The phrase “law and order has broken down” is used often enough in India, usually by a national politician describing a situation in one of the states. Indeed, a breakdown of law and order is one of the triggers that permits the Centre to dismiss a state government and step in. So how are we to read the events of the last few days in India’s national capital, when the two wings of law and order – lawyers and the police – have clashed with each other and taken to the streets in protest?
The developments began with a clash over a parking dispute on Saturday at the Tis Hazari court complex in Delhi, which left 20 police personnel and eight lawyers injured and nearly two dozen cars vandalised. A video from the incident, showing lawyers physically attacking police personnel, soon went viral. It showed lawyers beating up two policemen in the lock-up area of the court.
When the matter came up in the Delhi High Court, the judiciary seemed to heavily favour the lawyers. The court directed the transfer of police officials who had ordered action against the advocates. It said that no coercive action would be taken against lawyers, even if they were mentioned in the First Information Reports filed by the police following the violence.
Naturally, this did not go down well with the police. Even as lawyers were protesting the incidents at Tis Hazar, at the start of this week, another video of emerged of a lawyer hitting a policeman with impunity. All of this, coupled with a studied silence from the Home Ministry and Delhi Police Commissioner Amulya Patnaik, seems to have prompted police personnel to finally take to the streets demanding justice.
On Tuesday, Delhi residents were treated to the unusual sight of hundreds of police personnel standing outside Police Headquarters, protesting about their own lack of safety in the capital. How did we get to this?
Grouses between lawyers and police personnel are age-old and difficult to disentangle. On court premises, lawyers tend to act as if they are not governed by rules and do not have to listen to the police, critics say. But then this is also the accusation levelled at police personnel across this country, in every place other than the courts.
As some have pointed out, when lawyers went on a similar rampage a few years ago, attacking journalists in a court complex, the police stood aside and did nothing. Extra-judicial violence from the police is rarely viewed as unusual, except in court complexes where the shoe is on the other foot.
Resolving these issues, without letting the law and order machinery in Delhi suffer, will take a deft hand. Evidently it is not one that Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who is in charge of the Delhi Police and responsible for law and order in the capital, has.
If such a situation had taken place when Delhi was under Congress rule, or if it had happened under the watch of an Opposition Chief Minister like West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee or Punjab’s Amarinder Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party would have insisted that it reflected a complete breakdown in law and order and perhaps even called for President’s Rule. Here, when the Centre ought to take charge and resolve problems without shaking the confidence of residents in their law and order machinery, it appears to be absent.
What does that say about Home Minister Amit Shah’s purportedly strong leadership?