Lessons from Muzaffarnagar

Published: 24th September 2013 07:25 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th September 2013 07:27 AM   |  A+A-

Muzaffarnagar is a district in Uttar Pradesh, the headquarters of which is about a hundred miles from Delhi on the main highway leading to Roorkee, Dehradun and beyond. The district is largely canal irrigated and known as the sugarcane capital of India. It is, therefore, a prosperous district. Its population is divided between different castes and religions, but Muslims form about 18.5 per cent, and there is also a sizeable number of Jats. When Chaudhary Charan Singh was the dominant leader in UP he had an electoral alliance in western UP between Jats and Muslims and by and large the communities co-existed without much friction.

Unfortunately since then the politics of UP has become highly divisive. The Samajwadi Party goes out of its way to woo Muslims voters, but on an appeal which is highly religious, communal and based on creating a sense of fear amongst the minorities about possible domination by the majority community. The Congress also woos the Muslims, tries to reach out to the scheduled castes and makes some overtures to upper caste Hindus. BJP’s main strength is the upper caste Hindus and it is reaching out to the Jats for their support. VHP has scheduled caste support and Mayawati has been able to make some inroads into upper caste Hindu votes and a small segment of Muslim votes. Politics in UP has nothing to do with ideology, programmes, or a development agenda. Divisive politics has wrecked the UP administration almost completely.

Constitutionally it is the government’s duty to promote an environment in which people can expect justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.  All this can only happen in a country where there is law and order and internal peace, as also security from external aggression. Parliament may legislate on the defence of India, the maintenance of armed forces and deployment of armed forces of the Union in aid of civil power. It is within the jurisdiction of the state legislature to legislate on all matters relating to public order and for the maintenance of a police force. Both Parliament and the state legislature can legislate on all matters relating to criminal law and criminal procedure. Not only is the state duty-bound to maintain public order, but it has the legislative competence to enact laws in this regard.

Among other laws is the Police Act which governs the whole of India and other acts that apply to specific areas, such as the Delhi Police Act. The Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) provides for the creation of an executive magistracy which, together with the police, is charged with the duty of maintaining public order. For this both preventive and coercive powers are vested in the magistrates and police. The public are required to assist magistrates and the police in maintaining order and preventing crime. The scheme of law, therefore, is that whereas the state has to provide the legal wherewithal for the executive magistracy and the police to function, it is for the magistrate and police to exercise legal powers and maintain public order.

In matters of maintaining order the district magistrate is king and the SP is both prime minister and commander-in-chief. That is how the system functioned when I was a young district magistrate. Neither my SP nor I sought any orders from the government, nor did the government give us any directions in any matter concerning public order. We took our duty seriously, the police took preventive action whenever trouble was brewing, we issued prohibitory orders where necessary, we intervened at the earliest juncture when we sensed the situation merited it and we had no hesitation in using necessary effective force to ensure that no rioting or public disturbance took place.

The situation rapidly changed in the 1970s and politicians began to take over the micro-management of law and order. In West Bengal the Left Front government ordered that the police would not intervene in industrial disputes, despite the fact that workers were physically restraining the management’s freedom of movement and that this amounted to the offence of illegal restraint and intimidation. The West Bengal police soon gave up any initiative in dealing with any law and order problem and on all issues it sought political clearance. That was the end of effective policing in the state and ushered in an era of lawlessness that was exploited first by Left Front workers and now by the Trinamool Congress. Once the police stopped functioning independently the virus of lawlessness assumed a dirty and virulent communal form.

I remember that in the early 80s when Meerut and Western UP had constant riots, including the infamous Malana massacre, I asked the DM and SP of Meerut why they could not control communal violence. The DM’s answer was a classic. He said, “For 364 days in the year the SP and I are summoned before visiting ministers and local goondas who have political influence lounge around on sofas while we stand and are expected to be respectful. On the 365th day when the same political goondas foment a riot we are expected to take firm action against the very people before whom we earlier cringed. Give us a free hand, I guarantee that there will be no riots.”

In Muzaffarnagar and other districts of Western UP the district administration stands emasculated. Had it been strong it would have reacted very quickly and forcefully when the very first incident took place in which a Muslim boy and two Jat boys were killed. Obviously they could not because the government was wooing Muslims and Jats were extremely resentful of this. Something which could have been contained in the first one hour burst into flames and engulfed large parts of Meerut and Saharanpur divisions. Today we have the disgraceful situation of more than 50,000 people as refugees within a hundred miles of Delhi and they call this a government! The Centre’s response is weak and indecisive. The home minister should have visited Muzaffarnagar on the very second day of the riot and warned the DM and SP that if within 12 hours the situation was not controlled the Centre would intervene and dismiss them without an enquiry under Article 311 (2) (b) and (c). Let two officers be dismissed and I will bet my last rupee that no DM or SP in India will look to the state government when dealing with a law and order situation. I hope the prime minister is listening.

M N Buch, a former civil servant, is chairman, National Centre for Human Settlements and Environment, Bhopal;



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