It’s an understatement that a country of a billion plus citizens is a hard place to police. With a legacy of political interference, almost always to their detriment, our public institutions can do with some respite. That, however, is last on the agenda of our politicians.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

Consider two recent, headline grabbing incidents: the encounter with alleged terrorists in Jamia Nagar in Delhi and the death, at the hands of the Mumbai Police, of a youth from Bihar, Rahul Raj. In both cases, allegations and counter-allegations have flown freely. From conspiracy theories about a “fake encounter" to regional prejudice, politicians have made all manner of accusations against the police. Samajwadi Party leaders have gone as far as calling the persons killed in Jamia Nagar innocents. Similar arguments have been put forward by railways minister Lalu Prasad and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar for the Mumbai shooting. No one, of course, wants to wait for the courts to deliver a verdict, for that will happen long after the electoral shelf life of the cases has expired.

The leaders should, however, be asked a simple question: What should a beat policeman do when he sees a person brandishing a weapon in a public place? Should he consult the home minister before taking any step or should he use his wits and training to take action? There is no dilemma here: The first function of the police is ensuring public safety. Yet why are questions raised after any such incident? This is bad news for public safety.

It is one thing to raise questions and quite another to use such questioning to further political and electoral goals. In both cases, the parties in question have constituents who are in some way or the other linked to those killed in the two incidents. The demand for a judicial inquiry in the Delhi encounter is an example. In one swoop, it tars both the magistracy and the police. If ascertaining truth is the motive behind the demand, a magisterial probe would suffice. But this does not serve political ends: The noise from such demands is much higher than the results established by a quiet probe. It’s not a one-off situation, a history of similar demands in the past has led to a situation where faith in institutional fairness and efficacy has been dented irreversibly.

Political interference has ruined the ability of the police to detect, investigate and prosecute criminals. Now, preventive action is being assaulted.

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