There’s a saying that there are four pillars of society. The police is an important constituent of the pillars, responsible for upholding (and sometimes enforcing) the laws created by people to control people.
India is going through a difficult time right now, facing a looming economic crisis along with a major social one. More people are heading towards poverty than ever before. During this time, the police has played a very important role in enforcing the government’s directorate to keep people at home and protect them from a virus which doesn’t discriminate between gender, caste, creed, race, religion or class.
The police has put their lives on line in all states of India, working tirelessly without masks, gloves and even sanitizers. In certain parts of the country, the police even distributed ration to feed countless people.
Does one draw the line with the police?
A friend, whose father is in the police, once said that the police in India faces more flak than necessary. Yes, it’s true that the police in India is overburdened with work. India’s public-to-police ratio is one of the worst in the world. Yet, the police is readily available to serve the interest of politicians and bureaucrats, but invisible or “understaffed” when it comes to the need of the common person. In 2007, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission had noted that politicians were unduly influencing police personnel to serve personal or political interests. Since 2007, much has changed and definitely gotten worse.
The police has been used as a political tool to enforce law and order as deemed fit by politicians. In certain instances, such as the Gujarat riots in 2002 and the riots in Northeast Delhi this year, the police intentionally refrained/avoided in helping people from certain communities. On January 5, a mob attacked students in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, but the police chose to stand by and watch the students be beaten.
But, I am digressing. I would like to repeat my first point again. Do we or do we not draw a line with the police?
The simple answer is, yes. Like every institution (even the media), barriers need to be set. There’s also a need for accountability. If the police is not accountable in a nation, then it can lead to anarchy.
Some unsettling events, however, keep reminding us that our police, like our people and systems, has a mind of its own. This has exacerbated during the lockdown to contain the coronavirus, instilling fear in the minds of citizens, many of whom now see the police as a foe than a friend.
Earlier this week, a timber trader and his son died in a hospital after being arrested by the police. Relatives of the deceased alleged that the two died due to police assault. They further alleged that the son, Bennix (31), was sexually assaulted by the police.
The state government of Tamil Nadu was prompt in suspending a few police officers and the high court demanded a report, which will be submitted today. Bennix and his father, Jayaraj, were arrested on June 19 for interrogation by the police for keeping their mobile shop open during the lockdown. Three days later, Bennix died in a government hospital. Jayaraj died the next day.
Police brutality is not a new issue in India. Police violence is frequently glorified in Bollywood films (remember Rohit Shetty’s Simbba and the glorification of encounters?) and highlighted in the media. The police is mainly held accountable if the victim in custody is someone influential or belongs to a strata that has a voice on social media. For people like Bennix and Jayaraj, justice is unlikely and a public uproar is temporary.
Between April 2017 and February 2018, India reported just over 1,670 deaths of people in police custody. The police is given a free rein to use force, whenever it is deemed fit. The police, like us, have their innate biases, and their anger manifests against those who don’t fit into their world view.
How can we make the police accountable?
This is a difficult and complicated issue. One has to start at the bottom, with recruitment of the police, especially constables. Corruption is rampant in the police, mainly because their salaries are so low. The chain of corruption flows from juniors to seniors, with the amount increasing with seniority.
The police is incentivised on two grounds – money and power. If a case is important to the nation, for example, the brutal rape of Jyoti Singh in 2012, the police acts promptly, as there is political pressure and the opportunity to gain widespread fame. However, in the case of dalit women getting raped and killed in Uttar Pradesh, the matter is promptly shoved under the carpet.
As India is an overpopulated country, the police’s accountability has to be to the people, not the judicial arm of the country. It is necessary to establish strong, functional human rights commissions to which the police will be held accountable in the case of custodial death. An officer should be appointed within the police forces solely to keep track of custodial treatment.
In addition, the local media should be used as a force of good, to hold the perpetrators accountable. A cctv footage in the police station can always be tampered with, and an officer can always be bribed. But an external factor with low stakes can act as a sounding board for errors. However, the media can also be bribed and that’s a factor that can’t be discounted. But, there needs to be numerous checks in place for the police for them and politicians to understand that the law can’t be taken into anyone’s hands.
That said, the police is a flawed institution in India, and requires immense re calibration. Senior officers in the Indian Police Services (IPS) are chosen in an examination which recruits for over a dozen services such as the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Indian Revenue Service (IRS) and even Indian Information Service (IIS). A person who has never run a marathon, or even a sprint in their life, is chosen from a highly academic exam for the top police post in the country.
The IPS end up becoming the police version of a bureaucrat – wielding their power to submit the juniors to their needs. The juniors, on the other hand, become inept on the job owing to lack of competent leadership and a failed system which values corruption over performance.
The lives of Jayaraj and Bennix matter. Every person who has been tortured, killed, raped, assaulted and harassed by the police matters. The police’s function is to protect the people. In India, it has consistently proven to be otherwise.
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