Delhi Police's Clumsy Apology for Roughing up Journalists Skirts a Critical Issue

While apologising to journalists, the police seemed to justify roughing up and even molesting protesters.

The Delhi police has apologised to journalists for roughing them up at a protest march taken out by students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University on Friday. The police admitted that journalists who were not the intended targets of their action were mistaken to be part of the protesters. This is presumably the reason the journalists were thrashed and even groped by the police. That’s the official police version.

But a far more sinister question underlies that facile explanation.

The under-duress and clumsy apology has skirted the critical issue of thuggish behaviour displayed by the police on Friday. After all, any civilised society should unequivocally and strongly condemn such predatory behaviour – groping women’s breasts or manhandling men and women – regardless of the intended targets of such violence: media persons or protesting students and teachers.

But in their explanation to protesting journalists, Delhi police perversely seemed to suggest it was perfectly legitimate to rough up protesters, even molest them, in case they had a “law and order” situation at hand. The only dilemma before the police (if they faced one at all) seemed to be in mistaking mediapersons as protesters. One suspects that even the apology to journalists would not have come, had not mediapersons thronged outside the police headquarters in the heart of Delhi. 

In the aftermath of Friday’s incident, Deputy Commissioner of Police and police spokesperson Madhur Verma said, “Yesterday’s incident was a very unfortunate one. Our deepest apologies to the media. Our intention wasn’t to obstruct the media from doing its job. In the confusion, some female police personnel mistook a photojournalist as a protester. While that is still not an excuse, I would like to stress it was completely by accident.”

The DCP went on to add, “We have taken strong cognisance of the matter and an inquiry has been ordered. Delhi police and I personally have always maintained that the media is an integral part of our democracy.”

Are we then to construe from those remarks that students and teachers not part of Indian democracy? Are they considered to be outside the pale of democracy and therefore legitimate police targets?

The Delhi police statement becomes more unacceptable in light of the violence that the police subjected JNU students and teachers to, during the protest. Here’s a list of some of these actions:

Swati Simha, a student detainee at the police station, said: “Once the water cannon started, I tried to reason with police. Instead, officers kicked me, pulled my hair and said ‘maar saali ko’. I received bruises and scratches on my arms, and had to get a tetanus shot.”

Shreyasi Biswas, who shared photos of bruised legs on social media, described how she was trying to ensure that the barricades were not broken at the front. She was right at the front when the male police officers started hitting the students. “They got more violent when they noticed a photographer was shooting them.”

An assistant professor alleged they were “caught unawares, and three blows landed on my back”.

In a statement, Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association (JNUTA) president Sonajharia Minz said, “We strongly condemn police brutality on JNU students and teachers who were peacefully marching from JNU to Parliament Street…. In the lathi charge, some teachers and several students were badly injured…”

Clearly, it was not just the journalists who were at the receiving end of police brutality. Unarmed students and teachers were kicked, punched and slapped. The student who was trying to ensure that barricades were not broken was not spared. Neither were teachers. Yet the police did not consider it fit to apologise to them.

Delhi Commission for Women’s Swati Maliwal is right in questioning the nature of the police apology. “What kind of apology is this? If you have to apologise, then you should apologise for your deeds. Now you’re apologising because you’re saying, oh, we have attacked mediapersons and we were about to beat up protesters. I have never heard of a more outlandish statement. Delhi Police should retract their statement and take strict action against those responsible for attacking these girls,” Maliwal has said.

The incident raises another equally pertinent question – would the police have apologised at all  even to journalists had the incident taken place away away from media glare, in a small town or a village?

What we need to discuss is the brutal nature of our law enforcement agency, the easy leverage of strong-handed methods used to deal with protests and protesters. Sham apologies are a poor substitute for such a crucial discussion.