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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Making the Police Count

Thousands of lives have been lost in terrorist incidents in locales as varied and different as running trains, shopping centres, places of worship but these were hardly the places where merchant bankers, captains of industry, media barons, and the upper crust the citizens of the global order were likely to be in the normal course of business. Some de rigour noises were made but very soon it was business as usual. But the attack the Taj and other places, has forced them to take notice that our police forces are ill equipped, poorly armed, poorly paid, grossly overworked, and interfered with in the discharge of its duties by politicians. These facts and much else had been highlighted in 1978 by the Dharamvir Commission Report, which was based on extensive interviews of people through out the country. But it was not discussed beyond the narrow grove of the professional circles. On the writ petition filed by an intrepid police officer, the Supreme Court directed way back in 2006, that governments should initiate reforms in the structural, professional and attitudinal make up of police, but alas! It was not to be because it lacked the backing of powerful groups which can compel policy decisions. Therefore, the compliance of many states has been tardy. In a particular state the new police act takes away with the left hand which it gives with its right, and the security of tenure of senior officers becomes contingent on the ambiguous and amorphous “administrative reason” clause. As mentioned above 26/11 has ushered in such a sea change of opinion in favour of police that ordinary citizens, media men, are mouthing the concerns that have remained unheeded for decades. Of course these are music to the ears of policemen but while the nation is prepared to lend the police their ears one must raise some basics issues – how does the concept of police function in our society? Is it an apolitical, professional organization equally available to all, or is it an adjunct of the power apparatus? The urgent impetuosity to the concern underlines the realization that police protection fell short of the needs of that section of society also which so far took things for granted. Some hard and intense soul searching needs to be done here as to how to extend the service to the more numerous poor people as well who are equally entitled to police protection.

The primary duty of police is maintainenance of law and order and prevention and detection of crime. Law one can understand-law as laid down by the legislature and codified in various acts like CrPC etc but what is order? This is are not merely a rhetorical question. The crime of rampant kidnapping as well as communal disturbance are both threats to law and order. The police force of a progressive state came in for a lot of adverse notice for the alleged denial of protection to the minorities when they needed it the most but otherwise its record has been very good. The other instance will perhaps complete the story. Another state failed miserably in curbing the menace of kidnapping but the law and order situation in relation to the minorities left nothing to be desired! How does one explain this?

Stanley Mailgram a management expert conducted a series of obedience experiments in Connecticut in 1961 and advanced a hypothesis that human beings have a natural tendency to obey men in authority and they will even stoop to needless brutality and inhumane treatment of their fellow beings should they feel so commanded by an authority. In the light of above findings we can better understand the conduct of the police force in which obedience is drilled in day in and day out. The propensity of elements of police to cater to the wishes of people in power is the stuff of our daily experience but now it is official. A central investigating agency swore an affidavit recently to indicate that at least in one case the investigation of case the followed the dictates of political expediency.

The organizational culture of police puts too much premium on blind obedience, even psycho fancy. So it is not unusual to find politically adroit officers in key position, even though they may be professionally at sea. We will do well to remind ourselves that the CBI, the IB, and R&AW were first rate professional organizations and enjoyed a huge credibility till the other day. Any critically aware newspaper reader knows why they have lost some of theeir sheen as well as the trust of the people. So the Federal agency is all very welcome, and under the stimulus of the challenge facing us today, the right men with the right aptitudes will take it to great heights but what is the guarantee that it would not someday file the affidavit like the one mentioned above. Therefore, the senior police leadership of the day, and in days to come, needs to be put through a crash course in disobedience – to train them to say no to illegal orders, to refuse to make the organization available to the dictates of political expediency.

This brings us to our next concern. Why should the governments arm themselves with enormous powers of appointing top retired officers to cushy sinecures? It is believed that there may be more than a few thousands of such posts conferring the status-and attendant privileges - of union cabinet ministers, ministers of state etc all over the country ? In effect it means a huge promotion for the chosen one after his superannuation. But surely there aren’t that many to satisfy the craving of all. So how are they chosen? The appointment of even class four employees is strictly regulated and yet every now and then we keep hearing of scandals of irregularity in appointments at the behest of the ruling political establishment. Hence more often than not the “here” is bartered by functionaries at top most positions to secure the “hereafter”. So while we are planning to give better protective body armour and weapons to the first responders in the police force, serious thoughts must be devoted as to how to protect the senior most leadership, against the lurking temptation, which erodes its capacity to take decisions. The most obvious remedy seems to be to hand over these appointments also to the UPSC and the state public service commissions.

The enactment of tougher laws and granting more powers to police, are all right. But given the propensity of police to voluntary servitude to those in authority, a mechanism of thorough performance audit by a neutral body to fix accountability as has been directed by the Supreme court, must be immediately put in place,in both letter and spirit,so that cases of abuse of authority, and abdication of courage and responsibility are dealt with sternly and summarily. One must remember that legal narratives only put the imprimatur of state authority on existing power relations, and in our highly unequal society, with tougher laws the perils of abuse deepen for the minorities,and the weaker and marginalized sections of the society.

Is that the whole story? Unfortunately no. In any discourse on police inadequacy the role of the civil servant remains conspicuously unexamined. The DM is the head of criminal administration, the commissioner writes the ACR of SP and so forth, the DM reports on the performance and conduct of the SP to the government directly, and the Home Secretary can starve the police of funds, promotional avenues and treats the top police leadership as if they were mendicants on his personal charity. And yet when it comes to owning responsibility, like Eliot’s practical cat Mcavity, “whatever time the deed took place he was not there”. “Privilege without responsibility”, said Lord Beaverbrook “has been the prerogative of the harlot through the ages. ” It is high time we cried a halt to the harlotry of power all around.

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