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Explained Ideas: Why, despite Vikas Dubey killing, police reforms are unlikely to happen

The truth about police reform is that it is what Gandhi said about western civilisation, a nice idea, writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: July 13, 2020 9:33:11 am
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The killing of Vikas Dubey and the chain of events leading up to it throw a spotlight on governance in Uttar Pradesh and police reform more generally. In his column, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, contributing editor of The Indian Express, explains why actual police reforms are unlikely to happen notwithstanding the current focus on Dubey.

“The entire train of events in this episode will lead to demands for police reform: Protect police from political interference, invest in police training, shore up the judicial system. But the truth about police reform is that it is what Gandhi said about western civilisation, a nice idea. No one actually wants it for the following reason,” he writes.

For one, if you don’t trust the police, do you actually want to make it more efficient? If the structure of your existence, as is the case with hundreds of millions of poor people, inhabits zones of state-created illegality, would you actually want to give police more enforcement power?

“Disempowered groups, who already suffer most at the hands of the police fear an effective police force even more; whatever little margins of negotiation they might have would disappear. And the privileged would rather have a negotiable system,” he explains.

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Second, “the police has a strange position in a democracy. It is an instrument of political power to channelise patronage”. No ruling party wants to give that up, so there is no incentive to reform.

Neither does the Opposition because they may be in power one day and might want to use the same instrument one day. “It is because an ad hoc rule of law structure, open to negotiation by community identity, money, violence and connections, actually fragments power in a democracy. No one wants to give the state an actual monopoly over violence,” says Mehta. “Many criminals, like Dubey, subvert the rule of law. But people see them as nodes of power, which are often deployed in resistance to the state. Police reform would mean subverting this entire moral economy of fragmented power”.

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Lastly, Mehta points to the peculiar status of the police as “expendables”. For instance, in UP, contrary to global trends, more than twice as many policemen were killed on duty as the number of civilians killed by police. Most of the police deaths were not at the hands of criminals but a result of neglect and poor working conditions.

Also read | Encounter impunity on record: 74 probes complete in UP, police get clean chit in all

“So it is little wonder that with no real constituency of police reform, the line between the criminal and the state will remain blurred, as it is in UP,” he concludes.

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