A disturbing template of policing is emerging in India: one of selective and disproportionate action against some, deliberate inaction against others and collusion with a section of troublemakers. All these at the cost of neutrality and fair play. If there is something ominous about the way the police have tackled recent protests in some states, it is this: India cannot stay united and democratic if its police lose their sense of detachment and professional integrity and the criminal justice system works only for some.
In a functioning democracy, it is not easy, even for the compromised elements among the police, to wreck the public order which they are duty-bound to protect. But it may happen, as we are learning, when the police forces are made to work as private armies of politicians in power. When revenge, rather than restitution, is the guiding principle of reinstating public order, it is not unusual to blame the victim for the violence while the perpetrator walks free. Is this what is happening to India of 2020? Are the police forces working for the rulers of the day and not for the law of the land?
Well, not completely as yet, but we are getting there fast. And precisely to avoid such a thing from happening, most advance democracies keep measuring their forces’ detachment and professionalism, especially in the areas of crime and crowd control. It is in these areas that the efficiency of the police and their selective or excessive use of force can be nailed and valuable lessons are learnt. It is common for the government systems in the US and EU, for instance, to conduct surveys of citizens’ trust in the police and the levels of their impartiality. After all, their obligation, as the most visible face of the state, is not only to control crime and maintain peace but to do so in an unbiased and even-handed manner.
In the light of this, let us examine the cops’ handling of protests at the capital’s Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and Jawaharlal Nehru (JNU) universities, among other places, in India. In JMI, the police burst into the campus while chasing a group of troublemakers. In the process, they wrecked the library, smashing glass panels and violently hitting students who came in their way. Cell phone videos of their brutality have since gone viral and these could be responsible for fuelling more protests. In JMI, they did not need distress calls or the authorities’ permission before entering the campus. But in JNU, a few days later, the same Delhi Police ignored several PCR calls from the faculty and administration and waited for hours for written permission while masked assailants were running amok on the campus.
The contrast is stark. In the first instance, the use of force was excessive while in the second the loss of precious time was egregious. In extraordinary circumstances, the police do have the right to enter some prohibited areas but they cannot be allowed to go berserk as they did in JMI. But the delay in JNU gave enough time to assailants to pick and choose their victims and vandalise hostels. Citizen videos show one such group of masked men walking out of the campus in police presence, without being questioned or stopped. After the JMI incident, ten people were promptly arrested, all of them outsiders and many with criminal backgrounds, but no arrest was made for days after the JNU attack. It is normal for the police to maintain records of troublemakers and rabble-rousers in and around campuses. They should have known better in JNU where an earlier incident of masked men allegedly shouting anti-India slogans had scandalised the country in 2016. Those masked men are yet to be arrested.
Another questionable aspect to have emerged is the role of ‘civilians’ in helping the police in their crackdowns. During the police action around JMI, several videos have captured men in jeans, T-shirts and sneakers raining lathi blows on students. One such video, showing three girl students protecting a male friend by throwing themselves on him, has a plainclothesman hitting them with all his might in the presence of men in uniform. Is this part of any standard operating procedure (SOP) of crowd control? Will the cops accept him as their own if his blows lead to an unfortunate death or disability? In parts of UP where anti-CAA/ NRC protests broke out at the beginning of the year, many videos show the policemen accompanied by groups of civilians seen to be hurling brickbats on violent mobs across the barricades.
Use of anti-social elements for breaking unlawful assemblies is a complete violation of the SOP prepared by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) to deal with public agitators. The high-power task force which prepared the SOP in 2010 involved the heads of IB, CRPF, BSF, BPR&D and DGs and the home secretaries of ten states, among many others. The document was procured by RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak. The SOP clearly states that the “objective of the use of force is to disperse the unlawful assembly and not to punish them”. This leaves no scope for the police to act with the motive of revenge, even if politicians say so. The recommendation made in the SOP that police-public meets must be convened regularly to defuse tensions is perhaps observed only in the breach. It states that minimum necessary force may be used, in a graded manner, but only after attempting to disperse the crowds through persuasion, negotiations and mediation etc.
