Rutba, an Urdu word, means status or honour. In Indian sarkari parlance, however, it’s closer to the “shock and awe” tactics used by the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. The difference is that the Americans evoked awe by unleashing firepower from the air and thousands of armed soldiers on the ground, while rutba is really the authority or charisma exerted by a single district officer or superintendent of police to quell a local disturbance.
Clearly, rutba was lacking in Mathura last week when an armed mob of land-grabbers, operating in the guise of social do-gooders and political anarchists, killed two police officers and injured many others. Twenty-two squatters reportedly also died in the retaliatory police firing. What led to this ruckus was the enforcement of a High Court order for their eviction from a public park they had illegally occupied since 2014, that was adjacent to the local police headquarters.
It is difficult to preserve rutba if a police force has to be on good neighbourly terms with criminals unauthorisedly camping on public land right under their nose as the squatters had the right political connections. Rutba is the capacity of a single individual to control many others. But it derives salience from institutional prestige and power. The only Indian institutions that still demonstrate rutba are the Supreme Court and the Army. A soldier in uniform still creates a stir and evokes awe, but this too is rapidly dwindling with the politicisation of the upper echelons of the armed forces.
Bollywood has for long either reviled the policeman as a bumbling Inspector Clouseau (of Pink Panther fame) or played up the image of the good, fearless cop — Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer, Om Puri in Ardh Satya and Ajay Devgn in Gangaajal — who takes on criminals and vanquishes all. Neither image is really helpful. Being a policeman is an unenviable task. The police works best, like the Army, in a regulatory environment where the do’s and don’ts are clear and in line with the law. Today, there is nothing muddier than when and how a police officer should wield powers legitimately vested in him or her.
Whom to challan or ignore for a traffic offence; how forcefully to quell unruly behaviour on the streets — each petty incident requires the police officer to first think of the political consequences. Decisive, timely, preventive action often suffers. Events snowball as the local police waits for directions from seniors, who ignore such events till they explode and become “above the radar” on centralised flashpoint monitors. By then it’s often too late.
Indians view the rule of law not as a framework according to which we should mould our behaviour, but as a hurdle, crossing which is a signal of prowess and power. District magistrates and superintendents of police have to be adept at this game of privileging and stratifying people — just like their colonial predecessors. Your social status is evident in the treatment you get from these worthies. The poorest, unorganised litigants are stopped outside the gate by police guards.
Their only chance to get the big man’s attention is to hope that his car will stop, its window wound down so that a written petition can be stuffed in and heart-rending pleas babbled to the inhabitant of the car. For the middle-class petty businessmen, small farmers and the poor who come through intermediaries — lawyers, village and block-level politicians or non-state actors — a darshan is usually arranged by the peon in tacit recognition of their collective power.
The aggrieved persons stand before the big man and only the leader is offered a chair to sit, as the issue is discussed and assurances given to have it “looked into”.MPs, MLAs, rich landlords, top businessmen and senior government officers are ushered into an “inner office” where the atmosphere is more relaxed and tea/coffee may be served or at least offered. When ministers visit and want to meet the DM or SP, who will “call on” whom depends on the relative political weight — “closeness” — of the two to the chief minister.
Under the British, the rule of law was primarily imposed to protect the interests of Europeans. After Independence, the laws became aggressively egalitarian on paper. Our laws are hopelessly idealistic and unenforceable. We have the right to private property but it can be taken away, quite casually, for “public purposes”. Other than purposefully poor oversight of public property, the reason why encroachments are seen so benignly is that property rights are only lightly embedded in our political and social consciousness.
The Allahabad High Court was correct to order the eviction in Mathura. But the political circumstances which allowed the encroachment in the first place made its order unenforceable. The cost of such hypocrisy is the death of at least two dozen people, many more injured and a nail in the coffin of the rule of law. We ignore the political economy, within which laws operate, only at our peril.