The death of a policeman was front page news this week. The facts are bizarre, yet ordinary. And some of them disputed. Three students, two men and a woman, are waiting for their bus to college some distance away. The local SHO comes along and berates them for creating a nuisance. That is his story. They say they were first roundly abused for nothing more than being seen together in mixed company and then forced to go to the police station. There, the men were beaten on the soles of the feet, detained for some hours and having been “taught a lesson”, all three were set free.
This seems par for the course. The “difficulty”, as some will see it, is that the three students had the temerity to complain. They wrote to the police and college principal detailing their treatment. The principal took note. Various youth groups and college students, already riled by “moral policing” in the area, began a protest. The DSP of the area arrived to calm them. In the melee, he asked, rhetorically, what they wanted: Whether he should shoot himself. Someone shouted he should and he did. Worse, his bullet killed an innocent bystander, his constable.
The chain of events suggests a back story that should never have begun.
The woman says she was dragged to the police station by her hair. Perhaps she is exaggerating. Perhaps this is exactly what happened. Nowhere is there any mention of a woman police officer being present. The law does not permit a woman to be taken to a police station at all unless absolutely necessary. It also requires that a woman officer must be there at all times. Of course, there are not enough women police officers — these rules are honoured more in their breach than their observance.
It is unclear why the three were taken to the police station. Nuisance, if at all there was any, is a minor crime that doesn’t demand immediate arrest. But it happens despite the requirement that notice be given to attend the police station if the crime is a minor one. The alleged beatings too are hardly remarkable. This everyday first response is so regular that it invites us to forget it is an illegality, torture, and is prohibited. We also forget that it cannot continue without willing abettors in the police station and a blind eye at the top.
The SHO denies the worst of his actions but also justifies them as part of “moral policing”. “Moral policing” is a figment of the police’s imagination. But it is also an easy and enjoyable exercise of unchecked power. Honest policing limits itself to acting against criminal activity not in curbing a version of naughtiness.
The DSP may have realised that the SHO’s story held little water. The story says he even offered to apologise on behalf of the establishment. The SHO, a lower-rank officer in charge of a police station, refused to apologise. In an establishment that prides itself on its cast iron discipline and hierarchy, this signals an internal breakdown. The long-term impunity that the Punjab police have enjoyed under every administration does not make this surprising. SHOs, whose suzerainty over the local population has gone unquestioned, perhaps don’t feel they need to obey remote superiors.
The appearance of a senior officer is by way of negotiating with a discontented public to prevent escalation. It substitutes for going through the process of apportioning blame within, even when it should be investigated and apportioned. It fits well with the tradition of dealing with wrongdoing “amongst ourselves” in the false belief that this somehow saves the blushes of the establishment whose “morale” must never be diminished. As if “morale” can ever be built on minimising wrongdoing or pushing it under the carpet. Since all this is bought at the cost of obedience to law and service to the public, the arrogance is breathtaking and now life-taking.
An early and quick inquiry by the supervisory staff would have sorted out the matter. The complaint against the police could have been publicly acted upon through an FIR, if there was possible criminality, or at minimum an administrative inquiry into infractions of behaviour. That would have assuaged public outrage even if it came to nothing in the end. But that path seems hardly to have been considered. The realities of power may have gotten in the way. The complaint could have gone to the police complaints authority, but there isn’t a functional one. In Punjab, as elsewhere, the Supreme Court’s 2006 direction to create these mechanisms stands disobeyed. All this is a consequence.
If patterns are anything to go by, the matter won’t end there. The reported course taken by the police indicates there is more sorrow to come. Two families have already lost their beloved breadwinners. Fearful of the fall-out, the students and children have run away. Their families are rightly terrified. The police, we are told, has raided the families. Why? There is no obvious crime to be seen here. A man killed himself. There is no abetment to suicide. In killing himself, he killed another by accident. He is beyond blame. The homicide has no culprit and the victim no recourse except perhaps some paltry compensation.
Still somewhere, quite senselessly, the apportioning of blame will go on. If only to deflect from the real and deep malaise within the police. If someone has to win, someone has to lose. Some individual will be forced to pay. Perhaps it will be the weakest.
The death of any policeman should be front-page news. It should stir us because it is a human tragedy. It should disturb us because it would never have come to this if law and process had been followed. It should unsettle us because it signals the decay in law enforcement. The time for police reform has come and gone. But every tragedy once again provides another moment to prevent, to improve, to change, to reform. It won’t be taken because it hasn’t yet come to bloody the doorsteps of the powerful. But there’s not too long to wait.