After the Jharkhand Police booked two Bharatiya Janata Party MPs Nishikant Dubey and Manoj Tiwari, along with seven others, on September 1 for allegedly violating safety protocols at Deoghar airport for a chartered flight, a zero FIR was registered by the Delhi Police against Deoghar Deputy Commissioner Manjunath Bhajantri and others on September 3, invoking sedition, among other crimes.

Under Indian law, First Information Reports – a document filed by the police when they receive information a cognisable offence – are usually registered in the police station under whose jurisdiction the alleged crime has taken place. A zero FIR, though, allows any police station to accept a complaint and forward it to the appropriate station.

However, a provision that was intended to help harried citizens register complaints more conveniently has become a political tool in the battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Centre and the coalition of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and Congress in Jharkhand. This is part of a larger trend where police forces are increasingly being employed to carry out political action in other states.

Bharatiya Janata Party MP Nishikant Dubey and Deoghar Deputy Commissioner Manjunath Bhajantri. | Facebook and Twitter

What happened in Jharkhand?

On Wednesday afternoon Dubey, Tiwari and seven other passengers landed at the Deoghar airport in a chartered plane. When they returned to the airport to board their plane in the evening, around 5.30 pm, they were denied takeoff clearance, as the Deoghar airport does not have facilities for night take-offs and landings.

According to a complaint by Suman Anand, the official in charge of security at the airport, the pilot and the passengers entered the Airport Traffic Control Room and pressured the airport staff to grant clearance, violating airport security standards.

Subsequently, an FIR was registered in Deoghar on Thursday, booking nine persons, including Tiwari, Dubey and Deoghar’s airport director, under provisions relating to endangering human safety and trespass.

Following this, Deoghar Deputy Commissioner Bhajantri and BJP MP Dubey quarrelled on Twitter, with both alleging that the other person entered restricted areas inside the airport without the requisite clearances.

On Friday, Dubey wrote to the Delhi Police, complaining that the Jharkhand Police threatened to kill him and had abused his sons on instructions of Bhajantri. He also alleged that Bhanjantri had endangered national security by entering a restricted area in the airport.

Based on this complaint, the Delhi Police, controlled by the Centre, registered a zero FIR under charged of sedition, criminal intimidation and deterring a public servant from discharging their duty, among other sections. This FIR was then forwarded to the Deoghar Police for further investigation.

In May, the Supreme Court had asked states to refrain from registering FIRs for sedition. However, it was still invoked in this case.

What is a zero FIR?

Zero FIRs are registered by a police station for crimes that are committed outside their territorial jurisdictions. Though the provision for a zero FIR is not explicitly laid out in the Code of Criminal Procedure, such FIRs are usually registered to avoid delays over jurisdiction.

Zero FIRs are intended to make it easier for complaints to be registered. For instance, the Supreme Court has mandated the registration of an FIR if the police receives information that a cognisable offence (where the police can make an arrest without a warrant) has allegedly been committed.

Further, the Code of Criminal Procedure bars any challenge to an investigation launched by the police on grounds of territorial jurisdiction.

Starting from 2013, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs has released advisories clarifying that if at the time of registration of an FIR, it is apparent that a crime was committed outside that police station’s jurisidiction, they should register a zero FIR and then transfer the case to the correct police station.

Besides, if a regular FIR is registered and, during the investigation, the police station find that the case falls outside their jurisdiction, they can transfer the case to the appropriate police station.

Actress Rhea Chakraborty arrives at NCB office for questioning in connection with the death by suicide case of late actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Credit: PTI

How has FIR juridiction now become a political football?

This expansive scope of registering FIRs has sometimes been abused. In 2008, the Delhi High Court noted that there were several FIRs were registered in Delhi and not subsequently transferred “only because someone had influence or approach with Delhi Police”, even though no part of the crime was committed in Delhi.

There may also be instances where the police forces of different states fight over jurisdiction.

For instance, in 2020, while the Mumbai Police was conducting a preliminary investigation into the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput, the Bihar Police filed an FIR against his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty under sections related to abetment of suicide, criminal breach of trust and cheating.

Both police forces started investigating the case. Eventually, the Bihar government, ruled by a BJP-coalition government, transferred the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation, also controlled by the BJP. Other federal agencies, such as the Enforcement Directorate and the Narcotics Control Bureau, also joined the investigation.

Meanwhile, Chakraborty had filed a case in the Supreme Court arguing that Bihar Police did not have the jurisdiction to investigate the matter. She argued that they should, instead, have registered a zero FIR, which would have been transferred to Mumbai.

However, relying on provisions relating to mandatory registration of FIRs, the Supreme Court held that Bihar Police could register an FIR and subsequently transfer the case to the CBI.

There are other instances of police forces being used in political conflicts in other states. In May, the police of Aam Aadmi Party-ruled Punjab registered an FIR and arrested Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga from his home in Delhi. In response, the Delhi Police booked the Punjab Police for kidnapping and robbery. When the Punjab Police were escorting Bagga from Delhi, they were detained by the police of BJP-governed Harayana.