It all started over who had rights to a particular parking spot which escalated into a free-for-all epidemic of mob violence between law and order with lawyers setting fire to police vans and policemen ransacking lawyers’ chambers in the Union Capital a fortnight back. Resulting in three lawyers shot and many policemen injured followed by an unprecedented 11-hour mass protest by the guardians of order and an indefinite strike by the custodians of law. A classic case of an ego battle of Tu Kaun Main Khamkha!
Undeniably the escalating tension between the two pillars of our criminal justice system has raised alarm bells in the country as it underscores we are an uncivilized society with scant respect for the rule of law. Of how both sides can commit a vile act, intimidate each other, exploit their positions and attempt to camouflage their transgressions thereby taking the system for granted and brazenly subverting it.
The face-off which reverberated in Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Chandigarh not only highlights the love-hate relationship between lawyers and police with a long history of clashes but also brings to the fore old fissures of an unspoken contest to maintain supremacy in their dealings. Supposed to work in close coordination with each other for prosecution of offences, their relationship suffers from inherent dislikes.
At one end lawyers have become a law unto themselves who don’t think twice before attacking a police officer on duty with impunity at court complexes in full public view whatever the provocation. At the other, security personnel who symbolize Governmental authority take lawyers to task outside, sending a clear message that they are powerful with high connections, can do whatever they want and get away with it. Let the aam aadmi languish in jails awaiting justice for years.
Questionably, does a section of society sit comfortably above the law? What becomes of those upholding the law? If policemen can be blatantly assaulted and the perpetrating lawyers not brought to justice, then why would anyone want to follow laws? Certainly, it decreases respect of law amongst citizens and exposes law upholders having feet of clay who are only interested in saving their skins and protecting their jobs. The cliché that there are no poor troops, only poor generals rings home tellingly.
Worse, the issue is further complicated by the notoriety of both lawyers and policemen who equally misuse their powers to harass the aam aadmi. Indeed, there are umpteen instances of both sides misbehaving with those belonging to the poor and marginalised sections of society and people who have no access to higher echelons. Today, they are getting a taste of their own medicine.
Undeniably incidents like these are portents of that sinking feeling that something is seriously wrong with our system as nothing justifies police-lawyers’ violent clashes. While policemen aver that instead of their uniform being viewed with respect as upholders of law, they have come to symbolise an easy punching bag which goons in black coats and citizens kick around and walk on merrily.
Clearly, this fracas has brought several important issues to the fore. One, a chain is as strong as its weakest link. The justice system in the country depends on both lawyers and policemen for efficient functioning. Lawyers’ frequent strikes and tantrums paralyze the judiciary resultant in high pendency of cases, while poor quality of investigation and corruption in the police close the door to justice.
Moreover, both lawyers and police have by and large poor capabilities. While policemen are not provided sufficient funds to equip themselves, are poorly paid having long duty hours, insufficient vehicles and arms. Consequently, they have to rely on brute force to extract confessions to solve crimes.
Appallingly, while crime per lakh people has increased by 28% from 2005 to 2015, expenditure on police accounts for only 3% of Central and State Government budgets. Add to this, State police forces had 24% (5.5 lakhs) vacancies and Central forces 7% in January 2016, severe weaponry and vehicles shortage and only 14% funds for modernisation of infrastructure used by States.
It is pointless to argue that the State has withered away. Shockingly, the police still functions according to the Police Act of 1861. This provides it with a negative role. Notably, umpteenth number of Commissions have been set-up over the years, from the Dharma Vira Commission down Julio Riberio Committee, Soli Sorabjee Commission and the Padmanabiah panel and all have drawn the same conclusions —- change the mindset of the force, improve the public interface and image and prevent politicization, criminalization and corruption in the police. The result: zilch.
Importantly, the supremacy of the Rule of Law should be clearly spelt out and the police guided by the Law having the legal option to disregard all instructions running contrary to that. Alongside, the administration and superintendence of the force should remain exclusively under professional police supervisors wherein it should be highlighted that the vardi exists for the service of the citizens.
Simultaneously, the protests boosted by social media points to a larger crisis in the justice system where reforms are long due. After all, justice is a sovereign function of the State. Lawyers are often confident about the legal protection available to them as citizens. They are also better placed to get judicial protection against coercive action by the police.
However, lawyers need to realize they are sentinels of justice which separates rights, freedoms and protection and the rule of law from chaos and anarchy. A bulwark against excesses or injustices carried out against the common man from the misuse of power by the Government or corporate sector.
Hence, it makes the job of the police even more difficult to take action against lawyers unlike other pressure groups as there is a close relationship between the Bar and Bench. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the bar associations and senior police officers to maintain close cooperation.
True, lawyers and police do not enjoy a savoury reputation in the eyes of the people. Yet both are important pivots of the criminal justice system. Thus, it does not behove members of both fraternities to indulge in or display conduct that lowers their own standing in the eyes of the people who are the mainstay of the entire system.
While lawyers and police officers may or may not be considered great men yet, their conduct must be exemplary in public and must inspire confidence in people. Our leaders and judiciary better pay heed before it is too late. The bottom line is clear. When push comes to a shove there is no easy option. Tough times call for tough action.
Undeniably, the current crisis is an opportunity to push for long-standing police and judicial reforms. It is imperative we get our priorities right with the citizens hooting for answerability and accountability from the pillars of law and order. The goal should be to reinforce the Rule of Law and uphold the Iqbal of the State.
As Herman Goldstein succinctly said: “The strength of democracy and quality of life enjoyed by citizens is determined by the criminal justice system to discharge duties honourably.” A time to ponder and introspect: Kiska kanoon aur kiska danda? Remember, nobody claps with one hand!