The problem

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UNLIKE its counterpart in many other democracies, the Indian Police has rarely been held in high esteem by its compatriots. Though many in the police may feel deeply distressed when confronted with the late Justice A.N. Mulla’s much quoted description of the police as ‘a uniformed gang of criminals’, they do reluctantly admit that ‘no self-respecting person would willingly associate with the police – whether as a witness, a complainant or a defendent.’ This when most of us do turn to the police for help, not that we have many other options, when in trouble as victims of crime.

The gulf separating the police from the public is not a new development. The descriptions of the village chowkidar, the medieval kotwal, daroga or patil, more often than not, are about their venality and cruelty. Equally, the modern police force which can trace its constitution to the colonial Indian Police Act of 1861, modelled interestingly on the Irish rather than the British framework, was structured more as ‘a defender of the establishment’ than as an impartial and professional organisation owing essential accountability to the citizens and the rule of law.

Expectations that an independent, democratic India would radically overhaul the inherited colonial legacy – structure, role and function – have been unfortunately belied, and perception about the police as an anti-citizen force continues to hold sway. To argue, as some indeed have done, that alienation from the public is to be expected since the police is mandated to exercise force on behalf of the state smacks of essentialism. It takes away from the need to institute changes in structure, composition and working style so that the police is experienced more as a friend and protector.

The widespread dissatisfaction with the functioning of the police – both its behaviour and efficacy – has led to the setting up of many a commission, the latest being the National Police Commission. It is a marker of the times that since the NPC submitted its recommendations nearly two decades back, state response, irrespective of the regime, has been one of stonewalling if not active disregard. True, we hear periodic fulmination about police reform; also about the constitution of further expert subcommittees. But concerted action remains a distant cry.

Many of the standard criticisms/suggestions focus on the lack of skills, training, orientation and leadership qualities of the force; a command structure suited more to the armed forces resulting in a perception of the citizen as ‘enemy’; a skewed distribution of scarce resources towards high profile activities like VIP security as against strengthening the thana and the beat constable; a tendency to create special forces (Rapid Action Force, National Security Guard) while neglecting the main force; and above all, a persistent and unhealthy interference by the bureaucratic and political class. Every scholarly study, reports of official commissions, or accounts by retired police officers highlight the same malaise, come up with similar suggestions. As did the two previous issues of Seminar, October 1977 (The Police) and August 1980 (Policing).

Citizen ire against the police is, however, insufficiently cognizant of the conditions under which the force operates – poor pay, abysmal housing conditions, tortuously long hours of work. Self-esteem and professional pride can hardly be expected to flower in an environment of scarce materialities, further compounded by deep suspicion and hostility. Media coverage, with its focus on the venal and the spectacular, too has contributed to a distorted perception about police realities. Equally at fault is the sorry state of our criminal justice system – outmoded laws, insufficient, crowded and ill-equipped courts, a paucity of judges and public prosecutors, and an antediluvian legal process – all of which contribute both to inordinate delays and a poor conviction record.

Even more troubling than the problems associated with everyday crime and lack of security are the situations of breakdown – riots, insurgency, terrorism, organised crime. Is our police force equipped to understand, far less respond to, the challenges posed by the changing profile of crime and criminals? More so, given the requirements of skill, autonomy and professionalism – qualities that the force sorely lacks.

None of this is of much concern to the citizen. The face one encounters is that of apathy, inefficiency, brutality, corruption and inequity – a tendency to favour the powerful. No wonder, when faced with escalating threat to property and persona, the effort is to seek out alternative arrangements – from private security to arrangements with the local dadas and the mafia.

As we move towards the new millennium, challenges of law and order, of security and of justice take on a fresh urgency. This issue of Seminar debates different aspects of the police-citizen interface. The voices, in the main, are those of police persons, both serving and retired. They, more than others, should know what needs to be done.

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