Problem of policing

Published : Apr 06, 2007 00:00 IST

At Nandigram, on March 17.-DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP

At Nandigram, on March 17.-DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP

The tragedy at Nandigram should be looked at in the context of the `unionisation' of the police in West Bengal.

The killing of 14 people in Nandigram has come as a shock to everyone who has got to know about it. To many, the tragedy, apart from the actual killing itself, is that it should have occurred in a State that is ruled by a Left Front government that has, through the decades, fought against such action by the police. Has being in power for 30 years in West Bengal altered their attitudes to this extent, making them move away from their identity as leaders of the poor and the oppressed?

That question must be answered by the Left Front, by all its constituents, but most urgently by the one party that really matters, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the Front. Perhaps, over the next few months, the parties concerned will look inwards, and look, particularly, for the answer to this altered perception, if indeed there has been such an alteration. There is, however, a different issue that they also need to look at, because one has a great apprehension that it is a major factor in what happened in Nandigram.

This is the unionisation of the police in West Bengal, something that happened soon after the Left Front came to power in 1977. It may be, strictly speaking, incorrect to say that the police force has been unionised, because, if one remembers correctly, the Police Act makes it unlawful for policemen to form trade unions. That is why, obviously, the `union' is called the "Non-Gazetted Police Karmachari Samiti" (NGPKS). But the distinction, if there is any, is a very fine one; it is really only semantic, because the samiti has the trappings of, and behaves no differently from, a trade union.

Apart from what one has learnt about the behaviour of the "non-gazetted" policemen - in the main, the constables - from senior police officers in the State ever since the NGPKS was formed, one has seen examples of the unionised activities of the police at first hand. And it was not pleasant. As Commissioner of Jalpaiguri Division, which basically means the northern districts of the State, I had, on one occasion, to inquire into an incident of police firing that resulted in the death of four people. As my inquiry proceeded, I noted that the policemen accused of opening fire without authorisation were cocky and insolent. The discipline they showed was perfunctory and their behaviour was just short of being openly defiant. But that apart, what became clear was that they had indeed opened fire without authorisation from their superior officer, mainly to teach the people a lesson. One of them said later, if I remember correctly, something to this effect.

This was disturbing enough but what really startled me was that the representatives of the NGPKS sought an appointment, which I gave them. They were polite enough but made it clear that the men had been "provoked" and that while I would, of course, look into the incident as a whole, I should keep in mind the welfare and the interests of the policemen who had killed the four victims. They made it clear, pleasantly, that my report would naturally be looked at by the proper authorities. I told them that I would conduct the inquiry as required of me and asked them to leave.

But the visit disturbed me, and I shared my uneasiness with the then Home Secretary. His response was despondent and he advised me to complete the inquiry and send in my findings. I did. I found the men guilty of use of unwarranted force and recommended that action be taken against them under the law and in terms of the police regulations then in force. I never found out what happened to them.

This in itself may seem to be a minor incident of which I am making too much, but then there was another - following some violence during a local municipal election or a by-election - where men of an Armed Police battalion surrounded their Assistant Commandant, angrily demanding that he make immediate arrangements for their food and accommodation before they went out on duty. It took the beleaguered Assistant Commandant and the Superintendent of Police over two hours to pacify the policemen. I happened to be there and saw this ugly drama unfolding.

What the formation of the NGPKS has done is to undermine the authority of officers, and subvert the discipline that must always be the basis of the functioning of a police force, as it is of the Army. It has brought to constables an insolence and defiance with which officers are barely able to cope, making it a very difficult business to enforce order in a calm, rational manner.

One can only hope that what happened in Nandigram was not a manifestation of the weakening of the inner authority of the police system because, if it was, then the implications are very dark and frightening for the State. As Ulysses says of the consequence of losing order, in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida:

Force should be right or rather, right and wrong, Between whose endless jar justice resides, Should lose their names, and so should justice too. Then everything includes itself in power, Power into will, will into appetite; And appetite, an universal wolf, So doubly seconded with will and power, Must make perforce an universal prey, And last eat up himself.

In its introspection, therefore, the ruling party would do well to look at the effects of the formation of an association in the police force that needs, above everything else, to be strictly disciplined and totally responsive to the commands and orders of their controlling officers.

Having said this, though, it is equally necessary to take a closer look at the very basis of the police system. What we have today is very much the sepoy-sahib kind of system of colonial India, with police forces being based on the pattern of military forces - sepoys becoming constables and commanding officers, inspectors and superintendents. It was all right then, but is it what needs to be continued today? Should constables not be educated officers, as they are in most developed countries, who rise in the course of time to higher levels in the hierarchy?

If discipline is a major problem for one reason in West Bengal, it is no less so for other reasons in other States. Venality, sheer laziness and the virtual absence of any kind of inspection have led to the police forces of all States being sloppy and physically unfit. This may not be true of the more specialised forces like the Central Reserve Police Force and the Border Security Force, but one look at many of the policemen strolling about on traffic duty in most cities or on patrol will suffice to bear out what has been said.

Every so often a committee of some kind makes earnest recommendation about training, facilities, and so on. The plain fact is that the very basis of policing is what needs looking at, not cosmetic changes to a system that is clearly antediluvian. In a very sad, but real sense, that is what the incident at Nandigram and the massacre of policemen in Chhattisgarh have in common.

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