This month, the most senior police officials from across the country will gather to discuss important matters of national concern. With them will be a smattering of the senior bureaucracy and visiting ministers.The meeting is a closed-door affair under the aegis of the Intelligence Bureau.
The final agenda is always heavily influenced by the prevailing political zeitgeist and its preoccupations. Given the feverish attention they have received from the media, it is no surprise that this year’s hot topics include fake news, lynchings, and the newly-invented but undefined “urban naxal”. Whatever their place in the list of issues that are taxing the leadership’s minds they are at best extraordinary transient phenomena. They emerge and decline with changes in the political environment. Beyond these external threats are the perennial internal infirmities of policing arising out of multiple injuries inflicted on the police by themselves and the political executive. These have endured and festered.
There is too much long-term evidence to deny the depth of the malady. The Emergency, the violence against Sikhs in 1984, the Gujarat violence of 2002, the repeated accusations of extra-judicial killings and excess use of force, the selective use of process to target minorities and opponents of the establishment, the frequent failures of intelligence and the inability to ensure an environment of safety for women have all been too well documented to bear denial.
The failure of everyday performance and emergency response and the strictures and censure that follow should have compelled the leadership to take active steps yet much has been left unattended.
When taxed, the police leadership blames institutional malfunction on multiple factors: The police can be no better than “the system” or society around them; the malevolence of a few should not be used to castigate the whole; there are perennial shortages of infrastructure and manpower. But the premier justifications for leadership statis are those two old hoary chestnuts — past colonial design faults and present political interference. This hand wringing does not align well with the image of the most powerful folk presiding over an agency that has the monopoly to use coercive force against its own population. If they prefer to be backed by the power of a political regime rather than rely on the law of the land to protect their actions, they cannot play victim.
Yet, even when playing handmaiden to political power, there is much that senior police officials can be getting on with which would substantially mend policing. Winnowing out the rotten apples rather than transferring them and closing ranks against criticism is certainly one such measure. Today, the leadership resists accountability, hides behind Sections like 197, refuses to face up to the use of torture yet swears they do more to “discipline” their own than any other service. Ideally, senior police officers should welcome as allies the human rights commissions and the newly-minted Police Complaints Authorities rather than strongly resist and disobey their attempts at ensuring accountability wherever possible.
Working with the people they are meant to serve rather than in isolated splendour is another sure means of arriving at better policing. This requires the police to take deliberate steps towards people’s participation. Police stations must be re-claimed as the public utilities they are, rather than the unapproachable bastions they have become. Localised policing plans can be made in consultation with the public. Beat policing, as has been successfully managed in Kerala, can become a universal means of being visible and keeping in touch with the community. Police personnel of all ranks can be incentivised to live within the communities they serve rather than in “lines” that re-enforce a defensive sub-culture that views the public with suspicion.
Training is a singular gateway to checking for bad seeds and creating skilled individuals. Presently, even the fanciest brick-and-mortar training institutions reinforce a regimentation of the mind over knowledge and initiative. Manned all too often by side-lined, unskilled and often disgruntled teachers, course content privileges marching and drill over testing for prejudice, imparting forensic and conflict resolution skills, or seriously inculcating constitutional values. It would take very little for the collective leadership to prioritise the reform of training.
Examples serve as a strong stimulus for good or bad behaviour. Democratic policing must be able to demonstrate democratic values — like equality. The “orderly” system and other similarly demeaning duties forced on trained police personnel symbolise unrecognised talent, inferiority and an unwillingness among the leadership to acknowledge the constabulary as colleagues. The real mental and class distance between officers and men leaves room for outside allegiances to fill the vacuum of influence. Loyalty wanes, unequal and rough treatment within translates into similar treatment of the public. The effort to recalibrate the relationship from one of master and servant to professional collegiality can only come from the top.
Beyond, and indeed above all this, the senior management needs to re-imagine the police not in the colonial image that requires them to cling to power rather than principle but as a law-upholding service that creates an environment within which each one of us and indeed each individual police person can enjoy his or her fundamental rights to the fullest.
If, at this December leadership conclave, even these small steps are not deliberated on, or are again left unaddressed, papered over, or worse denied and defended, it will only be one more opportunity lost. From the consequences of this neglect, the public suffer and the police suffer.
The writer is senior advisor, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative