How a civil servant should quell riots

Some lessons on handling riot-like situations from my time in Uttar Pradesh as a district magistrate during the Ayodhya agitation

Published: 02nd March 2020 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd March 2020 05:18 PM   |  A+A-

soumyadip sinha

Irrespective of who (including the politicians) has fuelled the riots, it is the constitutional duty of a civil servant (including policemen) to quell it forthwith without looking elsewhere for direction. Civil servants can’t blame the politician for not enforcing the rule of law”. This was a tweet in the context of the current crisis in Delhi that brought back memories of my stint as a district magistrate.It was 1991 and the call was from Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. He appeared agitated. I had been District Magistrate in Lakhimpur Kheri for about a year. Since 1990 the country was facing a crisis on account of the ‘Rath Yatra’ being taken out by BJP leader L K Advani, to advocate the construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya.

As Ayodhya was in UP, this state became the epicentre of all the agitations that were taking place in the context of the building of the temple. It created law and order problems in all the districts of UP. All districts surrounding Lakhimpur Kheri had been put under curfew  (an order issued under Section 144 of the CrPC, imposing severe restriction on movement during certain periods of the day and night). Kheri was the only district where even though orders were issued under Section 144, they were not as restrictive and normal life was not disrupted. This was primarily on account of the trust the residents of Lakhimpur had in the administration. Any mischief was dealt with firmly, including those involving people and issues connected with the ruling party.

A murder had taken place. It was purely a criminal act, but the district president of the ruling party wanted to make political capital out of it by taking out a funeral procession. If allowed, this could have been a recipe for disaster and would have led to communal riots as was the case in neighbouring districts. Permission to take out the procession was not granted. But as the district president insisted on taking out the procession, he was arrested and put behind bars under the provisions relating to preventive detention. Though this arrest took care of the law and order issues, it didn’t go down well with the ruling party. Those were the days when the only industry flourishing in the state was the transfer industry. I was, however, prepared to face the consequences, but determined not to allow the district to slip into chaos. It was late that night when the call came from the CM.

He got down to business immediately without bothering to exchange the usual pleasantries, “DM sahib, why have you imprisoned my district president?” His question was straightforward. My response was equally forthright: “Sir, a murder had taken place and he insisted on taking out a funeral procession that would have destroyed the peace in the city. Given the charged atmosphere, it would have led to communal riots. I tried to persuade him not to take out the procession but he did not relent. So, we had no option but to arrest him in the interest of sustaining peace.” There was a brief pause at the other end, and then another question, “Isn’t there some other way?” I was firm but polite: “Sir, had there been some other way, we would not have arrested him.

The only possible way now is for someone from Lucknow to speak to him so that he doesn’t insist on taking out a procession. We can then release him.” I carried on, “Sir, you are aware that Lakhimpur Kheri is the only district where we haven’t had to impose curfew as everyone believes we will take action without any favour.” There was yet another pause before he responded, “Theek hai (okay).” He apparently spoke to the district chief himself. Consequently, the local chief agreed not to take out the funeral procession. The dead man was buried in the dead of night and the chief was released later.

Lakhimpur remained peaceful during the trying period of the Babri agitation. I was surprised when I was awarded by the CM himself for handling law and order in the district adroitly. Peace in the district could be maintained on account of an amazing team of officers comprising the likes of Harish Chandra Singh, superintendent of police, Rudra Pratap Singh, sub-divisional magistrate, R K Chaturvedi, circle officer and others. If officers on the spot await instructions from the “top”, the crisis can spiral as it did in Delhi recently. It is not a question of hindsight wisdom as a former Delhi police commissioner stated while trying to defend the indefensible. The writing was on the wall. It was building for a few days. It didn’t require a lot of wisdom. It required action. Lives were lost as the police force allowed ruffians to run riot in places like JNU. It allowed “VIPs” to get away with inflammatory speeches. It was not on the sly. It was all too visible but some chose to ignore it.

It gave an impression that what was happening was happening in collusion with the police. This was perhaps an unfair assessment of the police force but total inaction was indefensible. Some elements in the force were perhaps waiting for “orders” from an appropriate level. They should have instead apprehended the rioters and not allowed them to run riot. Yes, there was a risk of getting “marching orders” in case the action on the ground did not match the “wish” of those that mattered. But it is a risk worth taking to prevent mayhem. In any case, for a civil servant, transfer, like death, is inevitable. Why worry? And, if he believes in Hindu philosophy, he will be born again and continue to act on the basis of his convictions instead of “directions”. The likes of Julio Ribeiro did that and are venerated. The choice is ours. We can blame the politicians for many wrongs, but when it comes to maintenance of law and order, it is the constitutional obligation of civil servants on the spot to carry out their task without fear or favour. The problem arises when civil servants start expecting “returns”.

(With excerpts from the author’s forthcoming book titled Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant)


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