The man at the top can make all the difference. In a hierarchical uniformed body like the police, this is a given. But the principle applies to all segments of human endeavour. Tentative evidence of the application of this principle in the administration of justice was available earlier in the Delhi High Court, the Allahabad High Court and the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court.

But since the elevation of Justice NV Ramana as the Chief Justice of India in April, there has been a palpable stirring in the dovecots. The most recent example is the release on bail on Thursday, after a year’s unjustified incarceration, of three young activists: two women from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a man studying in Jamia Milia. Who is going to recompense them for this unnecessary and high-handed deprival of freedom is anybody’s guess but what the High Court said about the Delhi police’s high-handedness and misplaced loyalty is what this article is about.

In order of relevance, this is what the Division Bench of Justices Siddharth Mridul and Anup Bhambhani said: “ To protest peacefully is a right – it is not a terrorist act.” This every police officer learns during training. How could the Delhi Police suddenly become unaware about rights guaranteed to citizens by the Constitution?

Ignoring the real instigators

A year ago, I had personally addressed a letter to Delhi Police Chief deprecating his action in arresting young students whose only fault was that they were protesting against the discrimination being introduced against Muslims in the Citizenship Amendment Act. I also criticised his intention of absolving the real instigators of the riots in North East Delhi last year, even though they had been caught on television prompting their followers to even kill the protestors.

The police commissioner, either at the behest of his political masters or in his anxiety to cozy up to them, had left out three Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, one of them a minister of state, but roped in instead these young students including some Muslim women who had sat on a peaceful dharna in the Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood. True, they had encroached on the public road for many days, inconveniencing the motoring public. But the remedy was not to apply a draconian law like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, where the facility to be freed on bail is proscribed by law. Instead, they could have been lifted from the spot with the help of women police.

“The foundations of our nation stand on surer footing than to be shaken by a student stir,” the judges continued. The police commissioner was aware of that logic when he ordered the arrest of the youth under UAPA, but he obviously chose the line he finally adopted to prove his loyalty to the rulers rather than honour his oath to the Constitution.

Minister of state for finance Anurag Thakur leads a crowd to chant, 'Shoot the traitors'.

At the time when I crossed swords with Commissioner SN Srivastava, several of my former colleagues in the police defended his actions. Mercifully, the judges of the Delhi High Court thought otherwise. Justice follows no ideology. It is above religion, caste, class and economic or social status. Above all, it is alien to ideology.

This is not the only recent judgment that energised seekers of justice. The order of the Kerala High Court granting anticipatory bail to filmmaker Aisha Sultana against whom sedition charges was levelled is another recent example. This young woman from the Lakshadweep islands, outraged by the recent onslaught on the centuries-old freedoms the 60,000-odd residents of those islands had always enjoyed, fired a broadside at the Administrator specially chosen to turn the territory into a tourist destination. In the course of her tirade she said that the Administrator had fired a “bio-weapon” on a peaceful people. That invited a sedition charge.

Taking umbrage at the description of his impositions as bio-weapons, the Administrator nudged the Bharatiya Janata Party’s local head in the Lakshadweep to file a first information report against the young woman. I would attribute the speed with which the court moved as a manifestation of the “Ramana Effect”.

Peevish instinct

The peevish instinct visible in the actions of the Delhi Police in the past few years was highlighted in its insensitive response to the Delhi High Court’s reasoned order while granting bail to the three young activists. The Delhi Police actually went out of its way to delay the release of the youth on the specious grounds that they needed three days to verify addresses and Aadhar cards of the accused and their sureties.

“Bail not jail” was the dictum first propounded by that renowned jurist, Justice VR Krishna Iyer, younger brother of my senior IP. colleague, V Laxminarayan of the Tamil Nadu cadre, who served with distinction as the joint director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.

It is apparent to observers of the judicial process system that our present rulers are intent on turning the very process of arrest and trial into virtual punishment, knowing full well that the cases have no legs to stand on. This is a very diabolical move to keep inconvenient activists confined for years for offences they had not committed and in fact, had no intention of committing.

Recollecting the tete a tete I had the good fortune of having with the eminent jurist many years ago, I was struck by his unmitigated reverence for his elder brother whose integrity and honesty he stressed in the conversation. I thought to myself that if Laxminarayan was police commissioner of Delhi now, the real culprits behind the Delhi violence would not have been let off so easily and diabolically substituted by a bunch of student activists protesting acts of injustice.

Julio Ribeiro served in several senior positions as a police officer and was India’s ambassador to Romania.