Sunday, February 26, 2012

The SC order is harsher on Baba Ramdev than on the Delhi Police…..

It’s a long order, beautifully written, cogently argued, and it takes time to read! It created a fair degree of initial storm in the media, but suddenly and surprisingly, the storm just died down in a day or so. It’s now totally out of the news. There is a reason for this. The reason is that the order is a very telling commentary on the role played by Baba Ramdev himself and his organization in causing public harm…..and even the death of Rajbala. This is an anticlimax really and the media has hence dumped the story….

Before we go into the judgment itself, we must remember the context in which the case was taken up by the SC. It was a suo-motu case…..which means that the SC initiated the proceedings on its own….no doubt because of the high-octane media coverage that had followed the midnight crackdown by the Delhi Police at the Ramlila Grounds. Baba Ramdev’s so called “yoga shivir” was itself held in the backdrop of the surcharged political environment created earlier by Anna – supported covertly and overtly by the BJP and the RSS. The media coverage on the midnight action was thus singularly anti-government. Baba Ramdev was showcased as the victim. Rajbala’s death was the handiwork of the government. There was an underlying assertion that even the imposition of Section 144 was illegal. When the SC took up the case, most people expected it to castigate the government in the most severe of terms…..

Before I comment on what the SC has said on Baba Ramdev and his trust and followers, let me highlight the SC’s observations on the police itself. First and foremost, the SC has blasted the Delhi Police for taking action in the night – saying there was no emergency that necessitated this midnight action. “The state and the Police could have avoided this tragic incident by exercising greater restraint, patience and resilience. The orders were passed by the authorities in undue haste and were executed with force and overzealousness. The decision to forcibly evict the innocent public sleeping at the Ramlila grounds in the midnight of 4th/5th June, 2011…..suffers from an element of arbitrariness and abuse of power to some extent”. Surprised with the words “to some extent”? That is a common theme running across the order. The SC goes on to state: “The action demonstrated the might of the State and was an assault on the very basic democratic values enshrined in our Constitution”. While this last averment appears harsh, it appears to have been spoken in the context of the timing of the action rather than the action itself “Except in cases of emergency or the situation unexceptionably demanding so, reasonable notice/time for execution of the order or compliance with the directions issued in the order itself or in furtherance thereto is the pre-requisite”.

From the reading of the above statements, it is clear that the SC has blamed the police basically for 1) Acting in haste in the midnight and 2) not giving enough time to Baba Ramdev’s followers to follow the orders given under Section 144.

Now coming to the other parts of the order dealing with Baba Ramdev’s conduct. “It was primarily an error of performance of duty both by the police and respondent no 4 but the ultimate sufferer was the public at large”. The word “both” is critical and the same tenor is carried on later in the order. “I have held that the respondent no 4 (Baba Ramdev’s trust) is guilty of contributory negligence. The trust and its representatives out to have discharged their legal and moral duty and should have fully cooperated in the effective implementation of a lawful order passed by the competitive authority under Section 144 Cr. P.C.” So the order to impose Section 144 was clearly lawful. Further “Due to the stature that Baba Ramdev enjoyed with his followers, it was expected of him to request the gathering to disperse peacefully and leave the Ramlila Maidan. He ought not to have insisted on continuing with his activity at the place of occurrence. Respondent no 4 and all its reps were bound by the constitutional and fundamental duty to safeguard public property and to abjure violence. Thus there was legal and moral duty cast upon the membes of the Trust to request and persuade people to leave the Ramlila Maidan which could have obviously avoided the confrontation between the police and the members of the gathering at the Ramlila Maidan”. Thus the SC is clearly saying that the order was legal, and Baba Ramdev was at fault in not accepting it.

What about the “abuse” of power that Baba Ramdev and the media had alleged. “The chain of events reveals that it was a case of police excesses and to a limited extent, even abuse of power”. Did the court say “limited” abuse of power? Was it a mistake? Read on. “This is not a case where the Court can come to the conclusion that the entire police force has acted in violation of the Rules….”. Further “I find from the evidence on record that some of the police officers/personnel were very cooperative with the members of the assembly and helped them to vacate the Ramlila Maidan while others were violent, inflicted cane injuries, threw bricks and even used tear-gas shells, causing fire on the stage….Therefore these two classes of Police Force have to be treated differently”. So clearly, it was not like the entire police acted in a brutal manner – only a section of it. But this much is well known of our police! And hence the court ordered that “The police shall also register criminal cases against the police personnel and members of the gathering at the Ramlila ground (whether they were followers of Baba Ramdev or otherwise) who indulged in damage to the property, brick-batting etc. For breach of the legal and moral duty and for its contributory negligence, the consequences of financial liability would also pass, though to a limited extent, upon the respondent no 4 (Baba Ramdev’s trust) as well. Thus I direct that in case of death and grievous hurt, 25% of the awarded compensation shall be paid by the Trust. Quite clearly, the blame is on both equally…..

Even if the blame has been put equally on both, the context makes it a harsher punishment for Baba Ramdev. Remember, he was riding a sympathy wave. The media was all against the government. The SC took up the case on a suo-motu basis. And yet….the Supreme Court has ordered that he must share the blame equally. Did the fact that Baba Ramdev’s personal credibility in fighting a battle on black money is suspect influence the SC’s decision? I guess it didn’t….but even if it had, it would be a reasonable influence. After all, Baba Ramdev has lots to answer on his own private island in Scotland and other such controversies. Whether the island is a gift worth $2 million, or an island bought from siphoned-off funds worth $20 million needs to be established. Opponents will say that this smacks of government vendetta…..but the truth will eventually be out. Till then, he will remain a suspect.

Baba Ramdev is no Anna… wonder his struggle died down so quickly. There has never been a charge of integrity against Anna (none except the stupid charge made by Manish Tewari from which he was forced to backtrack almost immediately). But there have been quite a few against Baba Ramdev.

The real truth is that while the order blames both the Delhi Police and Baba Ramdev “equally”, the order must be considered to be harsher on the latter simply because the order flows against the wave of sympathy for him. Far from absolving Baba Ramdev of his own mistakes, the court has asked him to compensate the victim. Baba Ramdev can come again to Delhi, but this time he had better follow the laws of the land…..

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