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Arrested development

Consigned to the bottom rungs of a pernicious, officially sanctioned caste system, the Indian constabulary can only fail its diverse, demanding country, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Jan 30, 2013 23:03 IST
Samar Halarnkar

On a sunny Sunday in Bangalore this week, constable Anand Kumar picked up his antique but deadly .303 rifle, walked up to his boss, sub-inspector BS Vijay, and shot him three times, once in the shoulder, twice in the chest. Vijay was dead within seconds. Three facts around this murder warrant national attention.

One, Kumar, like all of India’s constabulary, was seriously overworked. He worked the night shift on Friday, on Saturday he was on Republic Day duty, and on Sunday — after a spat with Vijay over working hours — he was assigned guard duty at his police station. Shifts can last between 12 to 18 hours, and a month or more without a weekly off is not unusual.

Two, Kumar was 47. Paid less than a skilled mason, he was never promoted in 16 years on the force. Even if he had not killed his superior officer, his chances for advancement were bleak. About 90% of India’s 1.66 million-strong civil police force belongs to its lowest rung, the constabulary. Most can hope for only one promotion, and it is not unusual for many to retire as constables.

Three, Kumar’s weapon, the .303 rifle, is standard issue for most Indian police foot patrols. It’s more than a century old (Indian soldiers used it in the Afghan wars of the 19th century; British General Reginal Dyer’s forces fired 1,650 .303 rounds at Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919). It is unwieldy and eminently unsuitable for urban policing. The constable, the police’s most critical link with the public, is clearly accorded little attention.

In his circumstances, Constable Kumar is a fair representation of the Indian police, virtually unreconstructed since the days of Empire and increasingly unsuited to police a diverse, developing and demanding country. The Justice Verma Commission, which last week suggested urgent police reforms to combat endemic violence against women, points — as many have before — to political interference as the biggest impediment to the police. But the malaise is more pernicious and older than that.

“What the Indian police inspire in the public is fear and hatred, not trust, respect and love,” writes Praveen Kumar, an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, in his 2009 book, Indian Police. More than a century ago, this is what the Second Indian Police Commission of 1902-03 said: “What wonder is it that the people are said to dread the police, and to do all they can to avoid any connection with a police investigation”.

India’s colonial administration first recognised the deeply flawed nature of a system officially organised into three castes. Discussing the lowest level in the police force, the commission of 1902-03 said: “Constables are not a suitable agency even for the performance of the beat duties ordinarily entrusted to them. The great principle to be borne in mind is that duties requiring the exercise of discretion and judgment should not be entrusted to the lowest class of officers, from whom such qualifications cannot reasonably be expected.”

Almost 113 years after this observation, India continues to flood the streets with an ill-paid, deeply corrupt, overworked, poorly trained and often disgruntled constabulary and sequester its best-paid, best-trained and best-equipped officers from the people. Except in times of riot and other rare circumstances, IPS officers — many of them highly motivated and skilled — mostly function from behind desks and in chauffeur-driven cars. The members of this creamy layer are largely managers. They do not walk beats, ride patrol motorcycles or, unless specifically deployed, conduct criminal investigations. Their promotions are mostly assured. To the man on the street, the managers might well be on another planet.

The public at large usually deals with the lowest police caste, the constabulary, or, less frequently, the intermediate caste of sub-inspector or inspectors, who handle much of the daily supervision, paperwork and investigation. There is simply too much work for this critical level, so investigations are frequently shoddy. The director general of police is often faceless and rarely accountable to the public for departmental lapses. That honour falls to the political representative, the home minister, who usually leaves the talking to the DGP, who isn’t really accountable — a classic circle of evasion, as the eighth and concluding report of the National Police Commission (NPC) noted. Between 1979 and 1981, the NPC ranged across India to produce an exhaustive series of reports.

No government has bothered to implement even simple suggestions, such as testing all IPS officers before promotion to senior ranks and compulsorily retiring those who fail two attempts; and, most importantly, a great increase in the middle levels of assistant sub-inspector, sub-inspector and inspector, allowing the constabulary to be promoted and provide a large cadre of investigating officers.

“From what we have seen and heard already, we feel very much distressed and deeply concerned about the increasing intensity of public complaints of police oppression and atrocities,” said the first NPC report. Public dissatisfaction is rising. In the four years to 2011, nationwide annual complaints against the police grew by 20% to 61,765, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

None of this will change unless the constabulary does. With no reforms on the horizons, the constable grows ever frustrated because he (the number of women is increasing, but it is still minuscule) is better educated than before and more conscious of his lowly status and highly stressed life. A 2009 Karnataka Police study of junior ranks found two things aggrieved the constabulary most. The first was the inability to get a weekly off, a reflection of endemic administrative failure. The second — and this took the investigators by surprise — was the lack of toilets during their long day. A country that cannot provide this much deserves the police force it gets.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.