Commissions and committees of inquiry are routinely set up in India, with few ever submitting reports in any time frame of relevance. Such ‘inquiries’ are often initiated to defuse situations, rather than to ascertain the truth or to rectify matters. The inquiry committees are instruments of convenience; they are not expected to become sources of discomfort. The Prakash Singh Committee, which inquired into the incidents of violence in Haryana, is an unprecedented exception.
Haryana witnessed widespread disturbances across the state in February this year, on the issue of reservations in jobs for the Jat community. Railway lines, highways and other roads were blocked, private and public property was damaged, lives were lost, widespread arson took place and clashes between communities were reported. There was no semblance of administration in the state for several days.
Through an order issued by the home department on February 25, 2016, the government of Haryana appointed Prakash Singh, a retired IPS officer, to enquire into the acts of commission and omission by the civil and police officers during the agitation from February 7-22. Two serving officers of the state government were to assist him, the order said, one drawn from the IAS and one from the IPS. He was given 45 days to complete his inquiry. He was also mandated to examine systemic issues and suggest improvements to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, and was given an additional one month to complete the task.
Through another order on March 3, the government appointed additional chief secretary Vijai Vardhan of the IAS and director general of police K.P. Singh of the IPS as members of the committee.
Singh was extremely well-suited for the task of leading the inquiry committee. He is former director general of police in Uttar Pradesh and former director general of the Border Security Force. He has been an indefatigable crusader for police reform and his name is synonymous with professionalism. One of the most respected figures in the police fraternity, Singh is known for his no-nonsense approach and forthright manner.
Singh confided to a closed group that “The Haryana inquiry was the most gruelling I have ever done in my life. Touring eight districts, visiting more than hundred scenes of crime, hearing more than 2,000 people, about 200 officers, and so on. No one has been spared.” In the preface to the report, he said that it was “a painstaking exercise in the course of which the committee heard 2,217 persons drawn from different walks of life. About 400 of them gave written statements also. The committee also interacted with about 200 officers of the affected districts. More than 100 video films of shots taken during the agitation were received by the committee. All this evidence was carefully evaluated.”
An exhaustive report
The committee submitted its report to the government of Haryana on May 13, a mere 71 days after it was constituted. The ‘Prakash Singh Committee Report on Role of Officers of Civil Administration and Police During the Jat Reservation Agitation (Feb. 7 – 22, 2016)’ is a two-parter; volume I is the main report, while volume II pertains to the role of the intelligence. Volume II remains classified, but the main report has been widely circulated.
So far, the Haryana government has neither accepted the report nor officially made it public.
By any standards, the 450-page report is an impressive body of work. The body runs into 195 pages, while the annexure makes up the remaining 250-odd pages. The report outlines the methodology adopted by the committee and gives a historical background of the agitation, the manner in which different parties fuelled sentiments and an overview of the reservation issue. Detailed district-wise assessments of the eight badly affected districts have been documented. The roles of the state police, the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and the army have been examined. The annexure contains details of incidents, instances of the use of force, submissions to the committee, district-wise damage to public, private and police property, reports of officers and details of other relevant information.
During the riots, unruly mobs indulged in mass violence, arson, loot and damage to public and private property. Twenty rioters and ten others were killed, while 208 persons (including 70 security personnel) were injured. More than 1,500 criminal cases were registered, mainly of theft, arson, mischief and robbery. Four cases of murder have also been filed.
The report observes that there was largescale damage to private property. About 2,000 shops were set ablaze and 371 vehicles were damaged or set on fire. There was arson in 30 schools and colleges. Seventy-five houses and more than 50 hotels and wedding venues were set on fire, 23 petrol pumps were damaged and 15 religious institutions vandalised. Government property was extensively damaged. In all, there were 115 incidents during which 466 movable properties and 64 immovable properties were looted, set ablaze or ransacked. There was environmental damage on a huge scale. The agitators cut 7,232 trees to block roads and later stole most of the wood.
