Some weeks back, I was at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, to deliver the annual Kumarappa-Reckless talk to an enlightened audience of students, researchers and professors. The media was also present in good strength. The lecture was in memory of two eminent scholars in the field of criminology who had graced the portals of this hallowed institution, which has produced many research papers of international quality. Past speakers included the well-known Kiran Bedi, so I was flattered when I received an invitation to deliver the talk. I was asked to speak on how national security concerns could be addressed without affecting the fundamental rights of the individual. This was a weighty, yet tricky, subject. It could trick you into making contentious statements that could lead to your being branded either a brutal enforcer of law or an airy academician. I was determined not to fall into that trap.
I discoursed on how disturbed conditions in our neighbouring countries could affect our national security. I also referred to some fissiparous trends in the northeast that could endanger India’s integrity. My message was that the police and the intelligence agencies were doing a difficult job in fighting terrorism and that it was a delicate balance they were seeking between strict enforcement of the law and adherence to human rights. In passing, I mentioned Guantanamo Bay and the scandal surrounding CIA’s use of torture against terror suspects and pointed out that our record was relatively clean. In a self-congratulatory mood, I sought to impress on my listeners that I had always put my foot down against the use of third-degree methods and how I was therefore branded a “softie” by my colleagues.
At the end of the lecture, I was smug that I’d done a good job. But I soon realised how completely wrong I was when the time came to take questions. An activist whom I had known from her childhood started the assault by saying she did not believe even a word of what I had said. She said I’d cleverly avoided any reference either to Gujarat or Shopian. She set the trend for some aggressive questioners who lambasted me for covering up all kinds of police misdeeds. Nothing was right with the police, they said. It did not take me long to realise I was in wrong company!
This is the tragedy of the Indian police. Although they lose more than a thousand personnel every year—a number larger than the annual defence casualties—they are looked upon with utter contempt. Sixty-two years of independence have not changed public perception of the police a wee bit. I thought 26/11 would have altered feelings at least slightly in favour of the police. But if this has not happened in the very city blasted by a deadly group of Pakistani desperadoes not long ago and in which some of our best police officers were killed, how can our policemen expect charity elsewhere in the country?
This is not to say our policemen are not blameworthy. Many of them are corrupt. They will not hesitate to use violence on hapless suspects. In most of the 10,000-odd police stations in the country, you cannot get an fir registered without greasing the palm of the station house officer or his rapacious staff. But then, are these reasons enough for us to detest our policemen to the degree that we do? Haven’t they done enough during crises such as natural disasters to earn our respect? Are they not forgiving when you ignore the red light and still drive through important intersections as if it was your divine right to do so? Aren’t you touched by sights such as their sleeping on the floor adjoining the Gateway of India with no decent toilet around? I can go on describing the misery of the average policeman in the field.
My worry is that the average Indian is becoming more and more insensitive to the plight of our men in khaki, without whose presence our lives will become perilous. The elitist IPS cadre, to which I once belonged, has certainly to take a share of the blame. It has, however, a large number of priceless officers who can make the difference. This is why I still feel not all is lost. As a community, we can get our act together and forge a police force that is honest, civilised and caring, one that we will be proud of, just as the average Londoner is about the bobby. We need to start at the bottom. If we are able to raise a new generation of police constables who are smarter, more educated, dressed better and live in better conditions—all in keeping with the tremendous responsibilities they shoulder—we will have won half the battle. This is not beyond us in terms of conception or resources. Unless we do it, posterity will not forgive us.
(The writer is a former director of the CBI.)