State police-Centre confrontation can have dangerous fallout; defuse crisis

Shankar Roychowdhury

The actual schedule has not been announced yet, but as the general election of 2019 draws closer, India’s polity and political class appear to be regressing further into what can only be described as a state of collective hydrophobia. Nothing else can really explain the sheer frenzy of the intensely personalised, venomously vituperative political dogfights between the government and the Opposition parties lighting up television screens on every channel and blaring forth in every waking moment throughout the country. Any bewildered and intensely irritated citizen can be forgiven for demanding to know: “What is going on here?”
The intense friction between the Opposition parties and the ruling side on all conceivable issues has quickly built up a head of steam, and generated enough ill-will and political tension all around to bring the confrontation to a head, which has the potential to finally explode into the ultimate internal security nightmare, a physical faceoff between the state and Central police and investigative agencies, each acting under the instructions of their own political masters.
In Kolkata, just such a drama was almost played out in real life around the drab and mildewed complexes of the Nizam’s Palace and the CGO Complex in Salt Lake, which between them house the offices of several Central government organisations and agencies based in West Bengal, including the branch office of the Central Bureau of Investigation. Protection and security cover is provided at these places by the state government concerned, in this case West Bengal, through state and metropolitan police forces. There is a diffused perception amongst the public that in an environment of steady deterioration of Centre-state relations, these complexes have come to be regarded in the perception of the ruling classes almost as “enemy enclaves” on the autonomous soil of West Bengal. With the approach of elections in 2019, such perceptions can be extremely dangerous for national security in a border state.
As the elections loom, the state government, apparently in a fit of pique, took the unheard-of step of abruptly withdrawing its police deployment from these premises. Political rivalry and personal civilities between the Prime Minister and the state chief minister sharply deteriorated to flashpoint levels after back-to-back political rallies were held in North Bengal organised by the cadres of the political parties they respectively lead. The two leaders, both formidable political personalities in their own right, and owning their own turf, have been on a collision course over a long time.
The “causus belli” of this latest West Bengal vs Centre confrontation was a “raid” by the CBI on the official residence of Kolkata’s commissioner of police, while conducting an investigation into the Saradha “chit fund” ponzi scheme, which had claimed the entire savings (and in some cases by suicide, the lives) of many desperately poor people, mostly residents of West Bengal, as well as the Narada sting operation. In this instance, Central Reserve Police forces had to perforce be rushed to Nizam’s Palace as well as CGO complexes to take over the responsibility for their security. To the open-mouthed audiences devouring this high-tension “action drama” on their television screens, the CBI “raid” on the official residence of the commissioner of police looked almost like some of the scenes from a popular war thriller which had recently played to packed theatres across the country.
The Saradha-Narada cases are well known now, though interesting details continue to be regurgitated in the media as titillating titbits. In the currently tangled political scene, the press and media reports on the investigations underweigh into the Saradha/Narada ponzi scheme carry a warning parable. Officers of the Indian Police Service (IPS) will sometimes find themselves in actively adversarial roles with their own counterparts when called upon to work with the political principles of opposing ideologies. The media too must be restrained and not harshly confrontational in their pronouncements.
“Raid” conjures up visions of the Indian Army Special Forces slithering down from darkened helicopters in a hunter-killer mission on terrorist bases across the Line of Control in Kashmir. The police do not “raid” the official residence of a commissioner of police of a major metropolis, who would be a senior member of the Indian Police Service. Service courtesies and professional civilities have to be mutually maintained, not coarsened by the political discourse and activities of their political principals. The issue at hand is a photograph of a police commissioner of a major metropolis, who is also responsible for the overall security of the chief minister, accompanying his principal when the latter chooses to sit on a “dharna”. The minister is a political creature, the police commissioner is an IPS officer bound by the regulations and discipline of the service. The two are certainly poles apart. It is a dilemma no police officer should find himself or herself in. Police personnel must preserve the izzat of their uniform. Misuse, mistreatment or prolonged neglect of police personnel have resulted in a series of major cases of collective insubordination and disciplinary breakdowns, which ultimately required armed intervention by paramilitary reinforcements, or in some cases, even the Army. This happened repeatedly in the past era of coalition governments after the electoral rout of Indira Gandhi. In 1979, under the first Janata Party government of Morarji Desai, the Army had to be called out repeatedly to put down disturbances in the CRPF and CISF camps at Jharoda Kalan in Haryana, and Bokaro in Jharkhand. At Bokaro, 26 mutineers had been killed after an Army major was killed when he went forward under a flag of truce to negotiate with mutinous CISF personnel. Governments at the Centre and the states must always contain and defuse any situation where the end result might lead to fratricide between its own Army, paramilitary and police forces.