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Cops and the city

Pyjama parties, girlfriends and tattoos are branded as 'suspect' by our police. How will they crack urban crime if they are out of sync with new urban realities? Aasheesh Sharma writes.

india Updated: May 29, 2011 03:04 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
Aasheesh Sharma
Hindustan Times

They don't understand mobile technology or online social media, are scandalised when the girl next door sports a tattoo or goes pubbing and are awkward dealing with teenagers who work long hours at call centres and party harder. So, the men in khaki do what they are infamous for: become pre-emptive judges.

Unlike the police in the movies, the moral judgment doesn't take long arriving: Why wear short skirts? Don't venture out in the evening. Why stay alone? Or pray, why have girlfriends?

Call it a cultural divide or absence of soft skills. But the insensitivity of police investigators, at times trivialising the victim's lifestyle, often rears its head in cosmopolitan crimes.

It isn't that they were ever known to be sensitive, says sociologist Dipankar Gupta. The urban lifestyle, exploding at a frightening pace, has brought with it new problems. "Even in my teens, the police branded those partying on New Year's Eve as evil. But now many more people go out pubbing every evening. The police even have a tough time digesting that women work in call centres around the clock."

At times, focusing on the frivolities in a case, such as the murder of Neetu Solanki, branded the 'girl with the butterfly tattoo' or playing the moral Taliban, as after the knifing of Shobhit Modi, is a convenient subterfuge to avoid responsibility, says Gupta. "In America, if a policeman said rape happens if you wear short skirts, it won't take him very far. As the Aarushi case showed, where the Meerut IGP callously held forth on the Talwar family's character, we have a half-baked police force. After a molestation, they would say your daughter shouldn't be out in the coffee shop. If the police had their way, your daughter would be at home and your son next to you pressing your feet. Then they won't have to do any work."

The police are out of sync with urban realities, says social scientist Shiv Viswanathan. "The danda cannot be the rule of law. Most police personnel reflect the social-split personality. Many are from backward castes and are assigned tasks beyond their social equipment," says Viswanathan.

Governed by a feudal mindset, reinforced by the archaic Police Act, the policeman has taken it upon himself to sit in judgment on what he perceives is wrong. This malaise is particularly acute when it comes to interacting with today's teenagers, says child and adolescent psychiatrist Amit Sen. "There is a natural disconnect between older generations and today's teenager," says Sen, 51, who has conducted workshops on soft skills for the Delhi Police. "But this divide is the widest when it comes to the police. A typical case would be of a friendship, say between a girl from the middle class and a boy from a lower economic strata. When the police get to know about it, they would typically jump to one of the two conclusions: The boy is exploiting the girl or the girl is amoral. In the former case they would want to protect her and in the latter, brand her characterless and suffocate her with insensitive questions about her relationship."

A question of gender
The standard police response to complaints of crime against women is callous, says lawyer Rebecca John. Aggressive and sexist questioning are common. "In one of the rape cases I am handling, the police were quick to comment on the victim's way of dressing. You cannot possibly expect educated 25-year-olds to stay in purdah. Can you?" she asks.

In his decade-long association with the police, psychologist Rajat Mitra, who has worked with Tihar Jail inmates, discovered gender insensitivity was rampant. "It wasn't limited to constables or sub-inspectors. A very senior officer, a former head of Tihar prison, told me rape was a spontaneous act by a frustrated mind — that there was nothing to research in assault cases. If you have such a retrogressive approach, it percolates down to constables."

The infamy of the Indian cop has been built on a history of brutality, corruption, incompetence and insensitivity.

Dipankar Gupta says modernity implies that one treats other people as equal citizens. Since our police are not modern, they fall back on feudal attitudes. Rebecca John first came across the police's inability to understand the nuances of online media during the Aarushi case. "When a cop who cannot understand why a child would write an email to a parent sitting in the next room, (most urban teenagers these days do that), how can you expect him to fathom the concept of sleepovers after birthday parties?" she asks. The Talwars had a tough time explaining to investigators that sleepovers were common in most Indian metropolises.

Delhi Women and Child Minister Kiran Walia was shocked with the manner in which the police interrogated child abuse victims last year. School cab driver Lalit Ratawal was arrested in September 2010 for raping a girl and sodomising her two brothers in central Delhi's Prasad Nagar area. "A lot of times, the police even tend to put the blame of child abuse on the mother," says Walia.

Lack of skills
The investigative skills of our police are nowhere close to what's accepted internationally, says Rajat Mitra. "The most glaring example of this is in the questioning technique. Ideally, the suspect should be facing the questioner in an enclosed room. In India, a crowd tends to interrogate suspects in the crude, aggressive manner they've learnt more from bad Hindi films than at the training academy. It disregards behavioural aspects of questioning."

But top cops insist they are equipping the cadre with soft skills. Delhi Police Commissioner B K Gupta says the police are taking steps to bridge the cultural divide. "Some of the officers come from a rural background. Language is a barrier," concedes Gupta. "But a policeman should not be rude, unsympathetic or discourteous. So, apart from English and lessons in Internet and online social media, they are getting classes in etiquette and behaviour. We are training them on the importance of forensics, about how to preserve the scene of crime." Gupta refutes the charge that the police trivialise the victims' lifestyle. "We never do that. It is the media which does this," he says.

The cases in the metropolises may get widespread media attention, but the police in rural areas are no better, says women's rights activist Madhu Kishwar, senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "The same value judgments are passed in revenge killings in villages and the police often hound the couple." Kishwar says the police are not sensitive to men either. "The only code that the police understand is a kick from above and a bribe from below."

Demotivated trainers
In a short induction, constables and sub-inspectors are expected to acquaint themselves with job requirements, jurisprudence, forensics, soft skills and gender sensitisation within nine months, followed by a month of compulsory commando training.

The emphasis, says Commissioner Gupta, is on toughening the recruit. "We've made a month's commando training compulsory for both men and women."

But, most times, the motivational levels of the motivators themselves are at rock-bottom. "Unlike the armed forces, where the best officers are groomed as trainers, in the police, training college is perceived as a punishment posting," says former Delhi Police Commissioner Ajai Raj Sharma, who later headed the BSF, the largest paramilitary force in the world, after his stint as commissioner in 1999-2002. Cop-turned-rights activist Kiran Bedi, as director general of the Bureau of Police Research and Development, introduced gender sensitivity and Vipassana workshops in training school. But Bedi didn't choose to be a trainer. "I was sent to training when I was due for a range assignment. I was sent there because I was inconvenient for certain quarters."

Bedi says the work she initiated was undone once she moved out. "Sensitive cops are a threat to the feudal work culture. They can question certain orders. So the programmes for self-audit were disbanded."

Ajai Raj Sharma says the curriculum of training schools needs to evolve courses that address the needs of urban policing: Mobile technology and social networking, gender sensitivity and staying in touch with the latest court judgments.

Manpower shortage in the force often takes its toll on training needs. India has a police-population ratio (number of personnel per one lakh of population) of 134 to the minimum peace-time United Nations norm of 222. Many a time cops are diverted to VIP duties without sanction.

Still, can the lack of training be an excuse for the absence of etiquette? Do systemic flaws allow the police to carry on being callous?

Magsaysay Award winner Shanta Sinha, chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Human Rights doesn't agree. "They treat women, children and the elderly with disdain. As public servants, they are paid to protect the rights of the weakest, in a dignified manner. The fear of the law has to be put into the police. They have to be held accountable."

First Published: May 28, 2011 23:24 IST