A Police Officer's Allegiance Must Be to the Constitution and Not to a Temple

The recent Ram Temple oath a senior IPS officer took is a much-needed cue for us to debate the need to make the police accountable for their acts of commission and omission.

File photo of Uttar Pradesh police. Credit: PTI

Uttar Pradesh police. Credit: PTI/File

Some moments last a lifetime. In 1983, it was that moment for 25 year-old Surya Kumar Shukla from Rae Bareli, the 1982 batch IPS (Indian Police Service) officer of the Uttar Pradesh cadre, when he stood on the concrete parade ground of the police academy located in Shivarampally, Rajendra Nagar, Hyderabad.

That moment is experienced by every young man and woman who clears the civil services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission and gets into the IPS and undergoes training at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy (SVPNPA) spread over 275 acres in Telangana.

The moment when India’s tricolour passes in front of the outstretched hands of the IPS trainee officers in uniform, cross-belt and peak cap, all standing in attention, is a moment as sacred as a mother’s hug. As powerful as a believer’s undying commitment to his or her faith.

That moment comes as a part of the trainee officers’ oath-taking ritual at the parade ground on passing-out day. In their hearts are idealistic dreams. On the road of their professional career is the suspense of the unknown. In the audience are their family members. That moment stays with them for the rest of their lives.

Shukla is today the second senior-most police officer in the cadre. It was 35 years ago that he took an oath to be faithful and bear true allegiance to the constitution of India.

The stinking smell of Indira Gandhi’s emergency must have lingered in his nose then. As a citizen of this country and as a student of history, he must have been aware of how she subverted the laws of the land and used the police to punish, harass and humiliate her political opponents in his home state Uttar Pradesh and in the other parts of the country. She misused and abused every government institution, including the Intelligence Bureau (IB), to protect her kitchen cabinet and dynasty.

UP Home Guard Director General S.K. Shukla (second from left) takes the pledge at a Lucknow University event. Credit: Twitter/IPS Association

Another oath-taking moment came in Shukla’s life on January 28 this year, more than three decades after that parade in the police academy. It was at a closed-door private function organised in a room of the public administration department of Lucknow University by the Akhil Bharatiya Samagra Vichar Manch, which claims to be a social organisation. The title of the seminar indicates that it was held to chalk out a solution to the Ayodhya dispute: Ram Mandir Nirman Samasya Evam Samadhan.

Also read: As IPS Association Distances Itself From Top Cop’s Ram Temple Oath, Experts Seek His Dismissal

Shukla has stoked a controversy after a video clip of him taking a pledge for the early construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya went viral on social media. In the 21-second clip, he in a white shirt, dark blue tie and black coat, with his outstretched and raised right hand standing next to the leader of the group, is seen taking a vow to build the temple along with half a dozen other people. “Hum sab Ram-bhakt, aaj ke karyakram ke dauraan, yeh sankalp letey hain, ki jald se jald Ram mandir ka bhavya nirman ho (We Ram bhakts, as part of this programme, take the pledge that a grand Ram Mandir be constructed at the earliest… Jai Sri Ram),” the video showed them pledging at the top of their voices.

Incidentally, the Indian Police Service (Central) Association reacted to the video, disassociating itself from the act. The IPS Association, the key body of officers from the premier police service, in an unusual tweet, put out a video of Shukla’s pledge and asserted that this wasn’t in line with what the police service stands for. ‘We disassociate ourselves from the act of a senior #IPS officer as shown in the video & reiterate that it is against the ethos of neutrality, fairness and uprightness that Indian Police Service stands for.”

This controversy should be the point of departure for an informed debate on the secular character of the police in India and the threats and challenges it is facing today. Above all, we need a debate on how to make the police accountable for their acts of commission and omission.

Who was the police chief in Delhi in 1984 when the anti-Sikh massacre took place right under the nose of the Congress government and what happened to him and his officers for their incompetence? Who was the police chief in Gujarat when 2002 riots took place and what happened to him and his team for their failures? Who was the police chief in Uttar Pradesh when the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots resulted in at least 62 deaths and injured 93 and left more than 50,000 displaced, and what happened to him and his officers for the collapse of the law enforcement machinery?

Muzaffarnagar: Policemen patrol a street during curfew in Muzaffarnagar following the violence. Credit: PTI/Atul Yadav

Year after year, state after state, irrespective of the political configuration of the ruling parties in power in New Delhi and state capitals, independent India has seen repeated incidents of communal violence and some of them had turned into massacres. A few of these are: Jabalpur riot in 1961, Ahmedabad riot in 1969, the anti-Sikh massacre in Delhi in 1984, Hashimpura massacre in 1987, the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, the Gujarat riots of 2002 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013. No exemplary action has been taken against government functionaries who were handling these situations and had failed miserably. Not long ago, in the Muzaffarnagar case, the Supreme Court held the state government guilty of negligence and ordered the arrest of all the accused and also blamed the central government for its failure to provide intelligence inputs to the state government.

The time has come to examine whether the provisions of the law of torts should be extended to all those remiss in handling these incidents. Class-action suits need to be initiated in such cases as it would be impossible for the individual victims to file cases against the powerful politicians and police functionaries concerned. It is only by applying the provisions of the law of torts that they would become seriously aware of their responsibilities.

In this context, we need to remember the diversity deficit that afflicts India’s police. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report for 2013, there were 1.08 lakh Muslim police personnel, who accounted for 6.27% of the total strength of 17.31 lakh police in the country. The comparative figure was 7.55% in 2007.

Why this deficit is too important an issue to be ignored can be gauged from the following anecdote. L. K. Advani, who had spearheaded the Babri Masjid agitation, has written in his autobiography My Country My Life:

“I recall vividly an experience en route from Ayodhya to Lucknow (on December 6, 1992 after demolition of the Babri Masjid). In spite of strict security all along the 135-kilometre journey, I could see people engaged in celebrations everywhere. Within half an hour of our departure from Ayodhya, our car was stopped by the police. On seeing that the car carried Pramod Mahajan and me, a senior officer of the UP government walked up to us [and] said, ‘Advaniji, kuch bacha to nahin na? Bilkul saaf kar diya na?’ (I hope nothing of the structure is surviving and that it has been totally razed to the ground.)”

India’s survival and prosperity as a multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-cultural society will depend on the strength of its constitution-mandated secularism. Our police leaders need to remember and respect the sanctity of that goose bumps-giving moment of their passing-out parade day – the moment when the Indian flag passes in front of their outstretched right hand in the presence of their near and dear ones in the audience across the ground.

Basant Rath is 2000 batch IPS officer who belongs to the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. Views expressed are personal.