The rioters did not spare police property either. Twenty nine police stations and posts were set ablaze or damaged; about 45 public vehicles were burnt or vandalised. More than 160 vehicles kept in police stations as case property were damaged. Close to 170 firearms of the police or in police custody were looted, along with substantial quantities of ammunition.
Detailed analysis of the developments in each district, tabulation of the major incidents, and the role and conduct of individual officers have been set forth in the report. This narration, repetitive in parts, is a meticulous compilation that inexorably builds up to the conclusions that have been recorded in the direct manner that Singh is known for.
Failure of governance
In a no-nonsense manner, the report states that the agitation presented “a horrific picture – a scenario of lawlessness where lives were lost, government and private property was destroyed or damaged on a large scale and even the police stations and outposts were ransacked”. Further, in a damning indictment about the role of the state police, the report observes, “The state could not possibly complain of shortage of manpower. What was lacking was the will to act.”
The findings are best summed up in the words of the committee: “At the state-level, suffice it to say that the picture was very dismal and showed deplorable lack of leadership at different levels. Officers at the district level, barring a few honourable exceptions, just did not rise to the occasion. They were either unequal to the daunting situation they faced or they could not mobilise the full strength of the officers and men under their command, some of whom either went missing or deserted their duties. There was also a category of officers and men who, influenced by caste considerations, did not enforce the writ of law and allowed the rioters to have a free run. Most unfortunately, there were also some instances when the officers/men are suspected to have abetted the rioters.”
The ‘concluding observations’ put down in the report should be read carefully to appreciate the extent to which the so-called steel frame has crumbled. This chapter clinically examines the extent of damage caused by the disturbances, the administrative paralysis and hesitation to use force to maintain public order, the role of the army, caste bias of officers and the consequent polarisation of communities. The recommendations – broadly indicative in nature – concern the police, deployment of the CAPF, the fire brigade, civil servants, ensuring free movement on highways and railways, and the state’s liability for damages.
Singh has been faithful to the terms of reference of the committee and confined his report to “the acts of omission and commission on part of all officers and officials of both police and civil administration”. Nonetheless, every aspect of the civil administration is so intertwined with the political dispensation that even where Singh has refrained from passing judgment, any lay reader will not fail to recognise the political underpinnings of most developments. The references to the political dimensions of many issues in more than passing terms by several dramatis personae are an outright indictment of the culture of subservience that has evolved in the state over the years and across the political spectrum.
The report clearly brings out that, barring a few exceptions, there was a total failure of governance. Officers who should have shown responsibility and leadership abdicated their duties: apparently they have become completely used to first trying to gauge what would please their political masters. In situations clearly demanding the use of force against lawbreakers, law enforcers kept awaiting political intervention or negotiations and succumbed to either explicit oral instructions or a perceived preference of the political leadership to avoid the use of force.
As the report observes, “It appears that, over the years, the former chief ministers with a view to concentrating powers in their own office eroded the authority of certain institutions. The office of the chief secretary in the state does not command the power or enjoy the prestige it does in most of the states. The home department also plays a somewhat subsidiary role in matters relating to law and order.”
Maintenance of public order is a sovereign function of the state and the rot cannot be allowed to set in so deep that the local administration becomes comatose in times of a crisis. The report brings out that, unfortunately, local and district officers have got used to awaiting their political masters’ directions – even in situations that clearly require immediate action.
Discrediting the report and Singh
When the committee started its work, apprehensions arose that the inquiry might indeed be finished in the stipulated time frame. Certain quarters felt that it would pay to discredit Singh. An allegation was levelled that he was associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation, as if such an association would make him less objective. Yet another criticism heard was that he was an “upright officer”, the disparaging tone implying that being ‘upright’ is a negative attribute. When briefly the rumour mill whispered that the committee was likely to report lapses of the army as well, at least one so-called ‘defence analyst’ was quick to claim via social media that such misplaced conclusions were only to be expected in view of “Shri Prakash Singh’s well-known antipathy towards the Army!”
