The State of the Indian Police

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The death of the lowly police constable Tomar underlines the existentialist irony of the lives of policemen in general. Caught up in these irrational, lawless times where the temperature and virulence of public unrest has the potential to make or unmake political fortunes of parties, police lends its face to the invisible enemy in the war between those in power and those others in exile.

But this is one war in which death rarely brings martyrdom their way, no matter what. It is being very diligently debated that Tomar did not die of injuries inflicted by the mob; his system simply failed to cope with the tension generated by the situation. Such deaths are not worth being bothered about.

The popular mind has a very straight forward and simple expectation from the police. It is that police should make itself useful to them in all sorts of circumstances. It is a demanding task. You cannot be useful to the victim and the offender, to the complainant as well as the accused, to the party in power and the ones in perpetual quest of wresting it, to the under privileged and the powerful, all at the same time. To alienate them from the people further, every one’s grouse becomes a police problem: the students angry at issues relating to the campus, workers and government servants disgruntled at their service related conditions, doctors furious at being maltreated by neglected patients are police problems. And they all come calling without notice or ostensible reasons in all their variety and degrees of seriousness.

The seminal role of the disobedience movement in the struggle for our independence has attributed some sort of a sacerdotal value to breaking of laws. A significant section of the society is in a state of perpetual civil disobedience. Ceremonially courting arrest and proudly going to jail are the surest endorsement of faith in democracy- just as hurling brick bats, burning buses, and scalping a few policemen are the other articles of democratic faith. The adherents include venerable politicians, public men many of them, who may have till recently sworn by the rule book in their capacity ministers, chief ministers, army generals and police officers. Forced into the role of necessary respondent or reluctant third party, the police become duty bound to defend public property and maintain order against the self designated forces of disorder almost on a daily basis.

Nobody should be left in any doubt that most of the agitations are staged, seasonally and unseasonably, by various political parties, special interest groups and other layabouts jostling for some place under the sun. In the spectacles that are staged almost on a daily basis, more important than registering their protest, showing the government of the day in a poor light is the dominant agenda. The government may have its own compulsions in not yielding to their demands but at the same time protests are democratic and have to be countenanced. The police force who have the powers in law but they are hemmed in by a hundred pragmatic considerations.

Any demonstration or show of strength becomes an event and no event worth the name can be staged in the absence of the television. The mere presence of television camera influences the behavior of both the police as well as the participants. The participants become, consciously and unconsciously actors, the reality of the situation is reduced to a drama. Thus television is in many cases, the unwitting instigator for many acts of spectacular mob violence. There are some very happy faces, and some excited voices reporting lathi charge or police firing. Cleverly infiltrated agent provocateurs make their day the Brahmeshwar Mukhiya episode in Patna was a copy book example of what Umberto Eco calls television as "mise en scene and reality as scene setting."

The government normally wants to eat its cake and have it too in the sense that it would not like to be seen to be abdicating its responsibility but is also deeply committed to populist concerns. The police man knows, as everyone else does, that neither courage nor conscience is associated with the vocation of politics, and public fury always prevails over fairness. The standard response in situations which go awry is to sacrifice a few policemen to satisfy the braying media beast and other political animals. In the ultimate analysis, while handling an unruly crowd situation, leaders in the field dither and deliberate the damage to their career should the political cost prove to be exorbitant? Most police excesses - or inadequacies - are the result of the misreading of signals; a tentative leadership involved in fine political calculations and career prospects ends up by inflicting more casualties than is required or abdicates its responsibilities.

The liberal opinion fed on a diet of "selective feeds" from the TV can flay any handling of the law and order situation because the monopolistic right of the lawless society to break laws is taken for granted. At the same time it is very prompt in pointing out the limits within which the police can operate, the whole episode is scrutinized in the light of finely calibrated theory of escalation of use of force. So not only Delhi, not only Patna, I cannot recall many instances where police has covered itself with glory or earned the gratitude of people for their adroit handling of law and order. The eternal 'Mamu' who is the object of ridicule or mild derision throughout the year takes on the shades of a psychopathic villain after every such outing.

But above all it serves a very utilitarian purpose. The current protest movement helps society evade the question that it needs to ask itself, and ask with great urgency – what kind of a pathology is producing such a rich crop of rapists to whom every female is fair game. They can happily speculate only if the Delhi police had been more efficient, more alert, had escorted every bus, chaperoned every girl, Damini would have been alive today. The society would be happier if a policeman added to its roster of paranoia one more – treat every passenger, every commuter, every office-goer, in fact every member of the male gender, as a potential rapist!


India Today magazine once referred to Manoje Nath, a 1973-batch IPS officer, as being fiercely independent, honest, and upright. Besides his numerous official reports on various issues exposing corruption in the bureaucracy in Bihar, Nath is also a writer extraordinaire expressing his thoughts on subjects ranging from science fiction to the effects of globalization. His sense of humor was evident through his extremely popular series named "Gulliver in Patiliputra" and "Modest Proposals" that were published in the local newspapers.

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