Policing challenges

Print edition : September 07, 2012

A rioting mob attacks policemen outside Azad Maidan in Mumbai after a rally to protest against the recent riots in Assam turned violent on August 11.-VIVEK BENDRE

It is a matter of distress that there is no sign that those ruling the roost in India are willing to give up the reins of control over a much-abused police force.

Let me begin with an honest confession. In spite of my nearly four decades in the Indian police force, ironically, I am its bitterest critic. I am at the same time one of its staunchest admirers. To a superficial reader there may seem an inherent contradiction here, though I myself do not see one. The obstacles to honest, professional and efficient policing in the Indian context are enormous. These impediments are mounting at an alarming pace in a highly politicised ambience where narrow party interests supersede the needs for community safety. Not many are able to comprehend this complicated situation. And this explains some of the uncharitable and ill-founded criticism of the police. The few who understand the intricacies involved are not willing to admit that the Indian police are performing reasonably well considering the great odds they are pitted against in the form of too many extraneous controls and influences.

The average consumer of police service in the country demands literally the moon from the policeman. The expectation: maintain peace with minimum force even when provoked. The best of police forces in the world cannot achieve this. Just as there cannot be a vegetarian tiger, there cannot be a police force which will not use force when the occasion demands it. I am inclined to believe that within the constraints imposed by a corrupt polity and a massive population a substantial chunk of which is semi-literate if not illiterate the police have given a fair account of themselves and have held the country together.

I am for punishing those in the force who misbehave even slightly, what to speak of those who err grievously. Those policemen who rob or rape deserve the capital sentence, if only to deter others in the force who hide such evil proclivity. At the same time, my appeal is for a reward to those policemen especially at the grass roots who give their best and have the guts to halt influential depredators, be they those who plunder our mines or those who steal sand, both resources that belong to the state.

What I have always pleaded for is an understanding of the complexities of the tasks assigned to the Indian police. Some recent happenings convince me that the challenges to effective and professional policing can strike at the system itself. At this rate policing will collapse, especially in the four metros, which have become a hotbed of political intrigue.

Take a few recent instances in the metros, where the police have had to fulfil a nearly impossible role because of the increased might of the mob and anti-social elements, backed either by the establishment or by those opposed to it. The former uses the police to remain in power, while the latter want the police to fail so that they can use the resulting chaos to damn the government. The police are caught between these two misdirected segments of the polity.

As I write this, Baba Ramdev and thousands of his followers are just about to vacate the Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi after ignoring the police request to clear the area. The Babas threat to march on Parliament House on the black money issue was foiled by the police in an admirable manner. Later, the agitators were holed up in the stadium and refused to budge. In a situation where a mob had taken the law into its hands, the police showed the utmost sagacity and patience.

Months ago, the Delhi police had been criticised for clearing the Ramlila Grounds of agitators from the same group when there was a semblance of a threat to law and order. The point made then was that the police acted needlessly against a peaceful crowd. This argument ignored the potential the situation held for a showdown between the crowd and the authorities the next morning. I am not discussing here the merits of the cause for which the Baba stands. I am wholly focussed on the predicament he and his followers posed to the police, who would be accountable ultimately for any violence that flows from a kid-glove treatment of unruly crowds.

Moving to Mumbai, on August 11 a democratic protest against the recent ethnic violence in Assam was disrupted and large-scale violence unleashed. As a result, at least two lives were lost and several people, including many policemen, were injured. The violence was unexpected, although some reports suggested that the police had intelligence pointing to the contrary. The Mumbai Police Commissioner denied any intelligence failure.

The organisers of the meeting contended that their peaceful assembly had been infiltrated by anti-social elements. (According to one report, a mob armed with sticks, rods and swords had travelled from Kurla station and descended on Azad Maidan.)The truth will never emerge. The point is, how do the police cope with a situation where they allow a democratic protest but it is frustrated either by a mischievous organiser or by elements opposed to it.

What if the police use force uniformly without fear or favour to maintain law and order? Will it be supported by the government of the day? The Maharashtra Chief Minister is said to have gone to the capital to brief the Prime Minister personally on this issue. The very fact that he did so would indicate that there were certain aspects to the August 11 violence which could not be brought into the public domain. There is here a suspicion that the elements who were not reconciled to a squeaky-clean Chief Minister were behind the violence. Whatever be the case, policing a huge metropolis like Mumbai cannot be on professional lines any longer but will have to be tailored to the needs of politics.

All this takes place in the midst of huge doubts raised about the integrity of the process that determines the posting of police officers in the city. Hats off to Julio Ribeiro, former Police Commissioner, who has cited irregularities and made specific allegations. This confirms that there is not only politics in policing but also large-scale corruption in administering police forces. This is an evil many other cities in the country also suffer from. The rat race is for a posting in a city because of the huge scope for lining ones pockets. The ultimate casualty is professional policing because postings are ordered not on grounds of suitability but on the price paid by the seeker of a lucrative position.

Moving south, there is now an outstanding Police Commissioner in Chennai, who has brought in many innovations. He deserves to succeed. Under his leadership, the city police recently denied permission for the holding of a Tamil Elam Supporters Organisation (TESO) conference at the Royapettah YMCA grounds. I thought that this was a sensible move because the emotions involved were explosive, although the police refusal cited other reasons, including the proximity of the venue to a government hospital. The Madras High Court, however, ruled that such an order was irregular and permitted the organisers to go ahead with the meet at the same place. Of course, in the process, it imposed a few conditions on the organisers, including the responsibility to maintain order.

I thought the stands taken by the police and the judiciary were equally justifiable: the former opted for a precautionary move in the interests of calm near a hospital where hundreds of sick were being treated, and the court took a stand that upheld the constitutional right to freedom of speech of an organisation that had not been banned by the government. Fortunately, the two decisions were accepted with great grace by the rival groups.

Hypothetically speaking, what if the High Court had endorsed the police order and the organisers chose to defy the ban? There would have been bedlam and violence. This is the dilemma that police all over the world face. Unless political parties display moderation and grace, the police, sandwiched between them, could flounder. It is not my case that such dilemmas are the problems of the Indian police alone. The difference between us and many Western democracies is that politics and policing are zones apart in most of the West. It is a matter of distress that there is hardly any sign that those ruling the roost in India are willing to give up the reins of control over a much-abused police. As long as this remains so, the citizen cannot expect honest and objective policing. This is the tragedy of Indian democracy.

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