Anger in uniform

Published : Oct 09, 2009 00:00 IST

Both the executive and the community are impatient with the traditional ways of policing and demand instant policing. The police response to this is encounters. In this file picture, the quick reaction team of the Salem police overpowers a terrorist in a mock encounter.-P. GOUTHAM

Both the executive and the community are impatient with the traditional ways of policing and demand instant policing. The police response to this is encounters. In this file picture, the quick reaction team of the Salem police overpowers a terrorist in a mock encounter.-P. GOUTHAM

POLICING as a career was possibly the last choice of a university graduate in the 1960s, when I joined the Indian Police Service. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. Many bright young men and women with outstanding academic credentials now prefer the police service to the administrative service, mainly for the challenges it offers and the enormous scope it provides for undoing injustice in society. Incidental is the glamour almost synonymous with pride of donning the uniform, something that promotes motivation and camaraderie.

Of those who come into the police service of their own volition after due deliberation, a not inconsiderable number, unfortunately, go astray during their career and indulge in practices that are not only illegal but also abominable to civilised conduct. The use of third degree methods against crime suspects comes naturally to them. It is this streak of insensitivity to causing injury to others that explains the so-called fake encounters, about which we hear all too often these days.

I always abhorred the use of violence in criminal investigation and was, therefore, considered soft, an adjective that did not bother me. Neither did it dissuade me from putting my foot down against the torture of suspects. I may, therefore, be subjective in reacting to the current controversy over encounter killings. Nevertheless, I strongly believe I echo the views of the majority in the Indian Police when I say that fake encounters reflect the growing chasm between the demands of a worsening public order situation and resultant public expectations on the one side and the woeful inadequacies of the criminal justice system on the other.

The political executive is under enormous pressure to maintain peace and protect the community against terrorists. This is transmitted down the line to the constabulary. When careers are at stake in a pressure-cooker situation, the first casualty is ethics. That is why when a judge makes an outrageous pronouncement that an encounter was a way to impress and please those in the political hierarchy and advance ones career prospects, he carries immense credibility, however wrong he may be on facts. The public and the media get carried away by such judicial outbursts, and the already strong impression that the police employ needless violence is reinforced.

Until a decade ago, what senior police officers like me dreaded most were deaths in police custody, especially in police lock-ups and occasionally in the secret recesses to which the police alone had access. These caused a great deal of embarrassment to everyone in the system, especially the head of the force. I recall reports in the 1970s about at least one Criminal Investigation Department (CID) torture camp in Kerala that became a major scandal and cost innocent lives and the careers of at least two senior and well-meaning officers. Ironically, many such instances flowed directly from overzealousness and rarely from personal malice or vindictiveness.

The number of deaths in police custody has come down these days. This welcome decline is attributed to the tightening of procedures on the holding of suspects in police stations, thanks particularly to the guidelines issued by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Media scrutiny of what goes on in police stations is another damper. Thus, the higher risks and the greater chances of being found out deter policemen from taking suspects into informal custody. This combination of circumstances has led to a change in police tactics.

A preference for transparency in methods of aggression over violence in private explains the current situation. Policemen grimly believe that open killings, which are subsequently acknowledged and condoned officially, are a guarantee of protection against departmental disciplinary action. So much so, encounters have become a routine way of disposing of threats to public peace. They are, therefore, taken in their stride by all those who matter, unless a killing is outrageously wrong and shakes the communitys conscience. In any controversy that may follow, the injection of politics is a natural corollary. When a political party in the opposition takes up the cause of a victim, however justified the intervention may be, it does not carry much weight. Instead of a debate on the professionalism or otherwise of the police force in question, what ensues is an acrimonious settling of political scores.

In sum, the current spate of killings by the police in unconvincing encounters is the direct outcome of a desire to produce quick results and of rightful impatience and indignation with the tortuous judicial processes. It is not as if only the lower rungs are to blame. Many senior officers actively encourage such misconduct. Fortunately, however, no personal animosity or a design to settle scores with those killed in police violence has been unearthed in the recent past. This is small comfort and an indefensible argument that seems to condone police aggression.

I am at the same time appalled by the hypocrisy that has come to envelop the debate over police encounters. The factors involved are not wholly in black and white. There are a few that are opaque. One has to tread with caution and avoid taking extreme positions in a matter like this, where emotions get the better of an appreciation of the hard field realities.

The world has changed greatly since 9/11. Unlike the days when terrorism was an occasional nuisance, now it is a factor to reckon with in everyday life. Except for the United States and some parts of Europe, in other places the terrorist is able to strike at will. One has lost count of the incidents that have occurred in India. Who can forget the trauma of last years attack on Mumbai? This alone proved that there were serious holes in our security arrangements and that our major cities were shockingly vulnerable to terrorist forays.

Conventional policing on the basis of the rule of law is, therefore, becoming more and more untenable. Both the executive and the community are aware of this and are impatient with the traditional ways of policing. They demand instant policing. The police response to this is encounters. There is, of course, no way one can defend the police circumventing the law and resorting to extralegal measures in handling terrorism.

Distressingly, however, this analysis may be looked upon as pure theory by a large number of policemen who are struggling how to cope with terrorism. In the face of this wide difference between what ought to happen and what actually happens in the field, the minimum that many of us can do is not to sing the praise of a policeman taking the law into his own hands and annihilating a bad character who poses a threat to society, especially when he is unarmed. The media can also help by not glorifying a policeman involved in frequent incidents as an encounter specialist. Such dubious labels only egg on those members of the police force who have no patience for assiduous investigation to resort increasingly to shortcuts.

The current national debate on the ethics of encounter killing is welcome and necessary, if only to rein in blatantly errant and overzealous police officers. However, to expect policemen to abjure such methods forever will be akin to asking for the moon.

For an appreciable change of heart at the grassroots level, it is first necessary to convince senior officers that gains through questionable processes such as encounter killings are illusory or at best ephemeral. They should further realise that this style of policing also goes against the tenor of the modern human rights movement, which is gathering strength each day.

Common sense, if not ethics, should persuade supervisory officers to send a clear message down the line that fake encounters are counter-productive in the long run and that there is enough wisdom in the rank and file that will sooner than later help to devise a durable and productive strategy against terrorism.

R.K. Raghavan is a former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.

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