December 1, 2005
K C Surendrababu was a dyed-in-the-wool Telugu bidda. When I first met him during training at Hyderabad, he spoke Hindi haltingly with a lyrical style in tune with the rest of his endearing personality. When the cadres were allotted and he got Bihar, one could sense his disappointment at being sent so far from home but some of us joked: “Relax babu, Bihar is just like Andhra Pradesh for the police, both have a thriving Naxal problem. You’ll feel right at home there.” On January 5 this year, having been posted as SP Munger, he was ambushed and murdered along with five other police personnel by Naxalites. He left behind a grieving family. I never met them but if I do get to meet them sometime I would like to express regret for that remark.
This year alone, by one reckoning the numbers of police personnel killed by Naxalites in the affected states that now form a part of the officially ‘red’ corridor have exceeded the number of personnel killed in the J&K and the Northeast, which are more widely recognised as disturbed areas in the public psyche.
Across the country young IPS officers have watched TV screens relay the dramatic events of Jehanabad with despair and frustration. Is this the future, are we going to lose the country to utter lawlessness and anarchy on our watch? As police officers, these are questions that concern us directly. But now, after Jehanabad, these are questions that must exercise the mind of every citizen of this country.
What happened in Jehanabad was, with due apologies to my colleagues from Bihar, a disgraceful display of policing that has now descended to the level of a farce. More importantly and disturbingly, it was a stunning assertion of the Naxals’ command of enough firepower, planning and ability to directly assault the basic institutions of the state with complete impunity. And what is the response we get?
The police in Jehanabad are upset because only the SP has been suspended. Sections of the media are upset because they were lathi-charged by an embarrassed district administration. Sympathisers of a particular ideology, known to thrive in a certain campus in South Delhi and around certain air strips in West Bengal, are exultant at what they see as the first shots in the long-awaited revolution.
I suspect in the days to come, Jehanabad will become another symbol to be appropriated and abused in different ways by competing strands of the cacophony and one-upmanship that passes for public discourse in our country. That is not my immediate concern.
What concerns me now is whether what happened in Jehanabad happen elsewhere in Bihar or other parts of the country, and when? What would the response be? Will we once again see scenes of the complete surrender of state authority? Have our jails, our thanas and our police armouries across the country now themselves become sensitive targets that need to be defended with extra vigilance?
Already in many parts of the country, policemen are fearful of donning their uniforms in public lest they invite instant attention and violence from extremists. Jehanabad didn’t happen overnight. It is the logical culmination of the process of systematic emasculation and erosion of police capabilities, fuelled in part by the demands of realpolitik that have made the thana the first casualty of the criminalisation of our polity.
We are finally experiencing the cumulative effect of decades of neglect. Bereft of the basic resources we need to discharge our functions, our professional pride battered repeatedly by various vested interests, this grotesque and bizarre episode is an apt metaphor for all that the police in this country has become.
What can be done to stem and reverse this systematic failure of professional policing that led to a situation like Jehanabad? In post-independence India, an unhealthy coalition of vested interests (and this includes the IPS), has emerged with a strong stake in keeping things as they are. This coalition has successfully turned policing into a form of prostitution, as Jehanabad proves, even if it has the extreme and suicidal consequences of disturbing the very foundations of the rule of law and state authority.
What is striking is that this coalition has even co-opted those otherwise vigilant guardians of public virtue, the courts and the media, who in their pronouncements and coverage of policing issues constantly miss the woods for the trees. Our courts and our media ceaselessly demand universal standards of human rights and proper procedure in police working, but they too shy away from reflecting seriously about what it would actually cost society to create the police infrastructure that would deliver on these expectations.
To my mind, Jehanabad represents not just a nadir of police inaction and inefficiency — that it undoubtedly is (and no amount of protest by Jehanabad constabulary is going to change this fact). It is also an opportunity to wake up, and, with a sense of national urgency implement a series of measures that would restore some semblance of professionalism in the police structure.
First and foremost, there needs to be a national consensus on bringing law and order from the state list to the concurrent list as early as possible. State governments across the country are too preoccupied with the daily balancing act of political survival to give this important subject the attention and resources that it deserves. The Government of India should not shy away from acknowledging this reality.
We were caught napping in Punjab in the 1980s, in J&K in the 1990s; let it not be the rest of India in the 21st century. This one step would then allow the mandating of nationally enforceable standards for investment in police services. Right now, in terms of basic resources, manpower and infrastructure, a police station in Mumbai is not even on the same planet as a police station in Bihar — this needs to change.
A few months ago the Prime Minister had in a unique initiative called a national level conference of district SPs to gauge the view from the field. One of the interesting ideas that emerged from it was that planning for policing must find place alongside planning for other critical elements of our national infrastructure. There is no other way to stem the visible decay of our thanas across the country.
Along with this crucial systemic change there must also be greater appreciation for professional police inputs in our policy planning. From the grassroots there is no shortage of innovative ideas. Some of them get translated into concrete proposals but the vast majority of them end up gathering dust in state secretariats whose Kafkaesque workings needs no elaboration here. I remember the outcry that went up when a police officer was appointed as a member of the NHRC. Do we seriously expect that professional police officers should not have a proper role in drafting and demanding national standards for humane police behaviour?
This institutional hypocrisy and distrust of the police leadership is deeply insulting to our professional pride and self-confidence. Not just the NHRC, competent police officers must be appropriately inducted at every institution that has a role to play in shaping our police services. Last but not least what Jehanabad has again exposed is the inadequacy of our intelligence collection efforts. In most districts across the country, the amount of manpower and money that is made available for this purpose is quite pitiful.
Our MPs and MLAs can be entrusted with a few crores of rupees each year to spend as they see fit, and yet a few lakhs of rupees in each district, that might make the difference, cannot be found to strengthen intelligence collection at the grassroots. The grim reality is that we leave it to the individual thanedar to ‘manage’ the basic resources required to run a thana, such as petrol, stationery and source money, with his own ingenuity — with the results that all of us love to complain about.
Many of my friends and well-wishers often tease me that after a promising academic career at Oxford and a stint in journalism, joining the IPS must be a bit of a comedown. I cannot quite explain to them the joy and pride with which I have always worn my uniform. I like to think that everyday, within my jurisdiction, I make some difference in the lives of the vast majority of ordinary citizens who do not turn to Naxalism to secure a hope-filled existence.
But Jehanabad has shaken my faith in the sanctity and majesty of what is still surely a vital profession in maintaining a civilised society. At some point in time, we should be able to say with clear conviction to his family that my friend and colleague
K C Surendrababu did not die in vain.
The writer is SSP, Haridwar
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