Yesterday’s incident of a Kolkata Police sub-inspector’s murder in uniform in broad daylight, surrounded by his colleagues in the middle of a chaotic mob, was a painful sight.
The white uniform of Kolkata Police is known all over India. The sight of a tall traffic sergeant or inspector in white uniform at a busy street crossing inspires confidence and is the visual the citizens or visitors carry in their mind of our police force.
Different forces are known for their various special capabilities. Kolkata Police has always been known for its expertise in handling huge crowds and law-and-order situations. To me, with the sight of the injured officer falling, the feeling was of that image and reputation tumbling down.
Across the city, among police personnel or members of the public, this incident has thrown up a lot of questions.
It was shocking that this highly visible boy wearing a red-coloured shirt wielding a revolver ran a distance through the middle of the road, not even trying to hide his weapon in any way.
Surprisingly, no policeman tried to interrupt him. And then he turned, ran a few steps and fired at such close quarters that he could not have missed. The officer fell and then lay still. Yet no reaction. Only a few constables ran to him and started carrying him to a nearby van. But no other immediate police action.
Throughout the day, the TV channels only showed this scene at the spot and the scene at the house of the bereaved. We saw nothing of senior officers reaching the spot, making enquiries as to how this could happen or whether this could have been avoided. Ideally, the seniormost officers should have been there within half-an-hour.
When Vinod Mehta was missing for quite some time (in 1984), the commissioner of police and at least 10 DCs were there at the spot, searching for him.
This brings to the fore the question of leadership failure in the system. The junior officers look up to their seniors at these moments or even beforehand for guidance and protection. If they are not sure that their actions will be supported or they will be protected, they feel helpless and unsure.
The daily show can be run easily by the field-level officers like inspectors and sub-inspectors. The leadership is required to make its presence felt, mainly, in these crisis situations. In fact its primary role is handling such situations. On this day, however, such leadership was highly conspicuous by its absence.
They were rather huddled for hours at the hospital, in the company of political leaders, totally unnecessary as there was no need to persuade the doctors to do their best to save the patient any more.
The media reports also hint that the junior officers present at the spot spoke of directions to not interfere or use firearms under any circumstances. If true, this is awful.
Every action that a policeman takes is bordering on a thin legal line. Every arrest is wrongful restraint, every raid into somebody’s premises is wrongful trespass, and every death by firing is murder unless procedurally justified.
Every time he has to justify his actions, often through enquiries. His protection is that he is on the right side of the law and has taken the action in the discharge of his duties, as empowered by the laws of the land.
The same laws and departmental regulations bind him to ‘use minimum necessary force’. But, he is allowed to ‘use force’. No executive fiat can take away that authority, if the situation warrants it.
Obviously, no government wants to handle the public outcry created by ‘police firing and resultant deaths’.
However, to tell a force not to use arms ‘under any circumstances’ is to tie their hands behind their back and push them into troubled waters.
Police usually dominate miscreants not by genuine use of force but by the threat of such use, in proportion to the violence. If that threat is taken away, the criminals come to stop fearing police authority. To him that revolver then becomes a piece of metal junk.
I hope, and I am sure most of my erstwhile colleagues will agree, that the earliest this situation is corrected the better it will be for public confidence in police and more importantly police confidence in themselves.
Otherwise, even uglier incidents in future cannot be obviated.