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Any young person who has thought of joining the bureaucracy knows that there is an undeclared hierarchy amongst the services. The Indian Foreign Service and the Indian Administrative Service are at the top of the pecking order, followed by the police service. This hierarchy, although not overtly, prevails in the way the IAS and the IPS officers work and perceive themselves. This might be one of the factors involved in the battle now raging between a district magistrate and an IPS officer. Can a police officer arrest a member of the IAS? At one level, the answer to this question may appear to be very simple. No one is above the law, so anyone is liable to be arrested and interrogated if there is enough evidence against him. The law is blind, so it is not concerned about the position or status of a person. The law is concerned with process, evidence and punishment. In real life, matters are not that uncomplicated. There are some filters or restraints that police officers have to keep in mind as they go about their job of maintaining law and order. One such constraint is the need to take the necessary permission before proceeding against a superior officer or person. Without these filters the entire system would collapse.

A simple application of the principle, everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, could have disastrous implications. Pushed to its logical extreme, the principle could enable a police officer to arrest a secretary of the government or even a minister. It could be argued that police officers do possess such a right but no sensible police officer exercises it. But such an argument begs the question: should police officers have such a right? This is indeed a grey area. Giving a police officer such a right creates the danger of a police officer behaving, on the basis of thin evidence and allegations, like a bull in a china shop against a public servant. Yet placing bureaucrats and ministers beyond the reach of the law-enforcing agencies provides them with the licence to perpetrate misdeeds, as many of them do in this country. Like many such matters, a verdict on this contentious issue cannot be cast in stone. A space has to be left for human discretion and good sense. This perspective has to be borne in mind before a turf war paralyses the administrative system and the police establishment. Mandarins should not see themselves as being too superior, and police officers should use their powers of arrest with discretion.