Police corruption, past and present

  • Ramachandra Guha, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 20, 2014 21:22 IST

A study by the Bangalore-based portal I-Paid-A-Bribe concludes that of all the government departments in Karnataka, the police are the most corrupt. In the first 11 months of the year, citizens logging on to the portal reported paying close to Rs. 9 crore as bribes to the men in khaki. The study surveyed 37 state agencies; the second-most corrupt was the transport department, whose yearly takings were less than 10% of that alleged to have been collected by the police department.

Ironically, the day before this study was reported in the newspapers, I was reading an essay entitled 'The Corruption of the Police: Its Causes and Remedies'. The essay, written as far back as 1845, dealt with police wrongdoing in another part of India, Bengal.

The author of this article, a certain FP Skipwith, wished to understand why policemen in colonial India were so corrupt. Was it because they were poorly paid, and augmented their income with takings on the side? Skipwith answered in the negative, noting that policemen "have been equally well paid with all other bodies of Native Officers in the employment of Government, and yet among them chiefly do we hear repeatedly of breach of trust, of connivance with thiefs".

In the Bengal countryside of the 19th century, the police often worked hand-in-hand with large landlords. If labourers protested against low pay or illegal exactions by the zamindar, the police would beat them up or throw them in prison rather than have the injustice rectified. Some writers claimed that if European settlers came to replace indigenous zamindars, this process of harrassment would stop. Skipwith disagreed. There were already European planters in the indigo-growing districts of the province. Their morals were no better than their Indian counterparts'; as Skipwith noted, "cut off from all society with their equals, many of them become deeply infected with the plague raging around them, and even surpass the Natives in cruelty and oppression".

Back in 1845, Skipwith rejected low pay and dark skin as explaining police corruption. But he did think that "insecurity of office" was a "great cause of inefficiency". Policemen were liable to be transferred at a moment's notice by the district magistrate. And, at least in the Bengal of the 1840s, "no respectable Native will accept an office from which he knows he may be removed in a fit of irritation, and those appointed at the present day are for the most part the lowest of the low. They accept office for the sole purpose of filling their pockets as speedily as possible, and, if detected and dismissed, hurry away to another district where their delinquencies are unknown".

Insecurity of tenure remains, even now, one reason why the police are corrupt. But where previously policemen were liable to be transferred by a magistrate, now their postings and transfers are in the hands of MLAs and ministers. In several states of the Union, specific posts are sold for specific fees. To recover from citizens, and in the shortest possible time, the money paid to one's political bosses then becomes a key aspect of police behaviour.

A second reason that policemen are so corrupt is the punitive powers they command. Where ration card officers and land registrars can merely delay granting citizens their rights, policemen who remain ungratified can invoke provisions of the law that hold out the fearful prospect of arrest and incarceration.

The problems of the police, of course, extend well beyond corruption. Citizens who observe them in their daily duties would notice their profound lack of interest in their work. As well as their distinct lack of fitness - at least in the parts of India I know, policemen tend to be extremely overweight.

In his recent book on Delhi, Rana Dasgupta has a vivid description of a police station, which was "the most dilapitated seat of state power imaginable", with wires spilling out of sockets, holes in the wall, and stickers saying, among other things, 'Sexi Hot Boy'. In these decrepit places a great deal of violence can be committed. Back in the 1980s, a series of reports by the People's Union of Democratic Rights documented the brutality of the police, as expresssed particularly towards under-trials. I don't believe the situation has improved materially since.

Were a yearly award instituted for the most underperforming branch of the State, I believe the police department would regularly be in contention. Corrupt, demotivated, unfit, under-equipped; such are the words that come instinctively to mind when thinking of our guardians of the law.

To be sure, there are exceptions, of policemen who are honest, focused, and capable. When two such exemplary officers filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, the judges concurred with the petitioners that it was lack of accountability and pervasive politicisation that had led to widespread public dissatisfaction with the police force across India.

The Court ordered a seven-step process of reform, beginning with the depoliticisation of senior appointments and an end to arbitrary transfers at the behest of third parties. A study by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative showed that most states had completely disregarded the Court's directives (See a PDF version of the study here ).

Earlier this month, at a meeting of senior policemen in Guwahati, the prime minister talked of promoting 'SMART' policing, the letters standing for strict/sensitive, modern/mobile, alert/accountable, reliable/responsive, and trained/techno-savvy. One hopes that clever (or smart) talk will lead to substantive action. For, while the press dwells on the need for insurance reform, labour law reform, banking sector reform, and retail sector reform, surely police reform matters even more to the aam admi.

(Ramachandra Guha's most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha.)

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