On 1 February, all hell broke loose for the police in Rampur district of Uttar Pradesh after seven buffaloes belonging to senior minister in the Akhilesh Yadav Cabinet, Azam Khan, went missing from his farmhouse in his native village. Officials of the crime branch were deployed to search for the missing buffaloes in an operation led by Rampur Superintendent of Police Sadhna Goswami. Sniffer dogs and fingerprint experts were also pressed into service. Three policemen were sent to the police lines as punishment for “dereliction of duty”, slaughterhouses were raided and meat sellers questioned. In fact, such was the terror unleashed by the police that many dairy owners landed up at police stations trying to pass off their buffaloes as those of Azam Khan’s. Finally, all the buffaloes were found within 48 hours.
The minister’s missing buffaloes and the police operation to trace them have become emblematic of the state of the Uttar Pradesh Police. Catering to the needs of top politicians from the ruling party seems to be far higher in the police’s list of concerns than the daily insecurities faced especially by women in the state.
“The priorities of the police have gone topsy-turvy under the Samajwadi Party government,” says Prakash Singh, former director-general of UP Police. “Postings and transfers of officials are being done on the basis of considerations other than professional competence, such as caste and religious background. Policemen are expected to serve the ruling party rather than ordinary citizens. This has adversely affected discipline within the force.”
Singh adds that the police has become more insensitive towards the plight of vulnerable sections, especially women. Indeed, just five days after the police went into a tizzy over Azam Khan’s missing buffaloes, a woman was shot dead in broad daylight in Mathura while she was heading towards the district court to testify against Sadhu Govindanand, who she had accused of raping her last July. The case had been reopened on the directions of the court after the police had filed the closure report.
In another case, when Avadesh Kumar Singh approached the police in Bahraich district to search for his missing son, a sub-inspector not only declined to file an FIR but also allegedly let loose a stream of filthy abuses. The FIR was lodged only after the intervention of the Allahabad High Court. Later, Singh’s son was found murdered and Singh died of a heart attack. On 7 February, holding the sub-inspector responsible for Singh’s death, the high court ordered his arrest.
Ever since Akhilesh Yadav became the chief minister, the high court has repeatedly sought to draw the Samajwadi Party government’s attention to the deteriorating law and order situation in the state. In September 2012, stating that “girls are feeling insecure while going to school/ college and their workplace”, the court directed the state government to take immediate measures to curb the growing menace of harassment and molestation of girl students and working women in Uttar Pradesh. Hearing a public interest petition filed by Allahabad-based Stree Mukti Sangathan (SMS), the court said that such incidents are not confined to any particular city and have become common across the state.
In its petition, the SMS had argued that women’s security is threatened in all public spaces, including malls and railway stations, and they are scared of venturing out of their homes.
Again, in June last year, the high court issued detailed instructions to the UP Police on measures to prevent the sexual harassment of women. A female law student in Allahabad had petitioned the court after she was chased by a group of men on her way to college. The court directed the police to install CCTV cameras at all important traffic intersections in the city and deploy special pickets outside schools and colleges. It also asked the police to intensify checking of two-wheelers so that anti-social elements can be apprehended. In this case, the court had summoned top officials of the UP Police to attend the hearings.
The police, however, was lackadaisical in implementing the directives, forcing the court to repeat its instructions on 6 February. Disposing of a public interest petition filed by Akansha Dwivedi, an Allahabad-based college student, a high court bench comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Dilip Gupta asked the police to install CCTV cameras and intensify patrolling on the busy city streets and traffic intersections. The court made it clear that the directives had to be implemented not just in Allahabad, but all the big cities in Uttar Pradesh.
“It is a sad commentary on the Samajwadi Party that the high court had to remind the government not once but thrice to do its duty of ensuring the security of its citizens,” says Rookrekha Verma, former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University.
Moreover, incidents of acid attacks on women continue to be reported from across the state, including capital city Lucknow. Last September, following the Supreme Court’s order on regulating the sale of acids, the Centre had asked all the state governments to enforce a ban on over-the-counter sale of such chemicals. The apex court has made it mandatory for buyers to produce their proof of identity before purchasing acids and imposed a fine of 50,000 on dealers who flout this rule. But, even today, acids are freely available across the state. “In Uttar Pradesh, the Supreme Court’s directive on acid sales remains only on paper,” says Prakash Singh.
However, top police officials continue to seek refuge in general comments about the pervasiveness of crimes against women, to deflect criticism of the inadequate steps taken to rectify the situation. “Crimes against women is a social problem,” says Additional DGP (Law & Order) Mukul Goel. “We are complying with the high court orders. Instructions are issued regularly to district-level police officials to ensure that they take tough action against anti-social elements. The state government has also set up a women’s helpline to specifically deal with crimes against women.”
Such platitudes apart, there is little action on the ground to prove that the state government is indeed serious in improving the law and order situation. The police, which seems to be caught in acute inertia when it comes to addressing the complaints of ordinary citizens, gets into a frenzied action mode when the buffaloes of Azam Khan go missing. It is obvious that the culture of genuflecting to the demands of VIPs is deep-rooted in Uttar Pradesh, and it appears to have only got worse since the Samajwadi Party came to power.
Not surprisingly, even as the state police has failed to implement the repeated court directives to protect women from sexual assault and acid attacks, Akhilesh Yadav finds nothing wrong in having policemen chase the missing buffaloes of his senior Cabinet colleague and chooses to blame the media instead. “The media prefers to highlight the theft of Azam Khan’s buffaloes instead of reporting on the development activities initiated by our government,” said the chief minister.