Travails of the Mumbai Police

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST

Finding officers who are able to handle elected officials and police cities effectively is a major challenge for India.

AS I have often said in public forums, I am about the bitterest critic of the Indian Police in town. Ironically, at the same time, I am one of its greatest admirers. You may wonder how I could simultaneously be both! It is difficult to explain, but I shall try my best in this column.

The police in our country have had several moments of glory. The handling of militancy in Punjab in the 1980s and the numerous natural calamities suffered in the post-Independence era brought a lot of credit to them. They have had their hours of shame as well, such as the Bhagalpur blindings of 1979-80, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi when policemen were almost mute spectators and the rape last year of a young lady by a Mumbai policeman right in the heart of Marine Drive, to mention only a few. Having spent 38 long years inside, I have seen at close quarters both honour and ignominy visit the Indian Police.

This is why I am emboldened to assert that without the sterling police performance at moments of crisis such as the Mumbai blasts of 1993, the twin explosions in Delhi last year, the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 and the tsunami havoc of 2004, India could not have attained the reasonable measure of administrative or social stability that it now enjoys. Undoubtedly, this relative tranquillity carried us forward to an economic upturn that has astonished our traditional detractors in the West.

In singing this praise, I am aware I could incense the numerous citizens who have suffered at the hands of the police, either from their downright brutality or their outrageous corrupt practices. If I still portray the latter in somewhat positive terms, it is because of my firm belief that the Indian Police will stand by us to maintain domestic peace in the event of external aggression or internal rebellion.

I am particularly impressed by the policing of two of our largest cities, Delhi and Mumbai, which are the most difficult to police. The former is a nearly lawless city with a diverse population and an equally diverse police force. Mumbai has a generally law-abiding and enlightened citizenry and a predominantly Maharashtrian police force. In this column, I shall confine myself to Mumbai, and talk about Delhi in the weeks to come.

My present vocation takes me to Mumbai very often, at least once or twice a month. In addition, I am assisting a project that seeks to study the prospects of giving the city an outline of a `model police station' that would be more citizen-friendly than current stations. This has enabled me to study policing problems of this great metropolis in some detail.

My assessment is that, notwithstanding the great odds pitted against it, the Mumbai Police has given a good account of itself. I say this even at the risk of being chastised by some readers that I am indulging in some sweeping generalisations. With an accounted population of 11 to 12 million and an unaccounted several more, the city reeks with myriad problems that many other cities do not share.

Both as the financial capital of the country and as a port city, Mumbai attracts a large floating population of foreigners from a wide spectrum of countries. This has implications for internal security. Some less important issues include trafficking in women, children and drugs. The flow of job-seekers from all parts of India adds to the complexity of police tasks. There is a nationwide belief that if you are jobless, go to Mumbai, where you can somehow keep your body and soul together doing some errand which will earn you two square meals a day.

The city also has sizeable minority groups that demand undivided attention. Any slackness or overreaction on this front can spark off major incidents that invite international attention. Interestingly, the criminal gangs in the city are divided on communal lines, with Chhota Rajan's estrangement from Dawood Ibrahim attributed to the latter's targeting of Hindus, as in the case of the Mumbai blasts.

Then there is the Shiv Sena, a formidable party with a leadership with an unmatched capacity for rabble-rousing. Though it has suffered a split in recent months, the party's prowess for mischief-mongering remains undiminished. First, it was the south Indian presence in the city that attracted its unkindly eye. As this target became unprofitable with the passage of time, attention turned towards the so-called "north Indians" who, in the Shiv Sena's opinion, had deprived several sons of the soil of their jobs. The influence Bal Thackeray wields in and out of government and the huge number of policemen who burn incense at his altar add spice to policing!

Then there is Bollywood with its infinite charm and awesome money power. Its links with the underworld are unfortunate but undeniable. The one piece of evidence is Sanjay Dutt's alleged nexus with Abu Salem, both of whom are now facing trial in the Mumbai blasts case.

Amidst all this, if there is one positive factor that helps policemen it is the generally law-abiding population, which respects even a police constable's authority. You must see this yourself to believe it. Traffic policemen in the city command the highest respect, and it is rare that a motorist defies him. Contrast this with the lawbreakers on Chennai streets who do not care two hoots for the policemen who merely want them to obey traffic rules.

The Mumbai Police has had excellent leaders in the past, with the fabled J.F. Ribiero leading this distinguished group. It did suffer a reverse once or twice in recent times following the appointment of men with dubious records to senior positions. At least two of them, Indian Police Service officers, were arrested for involvement in the Telgi scam. These officers were apparently appointed at the insistence of political bigwigs with questionable reputations. A few years ago, a candid Ribiero made an unqualified accusation that police postings were being sold for a price. His outburst went almost unchallenged by those at the helm of affairs, confirming the veracity of a charge that struck at the roots of policing. The force has since been brought back to the rail by a straightforward Home Minister, whose decisions may not exactly be swift, but are certainly transparent and well-intentioned.

I am not for a moment suggesting that other police chiefs in India have not tried what he has done. I am merely highlighting the fact that an Indian policeman of 2006 can still produce results and satisfy the consumer if he is personally a man of high integrity, takes quick decisions and uses modern technology. Also, he can make an impact without being bumptious towards those who are elected by a popular vote. The message is that police officers need not be either servile or rude to politicians in order to survive and be effective in glamorous positions.

Mumbai also has a lot of money, possibly far too much of it. Politicians, the underworld and the movie moghuls use money-power to buy up the civil service, including the police. Temptations are enormous, and it is difficult for one honest Commissioner of Police to keep his men away from succumbing to offers of money by those who break the law. A case in point is Inspector Daya Naik, who had until the other day been hailed as an `encounter specialist' who got many criminal gang members killed. He was recently arrested for accumulation of wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income. For one Naik nabbed, several others in the Mumbai Police are said to be hiding their possessions. While this dishonesty is not peculiar to Mumbai alone, the kind of money that is thrown at the feet of Mumbai policemen is said to be mind-boggling.

With its numerous problems and demanding citizenry, Mumbai is an extremely complicated city to police. If Roy has enhanced his force's effectiveness, it is due to some hard and imaginative policing by himself and his team. More than anything else, what is striking is his transparency. If I remember right, he is the only chief who has admitted to a rising crime graph. Almost everywhere else, police chiefs would claim a drop in crime just to satisfy their political bosses. Unfortunately, once Roy departs, we do not know whether his successor will be chosen for his professionalism or for his ability to adapt himself to the needs of political masters. This is the tragedy of the Indian Police.

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