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BUNKER TOWN

Sandbags, bunkers and overwhelming presence of armed constabulary gives the impressing that Delhi’s a police state. But it’s not easy to secure a city of Delhi’s proportions and complexities

A denizen of Delhi, irrespective of his or her social status, cannot miss one fundamental fact of existence: the ominous presence of security forces with guns and rifles. The sand-bunkers are all- pervasive, with gun jutting out, sniper looking fixedly at the people for a potential miscreant whether it’s a market, Metro or railway station, university campus, mall, main road or tourist spot.

An uncomfortable thought lingers on at the back of mind every time one passes these bunkers: if there’s a mishap, inadvertent firing, somebody might get killed; it could be me. This menacing presence of gunmen and sandbags has created a sort of fear psychosis in the minds of the people, and they are learning to live with it.

A distinction needs to be made. India’s is not an armed society like that of the US where to keep and bear arms is a right. In India, it’s the armed forces, police, paramilitary that are overwhelmingly and overtly armed, especially in urban settings, particularly in the metropolises. That makes for a police state, at least to a casual observer, where everyone is in the realm of suspicion, under the watchful eye.

New sand-bunkers have come up near Lajpat Nagar in South Delhi. The cops deployed there, and some stationed in the nearby picket, are not particularly sure as to why they have been stationed there. They are not happy about it. “It’s not easy to be confined here, cooped up in a bunker, on a constant vigil, day in and out. It’s getting hotter with each passing day,” complains a new recruit of 27 years of age from Haryana, fairly disillusioned, for he had a very different idea of what a job of a cop in the city of Delhi would entail.

“It’s not something that’s done without a reason,” explains a head constable on the street. “There must be some intelligence alert. We have to be ready for all eventualities,” he explains without revealing specifics. Change in the VIP route sometimes leads to installation of these sand-bunkers, says an officer of the rank of joint commissioner in Delhi Police. Like for instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s route is now from the front of Khan Market, which sometimes leads to traffic restrictions.

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Delhi Police, whose motto is Shanti, Seva, Nyaya — peace, service and justice — has been criticised in the media for its unfriendly ways and extortionist tendencies. According to a nation-wide study conducted by Tata Institute of Social Science for the Bureau of Police Research and Development (DPR&D) last year, 75 per cent of people refrain from reporting a crime as the cops are unfriendly. Also, it was reported that the cops in general were found to be biased against women.

Delhi Police is no exception. Given this, the ominous presence of armed police doesn’t help. Recently, Delhi Police was in the news for assaulting a photo-journalist during JNU protests. Last year, a clash broke out between lawyers and police at Rohini court after the cops allegedly abused and assaulted a lawyer.

Delhi police deploys 7,420 policemen for the protection of 489 VVIPs, according to DPR&D, while women don’t feel safe in Delhi. The city has a dubious distinction of being the ‘rape capital.’ Therefore, the overt presence of gunmen has not ensured safety to an aam aadmi or an aam aurat.

Criticism aside, it is also true, to police Delhi with a population about to reach 20 million, is a herculean task. “It’s one the most difficult place to police. A city of humungous proportions,” says a serving joint commissioner of police, and makes an honest confession, “Beyond a point, you can’t help as you can’t be prepared for all eventualities, foresee all security scenarios. It’s God and good luck that overall the city remains peaceful.”

Former Delhi Police commissioner Neeraj Kumar, who was part of the city police in various capacities for over two decades, says, “There shouldn’t be an overdose of anything. Not even the ominous presence of bunkers, sandbags and armed cops.” He, however, qualified his statement by saying that this is a ‘peacetime’ argument, stressing that it’s not easy to ensure peaceful existence in a complex and big city like Delhi. “But if something happens, there’s a terror attack, a different argument will be pursued. What was the police doing?” This argument will be fostered by the same set of people who now object to ominous presence of police with arms.

To clarify the picture, some comparisons are necessary. Delhi has four times the population of Finland and twice as much as that of Belgium. Four Delhis would add up to the most populated country in Europe, that’s Germany. Delhi has been a target of many terror attacks in the past. When a city is vulnerable to terror attacks, the police has to be deployed at strategic locations, round the clock, to meet any foreseeable contingency. Even in the European cities — Berlin, Paris, Rome or Amsterdam — after a series of terror attacks, over the last couple of years, covert policing has been replaced by presence of armed constabulary and armoured vehicles at sensitive locations, tourist places and busy parts of the city.

“So why pinpoint only Delhi?” argues Neeraj Kumar. After the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, there are many armoured vehicles to be seen and security forces deployed in various parts of the city to foil any misadventure by terrorists.

Delhi has complex problems. “There’s a huge floating population, three-fourths of Delhi is unauthorised, huge mixed population, vehicular population is unprecedented and the neighbouring regions are breeding grounds of criminals, especially western UP and parts of Haryana,” points out Neeraj Kumar.

There’s another side of the story: shortage of personnel. According to the latest figures, Delhi has a sanctioned strength of 84,685 police personnel, yet 8,091 of them lie vacant. Traffic management in this polluted atmosphere is a health hazard. So many times, a traffic policemen is run over by inebriated drivers in the night, like in December when a 34-year-old traffic constable was hit by a speeding car at Nelson Mandela Marg in Vasant Kunj.

No wonder, many lower level functionaries feel it is a thankless job. An additional SHO posted at the police headquarters expresses similar sentiments: “See what happened in France, will such a thing happen in India?” French President Emmanual Macron lead the grateful nation in paying tributes to the police officer Arnaud Beltrame, a national hero, who swapped himself for a hostage and was killed thereafter by terrorists last week.

And whether we like it or not, deployment of armed cops, bunkers and sandbags protects the cops when gunbattles ensue with outlaws. It “has demonstrative presence and gives the message of preparedness,” says Neeraj Kumar, not just to citizens but also to miscreants and troublemakers. “We are ready, in fact, waiting for the worst to happen, but at the same time, hoping that it never happens,” says the additional SHO. In that sense, he says, presence of bunkers and armed policemen is a small price to pay to ensure a peaceful city.

At the other extreme, nobody wants a police state. As Jim Garrison, famous for his investigation into the assassination of President John F Kennedy had said, “I’m afraid, based on my own experience, that fascism will come to America in the name of national security.”