A reverse for police reforms

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

The rape of a girl by a Mumbai policeman on the Marine Drive points to all that is wrong with the police establishment.

A BRUTE of a policeman in Mumbai's most famous landmark has put the clock back on the campaign for greater autonomy for the Indian Police at least by decades. This was my first reaction when I heard that a drunk in uniform - who should not have been entertained even as a visitor to a police station - got hold of a hapless college student in broad daylight on the crowded Marine Drive, took her into a nearby police outpost and violated her.

It is learnt that a group of boys who were with the girl skulked away from the scene without resisting the policeman and rescuing the girl. (Knowledgeable persons tell me that it is nothing unusual for Mumbai boys and girls to fix the seafront as their rendezvous for open as well as clandestine meetings, away from the gaze of their parents. In this case, most likely, the boys who were present with the girl did not want to be identified, and therefore quietly left the scene mindlessly in a hurry, just to protect themselves. Nothing can be more unchivalrous and condemnable than this.) It took a while for the rest of the crowd there to barge into the outpost and retrieve the victim. By this time, the damage had been done.

Several of my friends in the Indian police advised me not to write on this gory incident. They believed that I was going to write on a totally indefensible police action, and whatever I said to explain why it happened would smack of a defence of the criminal in uniform, who has brought shame on the whole Indian police. I would, therefore, like to begin by putting the record straight.

This is too important an incident to be ignored, especially when Mumbai claims to be the financial and entertainment capital of the country, and aspires to be a Shanghai to boot it. There is a lot at stake, not merely for the Indian police, but for Mumbai also if it wants to realise its ambition of being a world-class city.

I personally know that foreign investors watch India's streets with an eagle eye and constantly look for even the slightest negative evidence of a danger to physical security. The rape will figure in all immediate discussions of risks in doing business with India. This is one reason - besides the much more important one of protecting women from the so-called guardians of law - why we have to take a serious view of it and explore how best to prevent its recurrence in the form in which it has now manifested. To dismiss it as one of those crimes that happens every other day in most world cities will be fatal to our social fabric and the economy, at a time when there are many strongly positive signals going out of India.

There are several theories floating around to account for the Marine Drive rape. Not many are being heard for the first time. Long hours of work, a stressful environment, little time for spending with the family, and so on, are cited as reasons why policemen at the bottom of the rigid police hierarchy misbehave. These cannot be dismissed as fanciful, nor can the factors driving such abominable working conditions be wished away. Let us be clear that governments, however much they try, cannot alter these drastically. The way police are organised in our country and the manner in which they are misused do not offer much hope that a turnaround is likely in the foreseeable future.

The accent in the Indian police is on numbers, and as long as they keep rising, a better-paid and more rested constabulary will be a pipe dream. Directors-General of Police (DGPs) constantly seek accretions to their forces, and you cannot fault them, if only you would consider the ever enlarging police charter of work. How can these numbers be reduced? Only if the polity as a whole decides, cutting across party lines, that street protests of political parties will be less frequent and more orderly, and that they will totally abjure violence. You just take a head count of policemen deployed outside Parliament and State legislatures. You will then understand the import of my stand. The same holds good for processions that are taken out by a wide spectrum of groups at the drop of a hat. All such gatherings need protection and there is excessive posting and display of policemen, because no police superviser would take a chance of under-deployment.

Remember how a procession of the visually impaired once turned violent in one of our cities and the police were hauled over the coals for mishandling it. The whole situation calls for self-discipline and self-regulation on the part of political parties, trade unions and myriad social groups. Without this change of mindset, precious police manpower will continue to be wasted, leading to long hours of duty and consequent frustration and stress. Mind you, I am not pleading for a muffling of political or trade union dissent, the most legitimate feature of any modern democracy. What I am asking for is only all-round restraint and discipline, so that the police can devote themselves to more important work. As I survey the scene, there are no prospects of this transformation taking place. When this is the case, policemen like Sunil More will continue to run amuck, endangering all of us, and especially the aged and women who cannot protect themselves.

High security duties are another major drain on police resources. Only 25 per cent of our dignitaries genuinely need protection. For the rest, a gun-toting policeman is a status symbol. I remember a valiant L.K. Advani trying his best to trim numbers. The howl of protests that his attempt evoked was not merely ugly but vulgar as well. Unless there is a change of culture in the ruling class, I see no way we can bring down the numbers frittered away in dignitary protection. VIP duties not only involve the policemen directly assigned to them. They also require more than nominal deployment of local policemen at places visited by them. The first thing that a Minister or his pompous Personal Assistant looks for is whether the local Sub-Inspector is present at a meeting to be addressed by him. If the latter is not present by any chance, all hell is let loose. Dominated by this tribal quest for paraphernalia, the ambience is one in which you can hardly save on police manpower.

