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Time for the police to come clean

September 29, 2008 15:26 IST

Once again, here is reason why one should look at police investigations into terror attacks in India with deep suspicion.

The telling pictures stare at you in the Sunday's morning papers, a day after Delhi's Mehrauli market blast. The policemen -- yes, not just some misguided local, but a policeman in uniform -- pouring a bucket of water to wash away the bloodstains on the crowded road. He washed away, even before the elite National Security Guards arrived on the scene, the vital clues the spot may have yielded.

Reminds you of the way vehicles laden with explosives were messed up to the extent that not a fingerprint was available to the investigators? Who messed up the forest of fingerprints? The police themselves. Even if the offenders were first-timers with no previous record, it would have helped the police to confirm that those who were later picked up were the guys with the matching fingerprint.

And we call it investigation. Police investigation.

On the basis of such investigations the Mumbai police, as asserted by its Commissioner Hassan Gafoor, caught those involved in the Delhi serial blasts earlier this month. He also said they were also involved in the July 11, 2006 train bombings in Mumbai. Then who are the guys being prosecuted in the 11/7 train bombings case?

Were they?

If these -- Afzal Usmani, Mohammed Sadiq Shaikh, Mohammed Arif Shaikh, Mohamed Ansar Shaikh -- are the guys, what happens to that other case where, in the chargesheet, not a whiff is of their involvement is found? Is it that the guys arrested in connection with the train bombings managed to hide this fact despite the presumed third degree administered to them or they just did not know because they, in turn, were not involved in the case at all?

These kinds of serious weaknesses in a case can get it thrown out of court and rightly too. The police cannot just say "we know about it now, so excuse us please, and amend the chargesheet." That is making a mockery of the criminal justice system.

Doubts about the police capability to investigate have been raised by me in two previous columns (Pathetic handling of blasts' aftermath, and We need enforcement, not anti-terror laws) and such fears continue to haunt me. The failure to address this major weakness would be a factor that would undermine not only the nation's security, but also the lives of the citizen. Ham-handed policing can destroy the concept of law and justice and make a mockery of the criminal justice system.

Concerns raised

Two newspapers, the Times of India in its editions the day after the police announcement in Mumbai of the arrests of the set of five alleged terrorists, and the Daily News & Analysis on September 27 have raised their concerns. But no robust clarification has come forth yet. Apparently, such a clarification is unlikely to be convincing because, if there was any explanation, it ought to have come forth with the first announcement. Not having done that has already dented the police credibility.

Just like the way the police have not explained yet how in Delhi, in the September 19 shootout which also resulted in the death of Police Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma, two suspected terrorists escaped. The Hindustan Times published a sketch which indicated that such an escape was impossible. The place was obviously crawling with hordes of armed policemen and how could a duo manage to flee amid such fierce gunfire? There are no reports of any injured person in the vicinity. So what happened? The country would like to know.

We have by now the well established routine of police officials addressing televised press conferences and giving out details which may even tip the hand of the others who may be on the wanted lists. As a journalist for over three decades, it pains me to question anyone who wants to share information -- information is the basis of all journalism, entertainment under any guise is not -- but are we to accept what prima facie appear to be speculation and conjectures?

Cowboy policing

Such cowboy policing has already taken roots in normal policing where an innocent can be made a criminal, if not in courts. In sensational cases, it is generally by trials before the media where all and any accusation can be glibly made before the gullible media, hungry for titillating, horrifying, gratifying titbits for its servings of scraps to feed on for the day.

Several people, not just hardened journalists, have begun to think that it is time to ask the police to provide the proof of the pudding before it is dished out in copious quantities. The public is less gullible; they have even found out, the way Arjun Singh, the Union human resources development minister has backed Jamia Millia University's Vice-Chancellor Mushirul Hasan's decision to provide legal aid to his students picked up for the Delhi blasts. Hasan's act is paternalistic, of wanting to take care of students under his ward. But when a central minister endorses it and his colleague Shivraj Patil, the home minister who had applauded Mohan Chand Sharma's bravery, keeps silent it does not square up. It smacks of electoral politics. Everyone should know their place and limits. Arjun Singh does not.

In this context, let me share what I think of the outpouring of the gratitude of the people who turned out in such numbers for Sharma's funeral. It can be read as adulation for a man who readily dispensed justice and in this is subsumed a sharp warning to the authorities. If the police fail to get their men, and right men at that, and ensure a proper trial and appropriate punishment to those held as terrorists, then the wrath could manifest itself in terrible contours. Excuses that the court let them off for want of evidence would not be easily digested by the people.

Adulation now, wrath later?

This is so about all terror cases, not just specific ones. People who celebrate the killing of a suspected terrorist can display their horror at mishandling of cases as well and we need to recognise this potential. The avoidance of this rests squarely with the police machinery across the states. No state's police in this country is above suspicion now, for all we have had so far is claims, and more claims, and little by way of convictions save in a few exceptional instances like the Parliament attack case. It is not just in their but the country's interests to have this matter sorted out -- as if it were possible -- to arrest the decline from the present nadir.

Should it, therefore, be difficult to understand why the Muslims keep complaining of unfair targeting, including stereotyping of the community? It can lie less in communal fears but more in the belief that teh police are inefficient. There is enough angst in the community to warrant the police getting their act together, or else an important arm of the state would be in shambles. The country could ill-afford such a situation where innocents are made to pay a price because an incompetent police wants to keep the record books filled.

It is time now to ask sharp questions. And time has come for the investigating agencies to answer them. Quickly.

Mahesh Vijapurkar