To become a just society, strike a balance between firm and fair law enforcement

A study shows glaring gaps in Indian policing — from unfilled quotas of SC/STs to a dip in women officers.
35-40% of junior personnel believe mob justice is natural in cases like cow slaughter. 20% don’t see anything wrong in killing ‘dangerous criminals’ and prefer it to legal trials(Gurpreet Singh/Hindustan Times)
35-40% of junior personnel believe mob justice is natural in cases like cow slaughter. 20% don’t see anything wrong in killing ‘dangerous criminals’ and prefer it to legal trials(Gurpreet Singh/Hindustan Times)
Updated on Aug 27, 2019 06:05 PM IST
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ByVipul Mudgal

The rule of law has two extremes: a failed State and a police State. A failed State loses control over law and order as its monopoly slips over the use of physical force. The latter commands complete control, but ends up abusing State machinery for repression. Both extremes suffer from a deficit of legitimacy.

A just society must strike a balance between firm and fair enforcement of the law. The police have to control crime, uphold the law and maintain harmony. But how do we know if the criminal justice system is fair and effective? Do we have access to accurate diagnostics to check if things are improving or flagging?

Most advanced democracies carry out satisfaction surveys to capture citizens’ perceptions of police performance, competence and behaviour. It is routine in the Western world to carry out large surveys on citizens’ trust in the justice system. The New York-based Vera Institute of Justice has been using citizens’ feedback since 1961 to make sense of what is and what ought to be.

Another important study, the World Justice Report, measures the rule of law across 126 countries. It uses data and surveys to measure the perceptions and experiences of citizens on multiple parameters. Sadly, India has slipped three points below its performance last year amid a global decline in the rule of law. Rising incidents of mob lynching and fake police encounters may have played a role in this decline.

But within India, we need more research to measure the State’s performance on the rule of law. We must first acknowledge that a prosperous and democratic nation cannot be built on an obsolete criminal justice system. The police forces are meant to serve the people, not parties or politicians in power. The next step is to professionalise the force and make it responsive and accountable.

It was with these objectives that the Status of Policing in India Report (SPIR) was conceived as a tool to monitor the impact of policing on the ground by Common Cause and its academic partners, the Lokniti programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. SPIR 2018 surveyed 20,000 respondents in 22 states on citizens’ trust levels, discrimination, police excesses, infrastructure, diversity, state of prisons and disposal of cases. SPIR 2019 (launching today) builds on these findings.

SPIR 2019 surveys around 12,000 police personnel inside police stations in 21 states and around 11,000 of their family members. It studies the working conditions of police personnel, their attitudes and infrastructure, crime investigation, diversity, people-police contact and police violence.

The study also uses the official data to construct the big picture of policing and exposes glaring gaps. For instance, police in India works at 77% of its sanctioned capacity. And yet, out of 22 states studied, only three have filled the Scheduled Caste quota and only six have filled the Scheduled Tribes quota, while all failed to fill the vacancies for women cops between 2012 and 2016. In fact, the proportion of women officers within their overall strength has declined.

A silver lining is that, since 2006, when the Supreme Court fixed the minimum tenure of two years for officers holding operational posts, the percentage of SSPs and DIGs transferred in less than two years has gone down from 37% in 2007 to 13% in 2016. But the flip side is that the transfers are unusually high during or just before the election years.

In 20 out of 21 states surveyed, the police personnel said they work between 11 and 18 hours a day (except Nagaland), and 50% said they got no weekly rest. Maharashtra is the only state where all police personnel get at least one weekly off day. More than 60% family members feel, as compared to others, that cops are likely to suffer from mental health conditions. Over 70% of personnel encountered political pressures while investigating cases involving influential people.

Another reason for worry is that only 6% personnel received any training in the past few years particularly in human rights and caste/community or gender sensitisation. No wonder, one in five personnel believe there is nothing wrong in killing “dangerous criminals” rather than pursuing legal trials. On mob violence, 35 to 40% junior personnel believed that it is natural for the mobs to punish “culprits” in cases of cow slaughter, kidnapping, rape or road accidents.

In the age of big data, human stories often get ignored. SPIR 2009 avoids that trap by complementing time-series data with findings of face-to-face interviews with personnel and their family members. Global experiences also show that big data policing, particularly through excessive surveillance and human targeting, can be counterproductive. And that is why the policymakers must look at the findings of research-based studies seriously and supplement better infrastructure and technology-use with appropriate training and capacity-building of its police personnel.

Vipul Mudgal is the Director of Common Cause India

The views expressed are personal

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Tuesday, May 24, 2022