The badlands of Western UP are in the news again. This time for the fact that a full-fledged SHO of Uttar Pradesh police, Inspector Subodh Kumar Singh, posted in Bulandshahar district was shot dead, allegedly by a mob of cow vigilantes. Apparently they were so angry at the allegations of cow slaughter in their locality that they could not but help give expression to their rage by actually killing a human being. That too one in uniform.
We have been here before. Neither lynchings, nor cop killings are unknown in India’s most populous state. All that is required is a self-righteous cause. After all, this is the state that in 1922 brought the Civil Disobedience movement to a halt by burning alive an entire station full of policeman at Chauri Chaura. Even Gandhi was helpless before the might of a lynch mob from UP. Lesser mortals like policemen simply don’t stand a chance.
But why go that far back in history. The districts of Western UP could very well start a Indian Lynch a Cop League. Moradabad did very well in 2011 when they nearly beat an SSP to death over the alleged desecration of the Quran. He had nearly two dozen fractures and barely survived. The good residents of Mathura went one step further and actually killed an Additional SP in 2016. Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Ghaziabad — all of them have their own tales of exemplary savagery against the police. All, of course, for some “noble” cause or another.
Predictably, even before the funeral pyre of Singh turned to ashes, the political blame game has begun. The mobilisation of cow vigilantes is the obvious culprit. And in the context of this particular crime it makes perfect sense to question the culture of impunity that has grown around cow vigilantes, from the days of the first lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri. Five accused have been arrested, a few with clear links to right-wing outfits. However, to blame this cop killing culture of UP on the right-wing alone would be to confuse the symptoms for the disease. This incident is at the intersection of two sub cultures, the first a culture of impunity of the lynch mob, and the second a culture of servility of an emasculated and politicised police.
The fact is that irrespective of the party in power, and the rhetoric they may dish out about their commitment to law and order, UP has one of the most dysfunctional criminal justice systems in the country. The plight of the UP police as frequent victims of the lynch mob, is simply exhibit A. The fundamental link between crime and punishment, that is the foundation of the rule of law, has been broken in UP for a while now. Trials take decades. Conviction rates are abysmal. Witnesses turn hostile as a matter of routine with no adverse consequences. Forensic facilities are negligible. Prisons are overcrowded and more often than not, they serve as safe havens for well-connected gangsters to run their empires from.
The most important factor is there simply aren’t enough policemen to police India’s largest state. By UN standards, at current population levels, UP needs around a million police personnel. At present it has around 3,00,000. Those who are there are not just overburdened and under-resourced, but their professional spine has been broken by casteism, corruption and frequent transfers. This is not to say that everything is rotten in UP police. It still has some of the bravest, most committed and knowledgeable police personnel that you will find anywhere in the country. But they work in a largely hostile ecosystem that places obedience over professional performance. The IPS leadership is well meaning but ineffectual. They lack the cohesion, the critical mass and the political support to make a difference. Fixing this system is not rocket science, but it will be a long and slow process. A process that governments in our times, who often work from tweet to tweet, or at best over a 24/7 news cycle, may not have the time or the patience or even the inclination for.
The biggest impediment facing the police in general, and the UP police in particular, is the belief cutting across party lines, that the police are simply the bounden servants of the government of the day. Their primarily role is not to serve the public or uphold the rule of law, but to further the cause of the ruling party and strike terror in the heart of its political opponents. In lynching Subodh Kumar Singh, the cow vigilantes were simply exercising the time-tested prerogative of all recent ruling dispensations of UP. Their anger and surprise at being booked for using this traditional perk of office is quite understandable. Misbehaviour with the police by ruling party office-bearers is quite routine. This time it was merely taken to a chilling, but logical, conclusion.
Some have offered a different line of argument. The cops in UP and elsewhere are corrupt and brutal anyway. So their frequent manhandling and occasional lynching is a logical expression of public frustration with them. If that be the case, why spend scarce resources on having a police department at all? Desperate times call for desperate measures. If we carry on this slippery slope of toleration of violence against the police, a day may come when we may consider abolishing the police department altogether and give every incoming party in power the right to appoint its preferred set of goons the right to police their local area. That will be the ultimate triumph of democracy.
We are living in a fool’s paradise if we think we can bring about the social and economic transformation of India, in accordance with our constitutional values, without a transparent and efficient criminal justice system. Or that such a system can be created without a professional, well-resourced police force that answers only to the law, and not to the ideology of the party in power.
Innumerable commissions have highlighted the need for police reforms. It has been over a decade since the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in the Prakash Singh case. And yet, its implementation in letter and spirit remains a distant dream.
One can only hope that the killers of the SHO face the full force of the law and are swiftly tried and punished. But that would be the triumph of expectation over experience. After all, the mob that nearly lynched SSP Moradabad got away scot-free. Their case was eventually withdrawn in the public interest. Perhaps public interest will be defined differently this time. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before another cop is slain by another mob that believed it had the right to do so.
The writer is a serving IPS officer. Views are strictly personal