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A celebrity and the police

Print edition : Jul 20, 2002 T+T-
How not to handle police-public relations.

When I started working on this fortnight's column, I was not sure whether I was going to write the usual dry as bone serious piece, or attempt one in a lighter vein, for a change. The temptation to do the latter, notwithstanding my generally known lack of a sense of humour, was irresistible because of a widely reported recent incident in a Karnataka police station (or was it merely an Inspector's office?). Humour not exactly being my forte, I decided on a hybrid that may or may not find acceptance with the discerning Frontline reader.

AN icon of cricket, Javagal Srinath, whose cricketing days are not yet numbered, even if the bumbling Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), thinks otherwise, commits the cardinal mistake the other day of stepping unannounced into a police premises in Mysore for help to trace an important lost document relating to his car. The Inspector on duty is abrasive and unhelpful. Srinath walks out in a huff and brings the matter to the notice of the police top brass. I am told there is now pressure on him not to make a fuss about this, as it would embarrass everyone concerned.

The facts of the episode are still not very clear. And I do not want to lay the blame squarely at the doors of the offending police officer. It is just possible that Srinath overreacted to the public servant's routinely unimaginative and clumsy conduct. One fact, however, clearly emerges from all reports - Srinath was not extended the basic courtesy that was due to him, not only as a national sporting hero but as an ordinary tax-paying citizen. It is alleged that he was not even offered a seat during the time that he spent with the Inspector. Karnataka has produced - apart from the affable Srinath - the likes of E.A.S. Prasanna, B.S. Chandrasekhar, S.M.H. Kirmani and Anil Kumble, all of whom the whole world of cricket has admired, not only for the quality of their talent but for their impeccable behaviour on and off the field. Naturally, Srinath was outraged when he was handled roughly by the officious policeman. If this had happened in Timbuctoo, there was possibly no cause to scream. But when the scene is God's own country for the hallowed willow game, where cricket is a passion and also a religion, one feels like sitting up and asking several questions.

Two things stand out here. First, it is said that the surly Inspector did not recognise the national warhorse in cricket. When tipped off by a subordinate as to who the visitor was, the officer was said to have reacted saying he could not care less, as everyone was equal before the law. (I wish he could repeat this wonderful statement of fact before the local Congress bigwig and still get away with it!) Nothing can be more deflating than this for a sportsman of Srinath's achievements. Secondly, even when the chips were down during a hard-fought Test match, Srinath was the picture of poise and dignity. Rightly or wrongly, therefore, he could not believe that someone could misbehave with him. He had probably underestimated the skill of an average Indian policeman to spar, even if there was no provocation!

What does one make out of the incident as reported in the press? How does one react to an incident which has tremendous implications for the average citizen, leave alone a celebrity? My own response is that I was not at all surprised at what took place in Mysore. This happens day in and day out in every one of our government offices, where politeness and courtesy are rare commodities which, when available occasionally and dispensed free of cost, make headline news. Some are lucky to be favoured with these, but many are not. Srinath was definitely not among the former.

One must admit, however, that police stations are probably better than other government departments, because here there is at least a semblance of an effort to instill in the minds of the staff the idea that they should be courteous to the public. Elsewhere this sham is not perpetrated. I should concede at the same time that a rude policeman is a greater menace to society than an insolent public servant belonging to other government sectors. This is because people go to the police in distress and in extremely stressful circumstances, as when they approach a physician. They expect to be received with kindness and compassion. The experience of a lot of people is otherwise.

