Policing the police

It’s the police, not Hyderabad University students, who must be charged with breaking the law

The law keepers broke several rules in the book during their clampdown at Hyderabad University.

University of Hyderabad vice-chancellor Appa Rao has claimed that his administration was forced to call the police on campus on March 22 after students vandalised university property. The SC/ST Faculty Forum and other teachers have already disputed this charge, saying:

“Surprisingly little information is actually there on the actual context, timing, duration and nature of the vandalism. It appears that the claim that a group of students indulged in acts of vandalism is enough to justify a full-scale war on the entire campus community of over 5,000 students. Yet this charge of vandalism is no more than a fig leaf.”

On March 21, Appa Rao returned to the university after a two-month break he had been forced to go on, following massive protests after the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula on campus on January 17. A day later, hundreds of protesting students allegedly broke into Rao’s official residence and damaged equipment and furniture. The university’s registrar called the police to forcibly remove the students from the premises of the residence.

People in positions of power often believe that they are not required to conform to common standards of propriety. It is therefore important to ask: Did the University administration and the police act in accordance with the law they claim to be implementing?

Arbitrary arrests

The Criminal Procedure Code or CrPC prescribes the entire procedure – from start to finish – for the investigation and trial of offences. According to Section 41 of this code, a police officer can arrest without a warrant a person who commits an offence in his or her presence. The police can also arrest a person on the basis of a report made by another party only if a reasonable complaint has been made, or if it receives credible information or has reasonable suspicion of an offence being committed.

Even if this requirement is fulfilled, according to Section 41, the police may arrest someone if that person is required for investigation, or if the accused would disrupt the investigation, or would not be available for investigation in the future.

In the University of Hyderabad, the offence did not happen in the presence of the police. But the police still arrested 24 students, 2 faculty members and a documentary filmmaker without warrants. One of the teachers arrested was Professor KY Ratnam of the Centre for Ambedkar Studies, who was in a selection committee meeting till 2pm. He came to the vice chancellor’s residence only after that meeting when he was “roughed up” and thrown into a police van. The alleged vandalism happened from 9.30 am to 10.30 am, when Professor Ratnam was at his meeting. So, how did the police arrest him when he was nowhere near the scene of the offence? Similarly, the documentary filmmaker was neither a student nor a faculty member, and was a stranger to the dispute. How was this filmmaker arrested too?

Such arrests do not even meet the standard of reasonable suspicion. The further requirements of the law on whether an arrest was required was not even considered.

Unlawful arrests

The policemen violated procedure laid out in Section 41B of the CrPC too. This section requires the police to clearly record the name and address of each arrested person and prepare a memorandum of arrest, which must be attested by the family of the arrested person and countersigned by the arrested person. If the memorandum is not attested by a member of the arrested person’s family, the police is obliged to inform the person arrested that s/he has the right to have a friend or relative to be informed of her or his arrest.

But the police did not inform the family of the arrested persons. Instead, the families, along with lawyers and friends, ran to every police station in the vicinity – from Gachibowli, to Miyapur to Narsingi – to find their kin as if their family members had been abducted, instead of being arrested by the guardians of the law.

The Constitution and the CrPC protect individuals against police mismanagement by requiring arrested persons to be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. This procedure is aimed to provide judicial oversight. In this case too, the police fell short. Families were not informed, friends and lawyers seeking information were misled, and the arrested persons were brought before a magistrate much after 24 hours had elapsed. They were then sent to prison again, without their families being intimated. Again, abductions, not lawful arrests, happen in this manner.

The university registrar allegedly called the police because there was breach of peace and vandalism at the vice chancellor’s residence. The usual procedure in such cases is to get the alleged disrupters to furnish a bond promising good behaviour and then let them go. This choice was not taken. Instead, the arrested persons were charged with rioting, causing hurt with the use of dangerous weapons, criminal intimidation, assault, or using criminal force to deter a public servant from doing his duty and destroying public property.

As mentioned, a number of persons charged were not even present at the scene of the crime and other charges don’t match facts either. The police has produced no evidence against those it has arrested other than broken furniture and shattered windows. All photographic evidence and personal testimonies speak of a small disruption, some raised voices and small breakage of furniture. How do these facts justify the charge of rioting?

Instead, the police has been accused of dragging persons into waiting vans, indiscriminately beating them up, threatening them with violence and calling them names. The violence shown by the police during the arrest process can be called rioting, but the police is not being charged even though it breached every rule in the book.

Who is answerable?

By all accounts, matters at the University of Hyderabad following Vemula’s suicide were far from settled when the vice chancellor, whose conduct was under judicial inquiry, returned on campus even before he was cleared of the charges against him.

It is a core rule of fairness in law that no one should be a judge in their own cause, and justice should not only be done but seen to be done. By his return, the vice chancellor first caused a law and order problem, and then used it to clamp down on students.

The withdrawal of food, water, electricity, Internet and banking services by University authorities created a siege-like situation on the campus. The Constitution of India and the case law on personal liberty does not permit the denial of these services to even persons convicted of serious offences, let alone an entire university of around 5,000 students. Even if the authorities of the University were to be believed that the mess services were shut because of a strike by Class IV employees, what did the authorities do to ensure that students did not suffer? Nothing. Instead they prevented external aid from reaching students and gave the police a free hand in beating up those who were trying to cook a meal for themselves. The vice chancellor and his team were thus guilty of both sins of omission and commission. They practiced torture to obtain obedience. Yes, a vice chancellor is obliged to maintain law and order in the university but the order has to be maintained lawfully, for live people. It cannot be the peace and order of the graveyard.

Amita Dhanda is a Professor of Law at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, and the head of the Centre for Legal Philosophy and Justice Education.

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