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Spike in public trust offers room to reimagine people-police compact

The police will need to strive to become a force of social cohesion benignly influencing politics, rather than politics influencing it in order to divide us and rule.

Written by Maja Daruwala , Ritika Goyal |
Updated: June 15, 2020 9:29:21 am
India police, police coronavirus lockdown, police reforms, police clash, The results of an IANS-C voter tracking survey showed, in May, that over two years, public trust in the police has rocketed from around 30 per cent to almost 70 per cent in 2020. (File Photo)

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, a wave of accountability may be on its way to cleanse the police force in the US. The protests in the US are a vaccine against similar violence in the future — violence that has, for too long, been a chronic contagion gripping our own police in India. However, developments in the US stand in sharp contrast to the quiescence closer home to the killing of someone like Faizan, during the Delhi riots.

But at the same time, the results of an IANS-C voter tracking survey showed, in May, that over two years, public trust in the police has rocketed from around 30 per cent to almost 70 per cent in 2020.

During the lockdown, the police have been required to guard containment zones, monitor thousands of home quarantines, go door-to-door to help the elderly and isolated, distribute food to women’s shelters, ferry medication and essential commodities to remote tribal communities, assist thousands of stranded workers or facilitate their safe passage home. Several state police establishments launched helplines, used social media to spread awareness about the need for physical distancing, circulated stay-at-home videos, and even launched a website to counter fake news.

All these non-regular duties have been piled on at a time of great stress for the police forces. The establishment has never been a respecter of the constable’s time nor conditions of work, and the burden of multiple activities — combined with long-term, sub-optimal living conditions and health — have taken their toll. In Maharashtra alone, over a thousand police-persons have tested positive.

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Inevitably, their expanded scope of responsibilities during this pandemic has brought the police in touch with many more people than during their usual duty hours preventing and investigating crime, attending court or attending to some VIP.

This uptick in praise for the police forces — by surveys or otherwise — does not come from a space of attempts at good PR. Their many small acts of kindness — being publicised proactively now — can be traced instead, to the humane instinct of the man on the ground who, in this moment of misfortune and distress, empathises with the multitudes of fellow workers, left to fend for themselves.

Past the hurdles of the lockdown, though, new challenges await policing. Pauperisation, dislocation, competition for strained resources, unemployment, and stress and violence at home, will require re-doubled humane responses from a group that is, largely speaking, ill-prepared to deal with it.

Too many reports and videos tell us that a sustained social orientation and exposure towards easy violence and unchecked power have led to the development of the cruellest responses imaginable towards a people already in the grip of trauma. The policeman beating hapless people at state borders, thrashing emaciated old men, filing chargesheets on patently false reports, constitute “the usual response” by the police.

This is the result of several pre-existing conditions: Coming into the force with caste and class bias and a comfort level with violence which is never broken during their training is one. Regimentation that requires unthinking obedience is another. A third factor is internal authoritarianism, that forces the acceptance of a no- longer-justifiable hierarchy based on class and colonial privilege. So, once a policeman is out in the field, such pathological worldviews provide the justification for exercising all the micro-tyrannies to which he himself has been subjected. He quickly learns that the local power centres call the shots, and that conformity and collusion are key to survival and progress. As a former senior puts it: “The policeman’s training and sub-culture prevents him from seeing himself as the living embodiment of constitutional values.”

Indeed, there is every indication that past, unrepaired experiences of illegality and violence will combine with surveillance technologies and ever more draconian laws — which will be coupled with official intolerance for any self-expression contesting those in authority — and will create an even more domineering police. This means more asymmetry of power and much less recourse to remedies and justice.

But it need not be so. The refreshing blip of approval from the public validates the idea of the police being a service embedded in the interest of society — rather than being seen as a self-isolating force with loyalty to extraneous influencers. Yet, the police have always been encouraged to stand apart from the public. This crisis offers a moment to review that compact, so that the community and its police service are both invested in positive local outcomes, and accountability becomes a local concern rather than a matter for remote power centres.

The approval as reflected by the survey is also a vote for permitting the cop on the ground much more space for innovation in the line of duty. Till date, in the name of “maintaining discipline”, the trend has been to press the constabulary into cookie-cutter conformity, robbing the individual of any initiative and expecting the same insensible Pavlovian reflex to every situation.

The police will need to strive to become a force of social cohesion benignly influencing politics, rather than politics influencing it in order to divide us and rule.

Daruwala is board member and senior advisor, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative; Goyal is a BA L.L.B student at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi

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