At a police training programme in the nineties, surrendered Naxalites were invited to share their experiences of torture. Retired DGP, KS Subramanian, writes in civil society website India Together that a woman IPS officer present on the occasion burst out loudly, “When I hear you people talk, I wish I had brought my revolver!”
Anyone familiar with fake police encounters would cringe at the outburst. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), custodial deaths have consistently risen from 98 in 2001 to 144 in 2005. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) receives over 70,000 complaints against the police every year. And yet, convictions of policemen are extremely rare.
India’s police force clearly lacks accountability under its 146-year-old Police Act, which once did a splendid job of sustaining colonial rule. The British police brass behaved and lived like lords, doled out favours for the privileged and kept the masses subservient to the Raj. After independence, the Indian officers have inherited that arrangement; their lavish lifestyles and power games can sometimes shame the British Sahibs. Most of us don’t find anything amiss when we see uniformed constables— the real crime busters and peacekeepers—doing menial jobs at the IPS officers’ bungalows.
Arvind Verma, a former IPS officer, now teaching criminology at the Indiana University in the US, says in a recent book, “Indian Police: A Critical Evaluation” that the suave police leadership (read IPS cadre), rather than the ill-mannered constables, could be responsible for the police-politician-criminal nexus.
Nithari proved yet again that the police in independent India still work for the powerful. Noida police refused to register cases when children of migrant workers started disappearing. Some mournful mothers were unsympathetically told that their daughters could have eloped. Priyadarshini Mattoo’s initial complaint was ignored because the stalker had a powerful father. And in the Jessica Lall murder case, even the court admitted that the investigators deliberately did a shoddy job to help the powerful accused.
The pattern shows that the status quo eventually helps the police-politician-criminal nexus. These unholy alliances threaten national security by running a parallel society, Kalyan K Mitra, another former IPS officer, says in an Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) publication. Subramaniam, who was a member of the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal on Gujarat, charges that Chief Minister Narendra Modi had instructed his administration to respect ‘Hindu sentiments’ a day before the anti-Muslim carnage in 2002. He says that in 1992, UP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh had directed the police leadership not to open fire on the ‘kar sevaks’ during the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.
Making sense of statistics
Isn’t it absurd that India’s highest number of crimes per person takes place in Delhi and Kerala and the lowest in Bihar and UP? The catch in the NCRB statistics is that it is relatively easy to register a crime in Delhi or Kerala than in Bihar or UP. Things become clearer when we examine the number of serious crimes (i.e. murders, attempted murders, rapes, abductions and armed robberies) as a percentage of total crimes reported. This makes Delhi and Kerala a lot safer than UP and Bihar. It also proves that underreporting of crimes hardly makes a place safer.
Reforms in a plural democracy
Indian Parliament is soon going to debate the draft of a new Police Act. If the overlooked findings of several earlier police commissions and reform committees are anything to go by (see box), India needs to establish democratic accountability of its police force above everything else. To begin with, we need to treat the men at the bottom— constables, head constables and sub-inspectors —as junior officers with improved service conditions and brighter career prospects and not as a factotum of IPS officers, bureaucrats and ministers. We also need to learn from the experiences of many countries where the police brass is answerable to citizens’ committees.