New Delhi, Jan. 23: The usually reviled Delhi police are receiving adulation from unexpected quarters, but the “image-changer” is hiding behind a muffler made famous by his boss.
Praise for the police force has come from the unlikeliest sources — women’s rights activists, civil liberty groups, academicians, artists, filmmakers and common people.
All because Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti chose to order the police to raid private homes on suspicion of illicit activities and was not obliged. This was one of the incidents that prompted chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to stage the dharna that was called off yesterday in a public relations disaster for the Aam Aadmi Party.
Bharti has not stepped forward to take credit for what should rank as a public relations coup for the police. Identified by an African woman as one of the intruders who barged into her house to launch a midnight raid, Bharti is expected to be served notice by the police to record his statement. The Congress is seeking the removal of the law minister.
Yesterday, Bharti used Kejriwal’s signature muffler to hide his face while entering the Delhi secretariat. In his effort to dodge reporters, Bharti skipped the lift reserved for ministers and used another one to reach his office on the seventh floor. Today evening, the AAP ruled out any action against Bharti.
The police are enjoying the attention as long as it lasts, but they are not getting carried away. “Hamare shakal pe likha hai 24x7. You know what that means? We are open to abuse 24x7,” said a policeman, who had been on duty at the protest site yesterday.
For a change, other things are also being written, howsoever fleeting such a sentiment may be.
An open letter to Kejriwal from nine women’s rights groups said: “It is a great disservice to women’s rights to penalise police officers who refuse to act in accordance with inflamed prejudices of the public or political leaders. And it is even more dangerous to allow private individuals or even ministers to take the law into their own hands and subject already vulnerable sections like women to further harassment. This was also a clear case of racial profiling against foreign citizensÖ.
“We urge you to immediately condemn the role of and take appropriate action against Shri Somnath Bharti and registration of cases against those responsible under relevant sections of the IPC and CrPC.”
The letter was sent by representatives of organisations such as the Jagmati Sangwan, All India Democratic Women’s Association, National Federation of Indian Women, All India Progressive Women’s Association and the Young Women’s Christian Association. The organisations were at the forefront of the backlash against the December 16 gang-rape when the police’s image was at its nadir.
The letter added: “We also demand that you drop the insistence on suspending the Malviya Nagar SHO.” The SHO has been sent on leave as part of the face-saver that was seized upon by Kejriwal to call off the dharna.
Another letter from a group of civil rights activists to the chief minister said: “According to the Africans and their Indian friends, the Malviya Nagar SHO Vijay Pal had become more sensitive in his dealings with the African community, and acted to protect the African women on the night of the raid. This SHO has been penalised — for failing to obey the orders of the minister who expected him to indiscriminately raid the homes of all people of African nationalities.”
“This sends a dangerous message to the police — that if they uphold democratic rights of vulnerable individuals or groups as mandated by the Constitution, instead of succumbing to political pressure and the sentiments of an inflamed crowd, they will be penalised,” the letter added.
Veterans are taking note of the change of tone but are not harbouring any illusions. “It is good for the force that the rights group and the general public are appreciating the police for what they have done, but this admiration will be short-lived.
“The psyche of the police force was that — ‘whatever we do, we will never be appreciated’. They have become impervious to criticism. The bane of Delhi police is that they are given directions by multiple authorities, but no one takes responsibility for them. The perception of the police would change only if they improve their performance,” said Ved Marwah, a former Delhi police commissioner.
Marwah said that initially he, too, was drawn to the AAP but his thought now was that it was setting dangerous precedents. “What the AAP wants is disciplinary control of Delhi police without any accountability. This is what even Sheila Dixit (the former chief minister) wanted.”
A senior police officer said he felt good but hastened to add that he was not sure how long it would last. “Rarely has any rights commission taken up the cause of policemen. During the December 16 protests, we were insulted, abused and even hit by people who are our children’s age. I have spent more than a decade and a half in the force and it is really a thankless job. Today, I feel good, although I don’t know how long it will last,” said the officer who did not want to be named because he is still serving.
Amod Kanth, a rights activist and a former special commissioner of Delhi police, said the decision by the lieutenant governor to send two police officers on leave was also wrong.
“I was there (at the Khirke extension in Malviya Nagar where the minister confronted the police) and the policemen were not at fault at all. They, in fact, protected the women. Even if the leave is symbolic, it is wrong. No one is above the law, and the police official on the spot did a very difficult job of stopping Bharti, especially when he was accompanied by a mob,” said Kanth, whose NGO Prayas runs an intervention centre at Khirke.