly said they had lost all respect for him after a clash between lawyers and the police at Delhi’s Tis Hazari, Karkardooma, and Saket courts. Despite videos and clips of police officers being assaulted, no lawyer was arrested. Instead, two senior officials — Additional DCP Harendra Singh and Special CP (law and order, northern zone) Sanjay Singh — were transferred.

There are structural problems with policing Delhi. It is closely supervised by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). So, it is hard to blame only Patnaik for slipping up in managing the riots: It cannot be anyone’s case that the MHA didn’t know what was going on, especially when there is evidence of organised rioting by both Hindus and Muslims.

And yet, it was Patnaik who was singled out last Tuesday, when on his way to a meeting with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, he was asked to return midway. Doval instead took that meeting and all subsequent ones with Srivastava, although the man in the saddle was still Patnaik.

Patnaik has retired but problems in policing Delhi remain, a job that Srivastava will now have to tackle. A 2018 report released by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) measured obedience by Indian states with six orders on police reform issued by the Supreme Court in 2006. Not even one state had complied fully. Maja Daruwala, a CHRI founder member and well-known human rights lawyer, says: “A large part of public fear and distrust of the police is fed by little understanding of levels of crime, the police response, and various reasons for perceived poor police performance. Much of this fear and distrust would dissipate if there was more transparency and easy access to information.”

The real problem, of course, is the complicated relationship between the forces that control law and order in Delhi: The MHA, the officialdom, and Lieutenant Governor. People only want the reassurance that each one of the agencies will just do their job — neither more, nor less.

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