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Push through police reforms now

If public fury is to result in substantive changes in policing, it must focus on the need for a force that is dependable, writes Pupul Dutta Prasad.

india Updated: Dec 23, 2012 22:49 IST

The brutal gangrape of a young woman in the Capital on December 16 has shocked each one of us. The incident has also united the people of the country in seeking answers from the government. The Delhi Police have been severely criticised by residents of the city for having failed to perform their primary function of providing security to citizens and preventing crime in the Capital. Now the moot question is whether things are going to change from here on. Will the outpouring of public anger help the government build a force that is sensitive, caring, responsive and accountable?

Usually, any immediate action after a crime is seen as a sufficient course of action by those in power, and people are also known to get on with their lives once they see some positive action on the ground. It has happened too many times in the past in this country to expect a different outcome this time unless, for once, the root causes of the problem are not brushed under the carpet.

The police force is not just any other department in the government machinery. It is that authority of the State with which the people have the closest contact in their day-to-day life. In a democratic society, it is reasonable to expect the police to serve the public interest. The police, too, must enjoy a basic level of public trust and confidence in order to fulfil its challenging and vast mandate. However, the manner in which the role of the Delhi Police is being questioned in the rape case is symptomatic of a larger malaise: there is a serious crisis of faith in the police in India.

The only way out of this challenging situation is ‘democratic policing’. The phrase is used to describe a specific model of policing that is rooted in the theory of democracy. David Bayley, an international scholar on policing who has done extensive research in India, identifies four key measures of democratic police reforms: first, the police must be accountable to law rather than to government; second, the police must protect human rights; third, it must be accountable to officials outside their organisation who are specifically designated and empowered to regulate activities of the force; and fourth, the police must give top operational priority to servicing the needs of the disaggregated public.

The irony is that all four are considered important by the Indian police force but the hard truth is that the general public, by and large, fears policemen because they use violent methods and abuse human rights. The people have little trust in the force because of corruption and lack of professionalism and accountability. The idea that the police exists to act in their interest is alien to most people.

In such a scenario, if policemen have been judged too harshly in this particular case, it is only a reminder of the general discontent with the police that runs deep and comes to the fore from time to time.

Coming back to the recent rape case in Delhi, there is no doubt that the police failed to do its duty: it failed to inspect a bus that had tinted windows and curtains and was being driven in areas that are supposed to be well policed, and in a city where rape in moving vehicles is not a new form of crime.

However, people must understand that not all vehicles can be policed at all times. Further, research has shown that even increased visibility of the police, enhanced patrolling and other methods of deterring crime, important as they are to instill a sense of safety and security among the people, are unlikely to drastically reduce the overall levels of crime.

So, if public fury is to result in substantive changes in policing, it must focus on the real issue: the need for a police force that is dependable. The demands for punishments like public flogging, hanging, torture, castration, etc for the culprits can only harm the public cause. People must realise that instead of demanding these punishments, they ought to push for reforms in the criminal justice system and in the police force.

Pupul Dutta Prasad, IPS, Senior Superintendent of Police, National Human Rights Commission, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal