Police forces everywhere have a single mandate: to maintain the law and keep the order. In banana republics and totalitarian States, they go about their job without having to pay heed to any rule or law. In democracies, the police not only are supposed to be entrusted with the safety of people but are also answerable to their rights as citizens. India is clearly not a banana republic or a State under an iron fist.
And yet when it comes to an overwhelming number of cases — most recently witnessed in the incident of a college student in Chhattisgarh being beaten up by police personnel — our men in khaki behave as if they were an occupying force brutalising Indians. The fact that a woman who happens to be suffering from a mental ailment and was causing public nuisance was thrashed first and asked questions later tells a familiar story of policing in this country.
One doesn’t really need to read the recently released report by Human Rights Watch on police brutality in India to know that the culture of riding roughshod and worse by men in uniform against citizens — guilty or innocent — is endemic and a hangover from a colonial mindset where the police played the role of controllers for foreign outsiders.
The 118-page report, however, does document the apocryphal: arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture as well as custodial deaths. This kind of ‘habit’ that has been accommodated and thereby encouraged by the public at large needs to be broken, not only for the sake of our citizenry at large but also because the reputation of India as a democracy is at stake.
Police reforms form a large part of the practical change that is required. The chicken-and-egg problem of a police force working under incredibly stressful and dire conditions with little professional emoluments perpetuates a desensitisation that stops looking at how to use the law against law-breakers and instead uses statutory power to bully the citizenry at large. Coupled with India’s ever-noxious perception of class hierarchies, an overwhelming number of incidents of police excess involve the poorer sections of society as victims.
Unless India puts its mind into building and inculcating a mature, modern police force — whether while dealing with mobs, petty thieves or hardened criminals — it will always remain a sub-democratic country where the lathi serves a purpose more than the law.