The game of passing the buck and mud-slinging seems to have gained ground after the report was submitted. Depending on how the interests of any individual or party were impacted, the report has been rubbished or acclaimed. Those who cannot counter the facts and conclusions of the report have taken recourse in the well known strategy of attacking the author or looking for technicalities. Some of those indicted have been trying to hide behind the fig leaf that the report has not officially been made public by the government of Haryana.
The Congress was quick to term the report as an attempt to “cover up the whole affair”. Congress spokesperson Randip Singh Surjewala said the report “maintains a conspiratorial silence on the suspect role of BJP ministers and leaders”. He said the Congress reiterated its demand for a time-bound investigation by a Supreme Court judge into the violence. Kiran Choudhry, Haryana Congress legislature party leader, subsequently quoted from the report to severely castigate the state government. She said the report “holds a mirror to the inaction and passivity of the state government and nails its oft-repeated claims on good governance”.
Dushyant Singh Chautala, member of parliament (MP) from the Indian National Lok Dal, has expressed anger at the negative references to Jats in the report and demanded that the Haryana government ‘withdraw’ it. People’s Democracy, the CPI(M) mouthpiece, reported that the party’s Haryana state secretariat “has taken exception to the manner in which the total negligent role of the BJP government and its political leadership before and during the Jat reservation violence was not held responsible by the Prakash Singh Committee”. The statement, issued on June 1, questioned how the chief minister could escape accountability, especially when he holds the home portfolio as well.
Anita Yadav, deputy commissioner of Jhajjar and one of the officers who has been criticised in the report, termed it “a bundle of lies”.
BJP MP Raj Kumar Saini, the most visible anti-Jat figure, also condemned the report.
Amusingly, Haryana minister Anil Vij is reported to have said that the report was not “gospel truth” but “informative” and was not binding on the government. “This is a 451-page report and we are studying each paragraph carefully. It is a report, it is not Gita that whatever Prakash Singh wrote, all of it has to be right or that those officers who have been found on the wrong foot are guilty. Maybe, some officers are very good; their past record may be good. So, we will examine things carefully,” Vij said.
What (if anything) happens now?
There is a danger that in the cacophony of political statements and recriminations, the failings of the administrative system identified in the report shall be obscured or indeed altogether forgotten.
The overwhelming conclusion – that the administrative machinery has become so highly politicised that it is rendered incapable of carrying out basic sovereign functions – should not be obfuscated. One could draw cold comfort from the fact that this lamentable state of affairs exists only in Haryana. Unfortunately that is not the case. Similar, if not identical, shortcomings exist in the public administrative machinery in many other states.
Increasingly, in the recent years, politicisation of the administration and erosion in its capacities has been no great secret. The significance of this rediscovery by the Prakash Singh Committee lies in the fact that this inquiry was ordered by the state government, as well as the stark manner in which the report has brought out the collapse of the administrative machinery almost throughout the state – from the lowest level to the highest.
The real danger to national security lies here.
Singh was entrusted a difficult task. Like a true karmayogi, he has done it to the best of his ability and in a manner probably better than anyone else could have achieved in the given time frame.
It is now for the government of Haryana to accept the report and act upon it. If no action is taken on his report, Singh may or may not be disheartened. After all, he is inured to apathy, especially with his frustrating 20-year-long battle on police reform issues.
But Singh does not matter. He is an individual.
Taking action, on the other hand, will not be easy or without discomfort. If the government of Haryana wants to act, Singh has provided more than enough starting points. Superficial action has already been taken or initiated by the state government. But there are many systemic weaknesses identified that require a paradigm shift in public administration. These are difficult actions and any government would be tempted to put such recommendations in cold storage, perhaps even in the trash. This would be extremely unfortunate. Nonetheless, the government of Haryana can well do so; it is their prerogative.
But India as a nation state cannot afford to ignore the Prakash Singh Committee report. If no action is taken, we shouldn’t be surprised if such incidents repeat themselves across the country.
K.C. Verma is a retired police officer. The views expressed are his own.