Policing issues

Published : Nov 02, 2007 00:00 IST

The need to protect law-abiding people, especially senior citizens, women and children, from street bullies is as important as the fight against terrorism.

IMPROVING the quality of policing has an extremely low priority in the politicians agenda, especially in our country. An occasional noise is made when the police budget is discussed in a Legislative Assembly or when a scandal, such as the police recruitment scam in Uttar Pradesh, erupts or when an incident such as the Rizwanur Rahman death in Kolkata raises suspicion of police involvement. Otherwise, the standards of policing and the levels of public satisfaction wi th day-to-day policing receive just cursory attention from the media and the government. So when a Prime Minister speaks on the subject, however profound he may sound, media coverage is modest and there is seldom a national debate. This is sad and disappointing.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke a few weeks ago at the conference of Directors General of Police. This is an annual ritual whose proceedings can be drab and uneventful. More than 20 DGPs vie with one another for attention in the limited time available. None of them is willing to admit to failures on the public order front in their jurisdictions. If ever one of them is undiplomatic or says something radical that could even remotely embarrass his State government, he is likely to be pulled up by his Chief Minister when he gets back to his den. Having attended several of these conferences, I can vouch for the fact that little comes out of such meetings, except for the opportunity to get to know one another.

Having said that, I must also add that an innovation introduced a decade ago has made a slight difference to the outcome of the conference. This is the facility for a select group of DGPs to have a heart-to-heart chat with the Prime Minister. At this meeting, the latter is told of police grievances, especially those relating to the constabulary and the other lower echelons. The Prime Ministers personal staff take down notes and initiate action with the Union Home Ministry and through it with the State governments.

This interaction has produced tangible results once in a while, such as greater allocation of Government of India grants for police modernisation and for building houses for the lower rungs of the police force.

Manmohan Singhs speech at the recent DGPs conference was hard-hitting, although couched in polite terms. You can either ignore it as the fulmination of a frustrated chief executive disappointed with the performance of his executives or you can view it as a frank appraisal of police performance, which could form the basis for a blueprint to bring about radical changes in the manner in which the police operate. Either way, the Prime Minister deserves to be complimented for a frank outpouring of his anguish on the shortcomings of the criminal justice system, of which the police are a major component.

He may not have said anything refreshingly new. Possibly, there is no scope for this, considering the fact that nuts-and-bolts issues are not the Prime Ministers concern. Nevertheless, what he said was food for thought for the police leaders gathered on the occasion.

For instance, he lamented that while dealing with terrorism the most serious scourge of our times, which consumes a lot of police time, attention and resources the needs of the average citizen were grossly neglected. Nothing can be more truthful than this. Liquidating terrorism is no doubt a major law enforcement task. Equally important is the need to protect honest, law-abiding citizens, especially vulnerable sections such as senior citizens, women and children, from street bullies.

To borrow Mahatma Gandhis language, the test of policing is the assurance with which a woman is able to walk on the street, all by herself and at any time, day or night, without being intercepted, jeered at or harassed by antisocial elements.

This is still possible in many of our cities but not in all of them. I am told, however, that the situation in villages in many States remains queasy. That this should be so 60 years after Independence is shameful.

I think the purpose of this column will be greatly served by quoting the Prime Minister verbatim:

The worries of the common man centre around petty nuisance, harassment by local criminals or gangs, goondaism, dadagiri, threats of violence and even kidnapping and extortion. Women and senior citizens are increasingly concerned at their safety. Girls worry about the growing practice of eve-teasing. Parents worry about child abuse. As we get more urbanised, these offences are increasing. White-collar crime, too, is seeing a rise.

It is only by addressing these concerns will police forces be able to reach out to citizens and win their confidence and affection. Our people should be willing to approach a policeman with the same assurance with which they visit a doctor. That should be our common endeavour.

I am delighted at the manner in which the Prime Minister was able to summarise the current state of our policing. Sometimes, non-ornate language that consciously avoids frills is more powerful than colourful and artificial bombast, especially when it comes from a man known for his simplicity and transparency. I wish many of his colleagues and those in the higher echelons of the civil service, particularly in the police force, would emulate him. Here again I quote the Prime Minister:

We are committed to supporting your efforts in this direction. However, you need to provide the necessary leadership and direction to the forces under your command. . seek out the citizen, identify his or her needs and expectations, address them on priority. Try to improve their satisfaction levels. The instruments and methods you decide to choose should be driven by this goal.

Manmohan Singhs exhortation to the police top-brass is concrete and by no means fuzzy. It is, however, a sad fact that police leadership in the country has not lived up to expectations. The damage done to the police by the political executive is no doubt incalculable. But here I am not merely talking about a DGPs inability to stand up to political pressure. (The Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister recently went on record to say that while she was sorry that she had to suspend so many top police officers for their involvement in the recruitment scam, she was appalled that they had danced to the tune of the previous government in committing the large-scale irregularities for which they are now being punished.)

A lack of courage to resist illegal political directions is a disease that has been in existence for several decades. To an extent this has been institutionalised. What is more dangerous is the falling standards of personal integrity on the part of many who are given the opportunity to shape the police forces under their command.

To blame a politician for ones own lack of character is being downright dishonest. But this is what is happening in quite a few States. I can say this without the least fear of contradiction. At the same time, we must thank our stars that we still have amongst us a few police chiefs who stand out not only for their professional excellence but for their good conduct.

I must confess I am not sanguine about any major changes happening in the near future on the police front. A policeman, be it at the top or the bottom, will continue to behave in the manner he does now. This is more than apparent from the way State governments have dodged the Supreme Courts directive to bring about fundamental reforms. Where a few have fallen in line with the apex courts order, the legislative changes brought about by them are an exercise in tokenism. So, what is the way out? The only ray of hope is the ability of citizen action groups to bring pressure on governments and police forces so that policing is honest and decisive.

What I see happening in Kolkata in the Rizwanur case is encouraging. I wish the enlightenment displayed by the community in Kolkata, which has helped build public opinion in this matter, rubs off on the rest of the country so that the police become aware that they are accountable as much to society as they are to law.

I am not for a moment suggesting here that the police were responsible for Rizwanurs death. The demand for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the episode is pending in Calcutta High Court. There seems to be evidence, however, that the police intimidated him after he got married to a Hindu girl. If this impression ultimately proves right, it highlights a major failing of the system, namely, that the police transgress their territory and interfere in civil disputes, either on their own or at the behest of the rich and famous. This was what the Prime Minister possibly had in mind when he made the recent New Delhi speech.

I would strongly commend to the DGPs that they render the Prime Ministers observations on the police into their regional languages for circulation among the constabulary and other field staff. This will have a measurable impact on the latter.

Even if one per cent of the policemen in the country are transformed and resolve to focus their attention on the common man, it would be more than satisfying. This is utterly practicable. There is no politics here. Manmohan Singh is not a mere politician belonging to the Congress party. He is much more than that. I am sorry if I am lionising him.

I firmly believe, however, that only leaders like him can bring about even a marginal improvement in our vital public systems.

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