Brutal, bigoted police: portents from Meerut, Lucknow

Brutal, bigoted police: portents from Meerut, Lucknow

An injured man lynched by the locals over the suspicion of cow slaughter, is being dragged in the presence of police personnel, in Hapur. PTI

The video of police personnel in Meerut reprimanding a medical student for being in a relationship with another student from a different religion, and then the following week another brazen incident of police constables shooting dead a person refusing to stop for checking at Lucknow, are symptomatic of ills that went beyond the usual narrative of the shortfall of personnel, wares and weaponry that ails the entire ‘uniformed’ fraternity.

In the first case, the police personnel are heard hurling communal invective and suggestions that typify the thinking of the most polarised and ghettoised bigotry of a society in retrogression; the second incident reeked of an ironic ‘above-the-law’ mentality that militates against the natural course of reasonableness, trust and impartiality that ought to accrue to any individual in a uniform, especially in a deeply divided and fractious state like Uttar Pradesh.

Neither of these incidents were due to any operational fatigue or pressures. Instead, they reflected the perversion of either an untrained or ill-trained force. Supposed efforts by higher-ups to cover up the complicity completed the picture of systemic rot. Incidents like these are unthinkable and unacceptable in places like insurgency-infected Jammu and Kashmir, where the level of complexities, provocations and dangers are of another level. The J&K state police have to undergo personal (now even familial) threats to their lives and the work pressures routinely put them in harm’s way that riles against the casual allusion to ‘shooting in self-defence’

The fundamental and unresolved issue of accountability of conduct by the police forces has mocked their credentials of impartiality and professionalism. The pernicious nexus of the politico-police entanglement has led to damaging instances of abuse of power and undue patronage that resulted in various corrective police reform reports that continue to collect dust.

In 2006, the Supreme Court had ordered the states to lay down guidelines pertaining to performance, functioning, posting, transfers and handling of complaints pertaining to police misconduct. Further, to minimise political influence, the court suggested guaranteeing tenures and immunity from arbitrary postings and transfers. Today, not much has changed on the ground, and the images of embarrassing acts of personal servility to politicians, whilst in uniform, occur frequently.

The option of invoking independent complaint authorities like the National Human Rights Commission or Lokayukta remain infeasible on account of various impracticalities of access, complexities or even their existence. The Model Police Act that had envisaged a certain structure, composition and depth of reach has been found wanting at various stages and degrees of implementation in the states which has diluted the efficacy that the Supreme Court envisaged.

Beyond structural changes, the constabulary, which constitutes 86% of the state police forces and is the first line of civic engagement, is woefully handicapped in exercising routine conduct and decision-making in a prudent, evolved and rational manner that is required to handle societal situations. From information gathering, investigation and reporting, the professional policing tasks require the policeman to detach oneself from personal prejudices and perceptions.

The virtual absence of any ‘soft-skill’ training and situation-handling tact is routinely exposed in the ham-handed, coarse and uncouth manner that was exemplified in the Meerut incident. This is especially grave for places like Meerut, which are infamous as communal tinderboxes with riots like those in 1987 and 2014. Herein, the low enforcement agency through its actions must be perceived as unpartisan, unbiased and sensitive. However, the handling of the Meerut case would only deepen the institutional distrust, alienate sections of society and perpetuate communal disharmony.

The fact that the bulk of the constabulary are typically promoted only once in their service spans dilutes the impetus of performance and enhances the incentive to earn through ‘other’ means. Sadly, crimes in India have only risen, with murders and rapes witnessing a spike — the 2017 Global Peace Index rates India to be the fourth most dangerous country for women travellers. The impact of the political polarisation and lynching-culture has only worsened the fate of the most vulnerable sections of society — Dalits, tribals, minorities, etc. As part of the politico-bureaucratic system, the incentive to retain the systemic stalemate and not implement reforms is strong across the board.

Institutional ethos and training

The stark difference in the performance of a soldier of the Indian Army vis-à-vis a state police personnel in times of civic disorder and riots can only be attributed to institutional ethos, training and discipline. The fundamental issue of shortages, outdated weaponry, overburdened work-load, etc, are common features. The basic recruitment criteria and the educational requirements are also more or less the same or at times of an higher order in the police services. However, the difference starts with the training rigour, leadership and the ‘political-insulation’ of the army soldier that ensures that they do not stray from orders or indulge private opinions, while on duty.

Like in any service, there are instances of individual complicity and mistakes that occur with Indian Army operations as well. However, it is never attributable to a systemic failure or an institutional rot. Instinctively, the moral burden of izzat (pride) is so institutionalised in the unit’s name that a bad apple in the unit is unequivocally despised — the laws and consequences of individual misdemeanour are a lot more severe than ‘suspension’, as is the wont in the police services. The ‘connect’ and affiliation of the unit leadership via officers (and most invaluably by the ‘Junior Commissioned Officers’) with the men-under-command, differentiates the behavioural conduct of the two different services. Unsurprisingly, the efficacy and record of the Central Armed Police Forces like the BSF, CRPF, SSB is of a better order than that of the state police forces, as they structurally proximate the army units.

India cannot afford a civic law and order situation as it exists and the trust-deficit between the citizenry and the police forces is unsustainable. Meerut and Lucknow are crying examples of that.

(The writer is former Lt. Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)