regular-article-logo Wednesday, 22 May 2024

Exceptional act

Some argue that the cops wearing Hindu attire is nothing more than a gimmick initiated by senior police officers who want to please their current political masters during the election season

Sushant Singh Published 23.04.24, 05:30 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. Sourced by the Telegraph.

Like Ernest Hemingway’s bankruptcy, the ruin of the Uttar Pradesh Police happened “gradually, then suddenly.” The latest sign of the sudden and sharp collapse was the deployment of uniformed members of the state police in Hindu priestly attire in the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. The eight policemen posted inside the temple are in red dhoti-kurta, sporting a white gamchha printed with images of the kalash and the swastika. They have rudraksh malas around their necks and tilaks on their forehead. Their four female colleagues are in orange salwar-kurta and dupattas printed with salutations to Shiva.

This has to be a first in India’s history, and perhaps a first in a modern, democratic republic anywhere in the world. A similar decision to have cops dress like priests, when deployed at the same temple, had to be withdrawn in 2018 after some priests opposed the move. In 2021, in the then Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Karnataka, some police personnel had reported for duty in Bijapur and Udupi wearing saffron clothes as part of the Vijaya Dashami celebrations. These were met with strong protests. This time, the move is continuing. Uniformed men and women, committed to upholding the rule of law in accordance with their loyalty to a secular Constitution, donning the garb of the majority religion while on policing duty — and flaunting it — raise many uncomfortable questions.


There is only one situation in which cops on duty can be attired in such religious robes to merge with the larger public. That is when they are on intelligence-gathering duties, even if not fully undercover, so as to not attract attention while keeping an eye on any developing threat. That is not the case here. The state police are flaunting the move as a kind of a pathbreaking enterprise in modern policing, where cops deployed inside a temple for crowd management have shed their khaki uniforms for red and saffron and don­ned the tilak and rudraksh to look like priests. Officially, the excuse is that this will make the devotees visiting the Hindu shrine feel more comfortable.

The argument condemns the police uniform as unsuitable for public interaction. If that be so, the police should dispense with the uniform everywhere. Moreover, it is the visible authority of the uniform that deters the crowds from misbehaving and follow the orders. The new religious garb, similar to the one worn by many Hindu volunteers or devotees inside the temple, has a Hindu imprint but does not bear the authority of the law. Without easy identification by the public, this new dress belittles the respect for the cops and could lead to unpleasant situations in the premises. Eventually, the law-enforcers will be forced to wear some other markers to identify themselves as members of the police force. If not, it will end up reducing the authority of the State and the respect for the uniform.

Prima facie, the move seems illegal as it violates the rules for the police uniform. Unless these rules are modified by the state government and notified, such a decision cannot be taken at the local level. That could have been challenged in the courts, although critics allege that some of the recent decisions by the Allahabad High Court nip the hopes of progressive redressal. In an ideal situation, the Supreme Court would have taken note of this move suo moto, based on the media reports, and taken the erring authorities to task.

The move is blatantly unconstitutional. It is not that the authorities have decided to have every policeman and policewoman placed inside a Muslim, Christian or Sikh place of religious worship don the garb of the priests of those faiths. To do it only for the majority religion fails every single test of secularism, a fundamental basis of independent India. The police are in the service of the Indian Constitution, not of the Hindu religion. The cops are free to practise their religion in their private capacity but not when in uniform. Donning the majority religion’s garb is an exceptional act. It is an exceptional act of defying the letter and the spirit of India’s Constitution.

At the time of Independence, India chose not to be a Hindu Pakistan. The Indian State is not meant to discriminate between Indians on the basis of religion, caste, race, creed, colour, language, eating habits or dress. The Church and the State are separate here. Secularism is embodied in the letter and the spirit of the Indian Constitution. Pakistan took a different path, and it soon had the military proclaiming that it was meant to defend the ideological frontiers of the Islamic republic. In 2011, we saw the Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, being shot dead by the policeman deputed for his security because the murderer was led to believe that Taseer had supported blasphemy. After he was hanged, the burial place of the assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, has become a major shrine in Islamabad.

When States identify themselves with their majority religions and promote theocracy over modern values, they often end up in a dark place. The fate of our western neighbour serves as a warning, but our current rulers seem hell-bent on traversing down that path. From the prime minister participating in his official capacity in religious ceremonies of only the majority religion to the promulgation of new laws like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the ruling dispensation in New Delhi has walked down that path. The intention was made clear after the BJP made Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu priest who wears saffron robes, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017. Now the state police have followed suit.

Some argue that the cops wearing Hindu attire is nothing more than a gimmick initiated by senior police officers who want to please their current political masters during the election season. However, it does not change the fact that Varanasi is no ordinary city, both religiously and politically. Kashi holds great significance for the conservative followers of Hindu religion; it is also the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Anything that happens in Varanasi has great significance and a resonance that goes beyond the town. When the temple town becomes the site of the fusion of the State with the majority religion, the country ought to be concerned. Saffron is the preserve of the temple, devotees and the Hindu religion. In a constitutional republic, it cannot be allowed to supersede the khaki, which signifies professionalism, discipline, the ethos of the police and the primacy of the State.

Sushant Singh is Lecturer,Yale University

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