Fully “merited” was every syllable of the verbal lambasting the full Bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court unleashed on lawyers who tried to make an “issue” of the police action in the wake of the violence that erupted after a Special CBI court had convicted the head of the Dera Sucha Sauda, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, on two counts of rape. In a welcome, if uncommon, display of support for those who had the hard job of maintaining public order, the High Court rejected suggestions that the police had overdone things at Panchkula and elsewhere, ought to have used pellet guns not bullets etc. “You want the police to softpedal. In case you are indulging in nonsense you have to be shot.” The Bench of Acting Chief Justice SS Saron, Justice Surya Kant and Justice Avneesh Jhingan thundered on, “You have to be hard in a riot situation… When people come armed with petrol bombs, sticks and other weapons it is an organised attack, you have to be firm. If they are indulging in riots, arson and mayhem they could be killed”. Hopefully that tongue-lashing will have the desired effect on “activists” ~ it is a crying shame that a spineless political leadership has not taken heed of what the court said about its abdication of duty.

What makes the High Court’s observations even more incisive than the action it has ordered for punitive recovery of losses caused by the Dera’s storm-troopers, is its seeking formulation of guidelines for the police to handle such complex situations. A graded response on the employment of water-cannon, rubber or lead bullets is what the full Bench spoke about. It is true that riot control is a subject dealt with in police manuals and rulebooks, but a court-directed blueprint would be a different deal altogether. Particularly if it advises the cops on the frontlines how to function when their political and bureaucratic superiors opt to turn a blind eye to developing stand-offs. In such situations, middle to lower level policemen find their hands tied ~ as they did in Gujarat in 2002, and Delhi in 1984.

Top police officers, serving or retired, should volunteer their services to assist or advise whatever mechanism the High Court chooses to set up, and display the moral courage to stand by their juniors even if that displeases their political masters. It might avert those juniors subsequently running into trouble over alleged excesses. The apex court might consider “adopting” the response-formulating mechanism that would elevate its status to a national level. It is time that “judicial activism” assumes a positive dimension and protects cops who do their duty ~ even if the number of such dedicated personnel is on the decline. They need a “leg up”.