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An ex-police chief knows best how free his force is, writes Olav Albuquerque

12:54 AM Jun 18, 2021 | Olav Albuquerque

The Supreme Court’s chastising former Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh, for asking that all FIRs and complaints made against him be investigated by the CBI, sounds like a headmaster scolding a recalcitrant schoolboy. Questioning his lack of faith in the Mumbai police, the court told Singh, “You are part of the Maharashtra cadre (of the) IPS [and have] served the state for 30 years. It is a shocking allegation that you have no faith in your own force.”

Ironically, this was the same bench, comprising Justices Hemant Gupta and V Ramasubramanian which flayed the Punjab and Haryana high court -- the parent high court of Justice Hemant Gupta -- for not taking up the bail plea of an accused for over one year which infringed the right to life and liberty of an accused. Param Bir Singh is also an accused under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, apart from other charges.

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Bail for students

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In a separate development, the Delhi police have appealed against the seminal verdicts of the Delhi high court granting bail to students Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha, accused for conspiring in the riots in northeast Delhi during 2020, which claimed 53 lives. These Delhi high court judges wisely said the actions of these students could not be considered terrorist acts because being the member of a WhatsApp group is not a crime although the comments may be incendiary. The aim of a bail hearing is merely to assess if an accused can be set free until the trial begins.

These judgments dissected the wide definition of the term “terrorist act” under the draconian UAPA to allow the police to convert any crime into terror acts, which carry the death sentence for subverting state security and sovereignty. These judgments uphold democracy because they speak the truth to power but it will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court will react. This itself will tell us to what extent the judiciary is independent from the executive.

But to return to Param Bir Singh, his senior counsel, Mahesh Jethmalani pressed how his client was being harassed with false cases foisted on him after he complained to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray that his Home Minister Anil Deshmukh had allegedly forced dismissed policeman Sachin Vaze to extort Rs 100 crore every month from Mumbai’s dance bars and restaurants. To this, the bench said, “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

Political pressure

Yet again, when Jethmalani pointed out how his client had recorded his conversation with DGP Sanjay Pandey pressurising him to withdraw his complaint against Deshmukh, the bench remarked, “Do not tell make-believe stories. If a DGP-rank officer can be pressurised, nobody is safe.” This very same bench, which had upheld the rights of an accused to a speedy bail hearing, would have us believe the DGPs of all states are angels who will resist political pressure from their chief ministers. And the policemen under them are paragons of virtue.

The former DGP of Maharashtra, Subodh Jaiswal, asked for a Central deputation precisely because he was allegedly asked to blindly sign transfer lists. And there have been innumerable Law Commission of India reports, like the 113th report in 1985 pointing out how policemen have killed those who complained against them. What is most ironic is that Param Bir Singh is being questioned about his lack of faith in the police force he headed, when it is irrefragable that he is the best judge of his own police force.

Justice Gupta is the 14th seniormost judge in India, having come to the apex court through the normal route of becoming an additional advocate general in the Punjab and Haryana high court when he was 44 years, elevated as a judge of the same high court where his father was chief justice in 1991, being elevated as chief justice of the Patna high court before his elevation to the Supreme Court. His experience implies he knows that Param Bir Singh is not “telling make-believe stories”.

Letter bomb leak

This is why it is said there are 34 mini-Supreme Courts (individual benches) within the grand edifice of the Supreme Court itself which implies each bench has its own disposition and outlook - like Justice Arun Mishra whose judgments were predictable. Like former CJI Ranjan Gogoi who accepted a Rajya Sabha nomination, Mishra was made the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission. It was this same Ranjan Gogoi who remarked: “Who goes to the courts? You wash your dirty linen in public and the judgment comes after decades.” Like Param Bir Singh, Gogoi was a domain expert who spoke bluntly.

It is well-known that policemen flout the rules to approach their home minister through agents of these politicians, who accept bribes to rescind inconvenient transfers. All this would never have come out if Param Bir Singh did not leak his bombshell of a letter. By asking him “What were you doing when you were the police chief?” the bench is glossing over the fact that this ex-police chief could do precious little against his own boss, who was the home minister.

And so we must accept that the institutions we are forced to approach to protect our lives and liberty, tend to preserve the status quo. Judicial independence varies from judge to judge. Some of them may be forward-looking while others may be looking forward to post-retirement perks from the government.

The writer holds a PhD in law and is a senior journalist-cum-advocate of the Bombay high court.

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