A top journalist narrates an interesting story about one of the highest profile ‘spy’ stories in recent Indian history. Popularly called the “ISRO Spy Story”, the story broke around 1994 and revolved around two Maldivian women who allegedly used their skills as expert spies to build a reliable network of important government officials and personnel including specifically scientists at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) as part of an attempt to steal ISRO’s valuable sensitive secrets. At the centre of the scandal was a brilliant rocket scientist named S. Nambi Narayanan. The top journalist while writing about covering this story mentions in his news report that his examination into a story piqued after a chance encounter with a prominent ISRO scientist while on a flight to Madras. The scientist, who appears again at the end of this piece, mentioned to the journalist during conversation that ISRO is an open organization and that nothing in fact was classified. This set the ball rolling and led to closer examination of the spy story. The story was ultimately found, by reporters, to be one that was full of fabrications and inconsistencies. The reporters called the story out as a frame-up where the chargesheet filed by the Kerala police contained assertions that would stretch even the fluid boundaries of fiction. The CBI too came to the same conclusion, but it was only in 2018 that the Supreme Court directed the Kerala Government to compensate Mr. Nambi Narayanan to the tune of Rs. 50 lakhs for being false implicated as a ‘spy’. The damage though had already been done and a brilliant rocket scientist had to suffer years of ignominy and great personal loss due to a clear instance of police excess and gross negligence.
In the past week, the High Court of Delhi examined a bail plea of Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha in the Delhi riots case who have been charged under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) an act typically reserved for terrorists, and came down strongly on the Delhi police while pointing out that UAPA should only be used sparingly where there are actual acts of terrorism involved and not merely in cases of dissent or protests. This case is only the most recent example of laws being used by the police as a tool to oppress our own citizens rather than as a weapon to, in fact, deal with terrorism. While all governments are to some degree of abuse of these laws, the current version of the BJP led by Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have made abuse of process of law a standard tool while dealing with dissenters. The examples are numerous. In the case of Bhima Koregaon, eminent social activists have been thrown in jail and where serious concerns regarding the planting of evidence have been raised. Similarly, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the Indian Express reported that the High Court between January 2018 and December 2020 quashed 94 out of 120 detention orders under the National Security Act after it was invoked by the U.P. Police. These are embarrassing statistics for any police force and a government. However, we live in a time where shame and embarrassment are branches that we broke years ago during our fall to the present state of anarchy.
So what do we do when politicians and the police who answer to politicians display a failure to show integrity or an absence of shame? Taking a leaf out of our own democracy and others that have undertaken the democratic experiment, we must strengthen our laws and our institutions. Technically speaking the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has the power and the mandate to look into such police excesses and hold police personnel to account. However, there are two concerns with the NHRC – one is that its actions are not the product of a systematic examination of the manner in which police forces are adhering to the legal standard and acting in a manner that is professional but instead the examination of one-off cases that the NHRC is asked to look into. Often enough it is the courts themselves that look into such cases. Therefore this lack of an established protocol that focuses on auditing police stations for abuse of process is lacking. The second issue with the present version of the NHRC is that its image and perceived ability to act in an unbiased manner has taken a severe dent with the appointment of Mr. Arun Mishra as its Chairman. A former judge of the Supreme Court and the first non Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to serve as NHRC Chairman, Mr. Mishra once described the Prime Minister as a “versatile genius” while serving as a judge of the Supreme Court. He also forms part of a now infamous tribe of judges who have accepted a post retirement job so quickly after retirement. Soon after his appointment as Chairman, he in fact had a meeting with the Governor of Bengal, a BJP appointee. Needless to say his appointment does not inspire confidence on the issue of dealing with police and government excesses.
Instead of relying on impartial and effective appointees, the need of the hour really is a comprehensive framework that establishes a process for auditing police stations and the manner in which cases have been handled. These audits may be conducted by an independent commission that places greater examination the more severe the charge. For example, in cases of UAPA and NSA where rights of detainees are further diminished, the commission can demand a greater threshold for investigation and care. Furthermore, a police officer’s promotion and progress in the Indian Police Service should also be judged against his track record of not participating or overseeing such abuse. We must start thinking of power as a weapon and therefore have a framework to regulate its abuse. I would argue that the power to charge a person under UAPA and NSA for example has potential to be more dangerous than the use of a gun. While we do have gun licensing laws in place, we really have not regulated this unchecked weapon in the hands of the political class. The ironical thing is that these recommendations or similar recommendations have been made in the past, however, just like police reforms which the Supreme Court mandated a number of years ago, we have seen little to no movement in reforming our police system. If people accuse me of ignoring the fact that these excesses also took place during Congress rule, to them I say that no such excess should be allowed, and this is precisely why we need to implement police reforms so that no government in power can hold its citizens hostage without due cause and care. However, we as citizens and our media must demand this from our leaders. Without such a demand, we can expect little change and we will remain subject to the whims of our leaders even t0hough we are the ones who gave them this power. To conclude, I would like to bring back the story to the ISRO scientist who the top editor had a conversation with. I am not a betting man, but I would like to believe that the scientist, who if you have not guessed as yet was Mr. APJ Abdul Kalam, too would hope that such excesses are duly punished and prevented in the future.