A lot is said about psychology screening for police recruits. The case is often overstated. Major studies have thrown up only fragile evidence that such tests help to keep out the mentally unstable. It is just possible that they will identify the psychopath who has to be kept out of the police. But then, was Sunil More a psychopath? Nobody has suggested this. He was, by all accounts, a mentally disturbed individual affected by an unhappy marital history and who needed treatment. Assuming that the psychology test would partially assist in eliminating the unstable from getting into the police, we are again confronted by the staggering numbers in our police system. Each year, a medium-sized force draws several hundred recruits and the large ones many more. The logistics of administering a sophisticated test that can pry into their minds are enormous. Can governments afford the costs and time involved? I am amused that many clamour for such testing without understanding the administrative back-up required.

I would put the blame for the current ills of a majority of police forces in India on the corruption that has acquired a stranglehold over recruitment. It is an open secret that money almost totally dictates the process, and it is not the ruling party persons alone who make money. It is deplorable that many police supervisers have become venal to the core and exploit recruitment processes to make a quick buck. Any number of scandals have been unearthed in the recent past, without bringing about any fear of punishment. If young men and women have to grease the palms of recruiters to gain entry into the police, how can you expect them to behave themselves later on while discharging their duties?

Many young policemen resort to theft of property seized during investigation or indulge in downright robbery when they come across an illiterate complainant or victim. If they cannot do either, they resort to the kind of shameful activity for which Sunil More has now been hauled up. The impact of this despicable behaviour on the rest of the forces who would like to be honest is incalculable. Few observers of the police in India will dare to challenge this apparently uncharitable analysis.

Sunil More is said to have had a bad record. He still managed to remain in the force to perpetrate his atrocity. Kid-glove handling of bad elements in the forces has for long been the undoing of the police administration. There are two reasons for this. Departmental inquiries are a notoriously long-drawn-out affair, with inquiry officers rarely finding the time for a swift conclusion of the task assigned to them. Somehow or the other, the police have not thought of an alternative mechanism, such as a separate wing of officers that will take care of departmental enquiries. There is a school of thought that if the authority to hold such inquiries is shifted to a special whole-time group, apart from field officers, the latter would lose control over the men working for them. I do not agree with this. As long as field officers have the authority to initiate inquiries and also punish delinquents, there can be no fear of loss of disciplinary control over the ranks.

The more important reason why misconduct thrives within the police is that many supervisers have lost the moral fibre to assert themselves vis-a-vis misbehaving policemen. A substantial number of senior officers have so many skeletons to hide that they can hardly assert themselves to move swiftly against errant subordinates. This is true of many State police forces in India.

Maharashtra has the dubious distinction of sending a DGP, an Additional Director-General of Police (ADGP) and a senior Deputy Commissioner to jail for blatant irregularities. For the few who have been found out, there are many others who have escaped action. For the benefit of readers, I would like to tell them that this was a force which, until a decade ago, boasted of an extremely professional and highly ethical corps of dedicated officers who went on to adorn senior positions in New Delhi. Those who have known this force for years say that the decline is unbelievable. There is a wild allegation that important positions in the Mumbai Police have been sold in the recent past, and some senior policemen around whom scandals have been unearthed are those who had bought their jobs. I would like to believe that this charge is untrue. Whatever be the facts, the ambience reeks undeniably of corruption and decay. It is against this backdrop that Sunil More's misconduct has to be viewed. His is not a case of an isolated policeman on the rampage. Many more Sunil Mores are possibly hiding themselves for the present, and will display their fangs when the dust settles down on the recent happening.

Up to this point I may have sounded unjustifiably harsh and negative. There are definitely a few bright spots, without writing about them, my column will be lopsided. Ultimately, police image in a country is rightly or wrongly influenced by what happens in large cities. Media focus is almost totally on them. At least in the three metros of Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai, just now, we have excellent chiefs who have brought prestige and discipline to the police. (Unfortunately, I do not know the Kolkata Police Commissioner. I presume, he has also equally strong credentials for probity and efficiency.) I am personally aware of the Mumbai Commissioner Anami Roy launching many innovative measures aimed at bridging the police-public divide. A few of them have started bearing fruit. This is why the Sunil More episode comes as a total surprise. This proves that it is not enough to have a strong leader. We need an ambience that is conducive to ethics and objectivity. These are two features that are absent in Mumbai. Rival political parties have through their short-sightedness nearly destroyed one of the finest police forces in the world. Mumbai is a classic study of how a diseased political system can eat into the vitals of an organisation whose well-being is crucial for the rise or fall of a city.

MANY American forces, including the New York City Police Department (NYPD), were also in a similar position at the beginning of last century. But under successive dynamic and honest chiefs, their profile has improved vastly. For instance, Mayor Giuliani's contribution to the NYPD is considerable, although Black distrust of him has somewhat taken the sheen off his achievements and solid support to the force. Do we have Giulianis in Mumbai? Perhaps, we need to search for them, a search that may or may not succeed. The point is, if the Mumbai Police succeeds in transforming its own image, it will send the right signal to other forces in the country. If it does not, we may have to write off many similar agencies in the country.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment