On Friday morning, a police team from Aam Aadmi Party-ruled Punjab arrested Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga from his home in New Delhi. Bagga was taken into custody after a complaint was filed in Punjab about him making provocative statements about Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Aam Aadmi Party-ruled Delhi.

The sequence of events around Bagga’s arrest is strikingly similar to another episode barely a fortnight ago. On April 20, the police from BJP-ruled Assam landed up in BJP-ruled Gujarat’s Banaskantha district to arrest Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani, who rose to prominence as a Dalit activist before he was elected to the state assembly as an Independent legislator who supports the Congress. In this case, a BJP leader from Assam had taken offence to a tweet by Mevani about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and filed a police complaint.

The Assam police, as evident in their cross-country dash to Gujarat, were only too happy to oblige.

Bending over backwards

The police in India have never been quite known for their independence. Of late, though, they seem to have been reduced to acting like handmaidens of political parties.

Consider, for instance, what followed Bagga’s arrest. The Delhi police, which reports to the BJP-controlled Union home ministry, pressed charges of kidnapping and robbery against their Punjab counterparts. As Punjab police vehicles carrying Bagga were returning from Delhi through BJP-ruled Haryana, they were intercepted by the Haryana police and detained.

If the Punjab police had overstepped the bounds of propriety, the Delhi and Haryana police went further in an apparent bid to please their political bosses.

Indeed, the BJP may now be crying hoarse over the Aam Aadmi Party-controlled Punjab police’s highhandedness, but the police forces in states it administers have been no less prone to being misused to score political points.

The Assam police’s conduct during the Mevani episode stands out as being particularly egregious. Not only did senior police officials travel all the way to Gujarat on a rather flimsy and politically-motivated complaint, they applied, among other charges, provisions of the Information Technology Act that had been struck down by the court several years ago.

The vindictiveness was again on stark display when police from another district in the state rearrested Mevani moments after he was granted bail in the original case. The charges this time: of outraging the modesty of a female police official while in custody.

It finally took a strong rap on the knuckles by a district court for Mevani to be finally released, as the court dismissed the charges as being “fabricated”.

This was no isolated case. There are several other instances of the police in states controlled by the BJP stepping out of their area of jurisdiction to arrest critics of the dispensation. In February 2021, the Delhi police arrested a 21-year-old climate activist, Disha Ravi, from Bengaluru and charged her with sedition for helping rally online support for the farmers’ stir against three hastily-passed legislations that were later withdrawn.

In 2019, the Delhi police arrested a YouTuber from Madhya Pradesh’s Bhopal, then governed by the Congress, for allegedly posting a video criticisng Modi.

More recently, in August 2021, the Uttar Pradesh police went all the way to Tamil Nadu to arrest a 61-year-old man. His offence: criticising the Union government and Modi.

Across the political spectrum

Yet, by no means are only BJP governments guilty of using the police to settle political scores. The police in Maharashtra have been a key player in the acrimonious political slugfest between the BJP and the parties that run the state: the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress. For every raid by the central agencies on the leaders of the state’s ruling alliance, the state police have responded by acting against BJP politicians and their aides.

In fact, it is from Maharashtra that the phenomenon of using law-enforcing agencies to show political opponents their place appears to have gained a new momentum in recent times.

Regardless of the political party behind it, weaponising the police for political ends is a dangerous trend for Indian democracy. Using the police to arrest political opponents from other states on flimsy grounds undermines the federal structure of the country and makes India seem more like a banana republic than a mature democracy.

It also augurs badly for the image of the Indian police. It will further diminish the force’s already-floundering reputation as a neutral and professional law-enforcement agency. It is time senior police officials, across states, stood up to the whimsical wishes of politicians. They owe it to the Constitution they have been appointed to defend.