Another troublesome trend is of blatant prejudices against some communities. In Saharanpur town of UP where minor brawls and altercations between groups of Dalits and Rajputs turned into violent clashes in 2017, leading to attacks and counter-attacks in which a Rajput was killed and dozens of Dalit houses, shops and vehicles were burnt down by Rajput mobs. One of India’s most respected Dalit rights activists and author Bhanwar Meghvanshi alleges that armed upper caste goons went about burning houses in the presence of the police while they ignored repeated complaints by the village pradhan. A fact-finding report endorsed by Meghvanshi blames the police inaction and prejudices as one of the reasons for the unfortunate loss of life and property.
A sad example of communal prejudices emerged from Aligarh where cops were heard shouting slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” while tackling protestors, as reported by a 13-member fact-finding team, comprising former IAS officer Harsh Mander along with many journalists, writers and prominent citizens. If true, this calls for not only strict action but also sensitisation and serious counselling of the personnel. The cops have to understand they can no longer get away with such things in the presence of a thousand cell phone eyes. The Status of Policing in India Reports (SPIR 2018 and 2019) prepared by Common Cause and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) have brought out in all-India surveys that a considerable section of the police personnel believe that the people of the minorities, lower castes and tribal communities are naturally more prone to committing crimes. Biases are also common against the poor, migrants and slum-dwellers and one in five policemen feel that complaints under the SC and ST act are false and motivated.
India, it is often said, has the best police money can buy. Besides being sectarian and caste-ridden, they are also corrupt and anti-poor in their attitudes. This means that the rich can easily escape the prison or even the gallows while the poor cannot untangle themselves once caught in the web of the criminal justice system. Three-fourths of those awarded death penalty belong to the backward classes and religious minorities and from economically backward sections, according to a study conducted by the National Law University (NLU) students for the Law Commission after interacting with 373 death row convicts. In fact, the poorest are twice as likely to have been contacted by the police, according to the SPIR studies. Even the likelihood of the poor having paid a bribe is higher than the rich. In this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that police respond differentially to the agitations of the poor and the well-off sections of society.
The SPIR surveys also point out that political interference in policing could be much more rampant than is normally understood. One in three police personnel in India has very frequently faced political pressure in the course of crime investigation, more so during the investigation of cases involving influential persons. Over 60 per cent police personnel experienced political or departmental pressure in the process of normal crime investigation, even if the case does not involve influential people. When asked about the consequences of not complying with unreasonable demands of politicians in power, over 60 per cent cops said they would risk getting transferred on punishment postings. Former DGP and much-decorated police officer Prakash Singh says the fear of political reprisal among senior officers is no longer restricted to transfers from ‘lucrative’ to ‘non-lucrative’ posts but of being suspended or arrested on trumped-up charges.
In the light of the new normal in the police-politician relationship, it is difficult for the police leadership to apply their own SOPs or the relevant laws when the political masters seem bent upon violating them. In the case of anti-CAA protests in parts of UP and Karnataka, it is quite clear that they used anything but the minimum force, or non-confrontational methods, to disperse crowds before they turned violent. There is evidence to suggest that stringent action continued against agitators and their supporters in UP taking the death toll of civilians to 20 while hate speech by ruling party politicians rose to new levels. ‘Not a single bullet was fired’ was the cops’ first response to charges of malicious police firing only to backtrack after amateur videos and post-mortem reports raised disturbing questions. The West Bengal BJP chief joined those who were justifying the police action by claiming that the governments in Assam, UP and Karnataka have shot the protestors “like dogs”. NDTV has compiled a list of 124 instances of VIP hate speech made by 44 ruling party politicians since 2014. Many of these have been rewarded by the party high command for spewing venom to polarise opinions.
So the politicians are not only setting the tone for police action but making it difficult for them to discharge their lawful duties. The UP government’s notices to alleged rioters for damaging public property are not only unprecedented but also illegal because they encroach upon the judiciary’s domain. Is it a coincidence that it never occurred to the BJP’s state governments to issue similar recovery notices when hundreds of vehicles and shops were burnt, malls, theatres and multiplexes were attacked and public property worth hundreds of crores of rupees was destroyed during violent agitations by the Jats in Haryana, Patidars in Gujarat and anti-Padmaavat protests in several states? Is it a case of worthy and unworthy perpetrators of violence when they belong to different communities?
