A quick glance at the daily news from around the country throws up story after story of police misbehaviour, great and small. Videos uploaded day after day confirm this is no rarity — a horrific double murder in Tamil Nadu, grossly depraved behaviour towards women who came to complain in UP, four alleged escapees gunned down by a police posse in Telangana, a father tortured to death before his 10-year-old son in Hapur, UP.
It is no stretch to say these depravities are probably the tip of the iceberg. Statistics reaffirm the epidemic of bad behaviour. The National Crime Records Bureau records 853 custodial deaths between 2010 to 2018 — 70 of them in 2018 alone. At 1,636, the National Human Rights Commission puts the death figure much higher. For this, just three policemen have been convicted.
It is common practice in police stations to ignore the statute, laid down processes and Supreme Court guidelines. So frequent is the brazen disobedience to the law that a lot of illegality seems to have morphed into accepted practice. A most dangerous illegality hides inside the “encounter” stories that regularly surface. Whether it is when dealing with so-called insurgents, sandalwood smugglers, alleged rapists on the way to court, or most recently, the UP “encounter” of gangster Vikas Dubey and several of his accomplices, the stories have a familiar ring. The wicked were in custody. They tried to escape. A pistol was snatched. Shots were fired. The runaway was killed in self-defence. A few policemen were injured. Fact or fiction, end of the story.
So common is this stratagem for dealing with inconvenient people that every media platform talked about the strong possibility of Dubey being “encountered”. Editorials warned against it. To no avail. Once in UP, he was killed. The Supreme Court is clear that in each such case, an FIR must be registered and the matter probed independently. If false, an “encounter” is premeditated murder. That is all. No one will shed a tear for the likes of Vikas Dubey, but we should for the rule of law.
Not registering complaints is another common failing. If registered, its magnitude is often diluted. It is so difficult for women, in particular, to get crimes registered that in 2013, the law itself had to be changed. Now a policeman who refuses to register a complaint of a sexual assault faces a two-year sentence. But since hardly anyone has been punished, the remedial section lies stillborn.
Some inkling of crime registration can be discerned from India’s crime rate. In 2018, it stood at 383.5 per 1,00,000 population. By contrast, the crime rate in the US was over 2,500 per 1,00,000 . This seems to make India a safer and better policed country. But actually, such artificial sweetness about low crime figures hurts the police as much as the public. They make a fine excuse for governments to leave vacancies unfilled, go short on equipment and upgrades.
At 158, India’s police to population ratio (police staff per 1,00,000 citizens) is one of the worst in the world. It lags well behind its neighbours. Manpower deficits turn into perpetual inefficiencies, contribute to low conviction rates and long incarcerations for the hapless poor who overcrowd our jails.
Another common illegality is picking up people without cause. Often it is because the local public wants a quick arrest and the police a patsy. People with prior records form a pool of easy pickings, as do the powerless — in the Ryan schoolboy murder case, the bus conductor had to stand for the real culprit until the CBI stepped in.
The speed of arrest and strength of investigations are notoriously selective. In the Tuticorin custodial murder, the father and son were arrested on the instant for a 15-minute lockdown infraction. But it took six days, the Madras High Court’s dogged intervention and a national hue and cry before six policemen could be arrested. Vikas Dubey with 60 cases, including the daylight murder of a minister against him, could not be touched for decades. In Delhi, the swift criminalisation of student protestors is moving apace while there is little word about the alleged police vandalism inside JNU hostels. Action against senior politicians alleged to have made incendiary speeches is awaited.
From taluka to national level, checks and balances to staunch police transgressions abound. Internally, there are disciplinary mechanisms. Outside, there are the courts. Every state has human rights commissions, special interest bodies like the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, women, and minorities commissions, and some have the police complaints authorities. The Supreme Court’s clear directions coupled with the criminal code provide ample safeguards against excess. But all this is on paper.
In real life, internal mechanisms are overindulgent of illegal behaviour, obscure and dilatory. Putting it kindly, too often the first responder lower courts are constrained by capacity and circumstance to be less than vigilant in the protection of life and liberty. The 70 per cent undertrials awaiting their day in court attest to this.
Very few of the over one hundred guardian bodies dotted around the country work effectively. Many are simply sinecures for the aged. Others are deliberately left understaffed and under-resourced. The Andhra Pradesh SHRC has no chairperson nor members. Gujarat, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu SHRCs function with acting chairs and Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Manipur, Maharashtra and Rajasthan have no members. The few institutions that have the power and resources restrain their own functioning through terminal timidity. All are routinely ignored or duped through wordy vague responses or gamed via procedural smokescreens designed for delay.
Even without going into the incidents of corruption, extortion, intimidation, just the number and regularity of heinous crimes calls out for root and branch repair of the police and the many guardian agencies tasked with keeping them lawful.
The writer is senior advisor, Tata Trusts and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
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