The way Arup Patnaik, the Commissioner of Police of Mumbai, handled a Muslim mob that went on a rampage at the Azad Maidan in Mumbai on August 11,2012, has come in for mixed comments. The mob had been demonstrating against the recent anti-Muslim violence in the Rakhine State of Myanmar and India’s Assam State.
2. Some, including me, have praised Patnaik for bringing the situation quickly under control and for preventing its degenerating into widespread communal riots. Others, including some pro-Hindutva organisations, have criticised him for not dealing with the mob more forcefully and for not preventing it from widespread vandalising, including at a monument erected in homage to the Unknown Indian Soldier.
3. I found it difficult to believe Patnaik when he told Barkha Dutt of NDTV in her The Buck Stops Here Show on the night of August 21 that there were no political instructions and that riot control in general is rarely influenced by directions from the political leadership.
4.In the few years that I had spent as an IPS officer in Madhya Pradesh between 1962 and 1967, I had handled many instances of violent agitation by industrial workers at Kymore and Bhilai and violent anti-Muslim agitations by Hindu refugees from Pakistan at Katni. Those were the days when the Congress was in power at New Delhi and in Madhya Pradesh.
5.There used to be a continuous flow of directions from the Congress leadership as to how to handle the situation. These directions did not come directly to the field police officers, but through the Chief Secretary and the Inspector-General of Police. If the instructions came directly from the political leadership, one could have said ‘no” to any of them considered incorrect, but when they came as orders of the Chief Secretary and the IGP one had to comply with them in the interest of discipline.
6.Things have much worsened since then and there is much greater interference in police working by the political leadership now than there was when I was a police officer in the field. The assertions of Patnaik that there were no political directions do not, therefore, carry conviction.
7. After having stated that, I do feel that Patnaik deserves credit for bringing the situation quickly under control and for preventing over-reaction by his force in the face of the rampaging Muslim mobs. Not infrequently, situations get out of control not because of the violent mobs, but because of over-reaction by the police in dealing with the mobs and disproportionate use of force by the police.
8. When Patnaik reached the spot after the mobs had gone on rampage, his first reflex was to ensure that his force did not add to the heat of the riots by losing its cool and over-reacting. If Patnaik had not kept its force under control, there might have been many more fatalities resulting in a serious aggravation of the situation. In literally forcing the policemen to keep their cool and not to overact, Patnaik had acted according to his professional instincts, the training that he had received as a young officer and his long years of experience in dealing with such situations. Let us give him the credit for the way he exercised his leadership during those critical moments when the riots could have spread to many parts of Mumbai.
9. Generally political directions come before a riot and thereafter and not during a riot. I am prepared to believe that his permitting the Muslims to hold a protest meeting must have been on the directions of the political leadership or in consultation with it. I won’t be surprised if instructions continue to come from the political leadership as to what legal action he should take against the Muslims who indulged in acts of violence and vandalising.
10. It is to be expected that, keeping in view the 2014 elections, the political leadership will try to prevent the law from taking its course against the Muslim rioters. There will be political pressure on Patnaik to let bygones be bygones and not to pursue the cases against the rioters vigorously. From the way Patnaik denied, in response to questions from Barkha, that there were many instances of the molesting of women members of the Police by the mob I got the impression that he is already under pressure not to be too severe in his follow-up legal action.
11.If he resists the pressure, he may be transferred out. If he succumbs, he might lose some of the credit that he earned from many of us for the way he handled the riots. The real mettle of a police officer comes out not only during a riot, but equally thereafter in taking legal action disregarding political pressure against those who rioted.
12. We saw the best of Patnaik from the way he handled a volatile situation. Will we see the best of him again from the way he pursues the cases against the rioters? One has to keep one’s fingers crossed. ( 22-8-12)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter @SORBONNE75)