Delhi's police commissioner Amulya Patnaik retires on Saturday after a 35-year career, of which he would want to forget the last five months.
Four days before his retirement, on Tuesday, the Union government, in a sudden move brought back SN Shrivastava, Patnaik's batch mate (AGMUT cadre, 1985) from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to stop the raging communal riot in Delhi. AGMUT stands for the Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram and Union Territory.
Shrivastava was asked to "join immediately". By evening, he was on the riot-torn streets of north-east Delhi along with National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval; Patnaik, who had not visited the riot-hit areas over the previous two days, was in police headquarters, 12km away.
Senior police officers in the force say that this is the first time that such a thing has ever happened.
Even on Thursday, when lieutenant-governor Anil Baijal held a meeting on steps to deal with the riots, Shrivastava was called; Patnaik wasn't. Many police officers said this message from L-G's office was clear on who the government would work with to bring the situation back to normalcy.
The problem, several officers in the force said, were of Patnaik's own making.
A mid-level police officer, who was on the streets since the first day of violence, said: "The government was left with no choice. At one point, it looked like the death toll would be in the hundreds. Until Tuesday afternoon, a large part of the damage and casualties had happened (the death toll is 42) but he (Patnaik) was yet to come to the spot. In hindsight, he may have miscalculated the impact of the violence, much like he failed to anticipate the anger among the Delhi police constabulary some months ago." The officer asked not to be named.
The moment when Patnaik -- who has the reputation of being a clean but hands-off officer -- lost control of his own police force, and tarnished his own legacy according to multiple officers in the force, can be traced November 5, 2019.
That morning, 2,000 Delhi Police personnel and their families came out on the streets, blocked the road outside the police headquarters, and shouted slogans against their own chief. They refused to leave until he came out and assured them they were safe. The previous day, police personnel were injured in clashes with lawyers outside the Tis Hazari Court complex. The video of a cop bullied by a group of lawyer in Saket was also widely circulated on social media.
The protesters, mostly comprising the constabulary, said openly that they were "let down" by Patnaik, who neither acted in their support nor spoke up for them.
That afternoon, when Patnaik finally stepped out and spoke to his men, they refused to listen.
"We have to behave like a disciplined force," he pleaded, but they kept chanting slogans. They held banners that had names of retired Delhi Police officers Kiran Bedi and Deepak Mishra, who, they said, could do his job better.
Patnaik left the protest site; they stayed put till midnight.
"It was the first time we realised something was very wrong. He is a decent and honest man but understand that the police commissioner is a general. Can you imagine the constabulary revolting against their general?," another serving mid-level officer asked on condition of anonymity.
Patnaik has a different take: "Protests at the police headquarters were an account of a particular issue of police sentiments vis-a-vis the lawyers and after necessary intervention it was immediately sorted out. It is important to keep in mind that same day all important duties that the police performs were done including the implementation of the odd and even scheme".
Patnaik's leadership and the city police he led were again criticised for waiting at the gates of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) while a mob, armed with sticks, rods and sledgehammers, assaulted students inside the campus on January 5. The Delhi Police later said they were waiting for permission to enter the varsity campus.
Patnaik said this was "on account of a protocol of understanding between the police and the university and the entry into campus is made only with specific permission from the vice chancellor. Unless it pertains to some incident which started outside and for the police it's a question of hot pursuit like in case of Jamia".
Less than a month before the JNU attack, on December 15, the Delhi Police were slammed for their handling of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia, where police entered the library and assaulted students -- the videos of the assault have gone viral on the Internet.
That same evening, as the protests spread, the Delhi Police panicked and shut the Delhi-Noida border at Kalindi Kunj, stopping vehicular traffic at Shaheen Bagh and ceding an open road for protesters to start a sit-in that is still going on 75 days later. Not only is it the most successful occupy movement anywhere in the world, it also led to multiple other sit-in protests across the city, one of which, at Jafrabad on February 23, became a flashpoint that led to the riots between Hindus and Muslims.
"The riots started because of the road blockade at Jafrabad, which was inspired by the Shaheen Bagh sit-in protest. Had police not blocked the road, nobody would occupy Shaheen Bagh. Nobody would have come to Jafrabad," said a third police officer, who asked not to be identified.
Many serving police officers believe that if Patnaik had cracked down hard on the rioters, the situation would not have gotten out of hand.
"It never happened. Instead, we were helpless. While the mob attacked journalists and people on Monday and first part of Tuesday, we couldn't do much. We should have got the orders to beat up those rioters without any care," said a sub-inspector posted at the centre of the riots, adding that it required the National Security Advisor and another officer from the Central Reserve Police Force to quell the rioters.
Patnaik believes the police did its job. "I have a feeling that Delhi Police's quick response effectively salvaged the situation to normalcy in a matter of 2 days. Otherwise, riots of this nature with sentiments running very high have a tendency to last for much longer durations."
The recent abyss that Delhi police finds itself in was touched upon by former Delhi Police commissioner, Neeraj Kumar in a column on Wednesday.
"…There is neither a dearth of vehicles nor other wherewithal to stand up to tough situations. But when the force lacks leadership, all these are of no use. It then begins to lack the moral strength and the sense of purpose when confronted with difficult situations. Remember, there are no poor soldiers, only poor generals."
Expectedly, Patnaik does not agree: "It is not correct that there was a leadership crisis and all the SOPs were followed while responding to a developing situation. Police leadership did respond at various levels. Special commissioner of police was there at initial stages and subsequerntly there was intervention from my side on Monday itself. The situation was stabilised to a large extent by February 25 and considerable normalcy had returned by morning of Feb 26. Because of more reinforcement it progressively improved thereafter".