Why are policemen in our country so mindless? I could offend you and many other fellow-Bharatvasis when I say that this is an essentially Indian trait. We tend to be rude even when we do not need to be. ( It is an entirely different matter that we are suppliant and ooze milk and honey towards the politically powerful and the more affluent sections of society, and we tend to crawl when we are required merely to bend, in the famous words of the Shah Commission that went into Emergency excesses.) Many of us cannot bring ourselves to say "Can I help you?" when in the course of our daily routine we bump into someone in need of assistance. This instinctive greeting - however contrived it may sometimes be - surprises us pleasantly when we go out of the country, especially to the United States. It is not that every non-Indian is polite in everyday life. Some of them can beat us hollow in a competition for lack of urbanity. But this does not bother me because I expect politeness from those with whom I have to interact necessarily, and if I do not get this, especially from a fellow Indian, I am appalled and aggrieved. If our police are not different from the rest of the community, it should not surprise us at all in an Indian setting.

The next reason why policemen are rude is that they smart under similar treatment meted out to them by their immediate superiors and political functionaries. This is a baggage that we have carried from the imperial days when illiterates or semi-literates alone were recruited for the constabulary so that they could be driven at will, sometimes actually brutally. Things have changed for the better, but not sufficiently. We still need to go very far to reach a situation where personnel in all ranks in the police, especially the constable, are respected as public servants with a legitimate aspiration to be looked upon as civilised human beings. Many of them would sacrifice their all if only treated with dignity and decorum. Until this happens, we may not be able to perceive any great change in police behaviour.

Police misconduct is also a reflection of the failure of training methods. It is not as if police leaders or police reform bodies have been insensitive to the issue. Both the Gore Committee on Police Training (1973) and the National Police Commission (NPC) of 1977 did make significant recommendations. Unfortunately, these have not had the desired impact. Here, we are talking of attitudinal changes, and modern behavioural scientists would tell you how difficult it is to bring about such changes. The NPC rightly pointed out that while the content of training was no doubt important, the process of imparting such training was even more important. It added that curt directions to the police to be more polite towards the public would not usher in the changes. The conduct of senior officers alone will have the required demonstrative effect. It is unfortunately true that many supervisory officers have not set the right example.

This is what excites me whenever I go to the National Police Academy (NPA) in Hyderabad. The NPA has done so much to enhance professional skills. Its one signal failure has been to transform attitudes within the police. This is inexplicable and it reaffirms our belief that attitudinal changes are not wrought all that easily. (I must confess that the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel at Indian airports now bowl you over when they frisk and let you go with "Have a nice day!". This shows that training and briefing can go a long way to present the better face of the police.)

Many international agencies like the Ford Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are anxious to see a more people-friendly police in India. All their project assistance is therefore focussed on this. The UNDP has in fact attempted this in a few States, including Tamil Nadu. As part of the exercise, policemen in the middle and lower levels have been taken abroad, especially to Singapore, to impress upon them that it is not difficult to modify their perceptions of how to serve the public. A few of my friends who have watched the experiment from close quarters are positive about the outcome. I hope they are right. The Ford Foundation is also contemplating assistance to a project in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore to achieve more or less the same objective. Model police stations are thought of where the staff would receive the common man with all due courtesy and provide service with a smile on the face.

In sum, neither resources nor ideas are lacking. There is nevertheless something that is missing in this piece of action. Has this to do with the ambience that clouds all our activities? Is it the general permissiveness to which all of us have contributed that is responsible for the shortcomings in police behaviour?

I cannot help recall what the Indian Police Commission appointed by the British government had to say, exactly one hundred years ago:

...the importance of police work has been underestimated, and responsible duties have ordinarily been entrusted to untrained and ill-educated officers ...; the superior officers have been insufficiently trained and have been allowed from various causes to get out of acquaintance and sympathy with the people and out of touch with their own subordinates.

While it will be unfair to depict the Indian Police of today wholly in such uncomplimentary terms, does not the Commission's assessment still ring true in parts? The burden of being the agents of change rests almost wholly on senior officers. If they do not carry the burden willingly and make the sacrifices they have to make necessarily, it will be difficult to stem the rot that has set in.

Finally, an impish thought! If, instead of Srinath, it was Saurav Ganguly who had gone to meet the police officer in question, what would have been the scene like? My guess is that the Indian captain would have sorted out matters straightaway then and there. It will probably be the Inspector who would now be going around complaining.