Anyone looking at the attitude of the police towards torture in custody, extrajudicial killings or selective and excessive use of force should not be surprised at their response to matters of cow vigilantism and mob lynching. In SPIR surveys, three out of four police personnel believed that it is justified for the police to be violent towards criminals and one in five felt that killing dangerous criminals is better than a legal trial. Of course, the underlying belief is that the police can judge who is a criminal before even the trial begins. What is even worse is that 35 per cent personnel feel that it is natural for a mob to punish the ‘culprit’ in case of cow slaughter.
While the reasons are many for the consistent decline in the role of police in upholding the rule of law, the most obvious one is the monumental non-compliance of the Supreme Court order of 2006 in the landmark Prakash Singh Vs Union of India case. It is now clear that without the effective implementation of the court’s order the police in India will never get out of the clutches of the venal political class and we the people will be condemned to count the new lows year after year. The court’s seven directives mandated the institution of state security commissions to ward off unwarranted political control, police establishment boards for transfers, postings promotions etc, police complaints authorities at the state and district levels and fixed tenures for officers on operational positions, among others. These will not cure the Indian police of all ills but will certainly arrest the decline of an important institution.
It may also be argued that the police prejudices towards vulnerable people like the poor and minorities is shocking but not unique to India. Nor is India alone where the political class can be unprincipled and narrow-minded. But what keeps things on track in advance democracies is a combination of the rule of law, strong institutions and a system of effective checks and balances. In America, where racial discrimination is a fact of life, the emphasis of the police think tank is on constant training, sensitisation and evaluation of services. But in India, the state of training of the police forces is pitiable to say the least. Just about 6 per cent of all police personnel have been provided in-service training between 2012 and 2016. Most neglected areas of training are crowd control, gender sensitivity, human rights, and an understanding of the laws and the legal system.
But before we expect the police to be civil to protesters and rise above political pressures, we as a society, must imbibe the spirit and the values of the Constitution at all levels. It is only through these values that an average police personnel can appreciate why every citizen must have the right to protest. Citizens’ trust in the police cannot be established overnight but is built over years, even decades. India, as an emerging power has to understand two things immediately if we have to stay united and democratic: First, the job of the police is to maintain not only peace but also the harmony and cohesion in society and, second, the usual police-politician nexus will most certainly undermine the legitimacy of the system in the age of social media and citizen videos.
Cases Involving Influential People
- 38% personnel reported ‘always facing’ pressure from politicians in cases of crime involving influential persons
- 1 in 3 personnel have ‘very frequently’ experienced political pressure in the course of crime investigation
- 60% personnel reported transfer as the most common consequence of not complying with such external pressure
Attitude Towards Vulnerable Communities
- 40% personnel think that children in conflict with law (16 to 18 years) should be treated like adult criminals
- 50% feel that Muslims are naturally prone towards committing crimes; 14% feel that Muslims are ‘very much’ naturally prone to committing crimes, while 36% feel that they are ‘somewhat’ naturally prone to committing crimes
- 20% believe that complaints under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act are ‘very much’ false and motivated (Upper caste personnel more likely to be of this opinion)
- 24% believe that migrants are ‘very much’ naturally prone to committing crimes; 36% personnel feel that they are ‘somewhat’ naturally prone to committing crimes
Attitude Towards Mob Violence
- 35% personnel feel that it is natural for a mob to punish the culprit in case of cow slaughter
- 40% personnel believe that it is natural for a mob to punish the culprit in case of kidnapping, rape and road accidents due to drivers’ negligence. Senior personnel are less likely to condone mob violence.
Attitude Towards Violence
- 37% personnel feel that for minor offences, a small punishment should be handed out by the police rather than a legal trial
- 19% feel that killing dangerous criminals is better than a legal trial
- 75% personnel feel that it is justified for the police to be violent towards criminals
- 83% personnel believe that there is nothing wrong in the police beating up criminals to extract confessions
(The author is the director and chief executive of Common Cause. Views are personal.)