Outnumbered almost 70 to one, 15 policemen in Jharkhand’s Giridih district held off a lynch mob 1,000 strong to save the lives of a dairy farmer and his family, who were suspected of cattle slaughter. Though it is within what is expected in the line of duty, it was a considerable feat. But the times are such that it must be regarded as an extraordinary feat which serves to redeem the reputation of the police forces. Indeed, it is their supine acceptance of the superiority of the mob that has emboldened it, and sporadic incidents of sectarian and casteist violence have developed into a trend that seems to be unstoppable.
Through the months of cow vigilantism, the police have been conspicuous by their presence — as bystanders. Police were found to be idly standing by in images of the last major incident in Jharkhand, in which nine people were attacked and killed on the basis of a WhatsApp message warning of child traffickers. In other incidents, the police have arrived late, just like in the movies. More, police forces have gone by the book — and the sentiments of the mob — and filed charges against the victims. India awaits a Kafka to make sense of this perversion of justice. In contrast, the police in Giridih took charge of a dangerous situation in a crowded market, and protected the potential victim and his family until reinforcements arrived.
But why is their initiative an exception rather than the rule? The thralldom of the police, whose promotions and transfers are decided by the government of the day, appears to be the familiar factor which has caused a general erosion of law and order over the years. Insecurity of tenure and the lack of independence from political meddling conspire to make the force cautious, and inert. It is over a decade since the Prakash Singh case, in which the Supreme Court directed the introduction of reforms to give the police functional autonomy within reasonable political control and to make the force more answerable to the people. They have been stonewalled and, among other ills, this has granted impunity to vigilante gangs and mobs, which have now brought India to the brink of a social crisis.