Business Standard

Keeping police honest

Indians' distaste for the police means even good people in the system can't do much

Shubhashis Gangopadhyay
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The lockdown and the subsequent arrest of a terror suspect made an interesting spectacle in many ways. For a full day, that was the only thing on CNN and on all the Indian television channels. Whenever anyone had the time and was close to a television set, they tuned in to see the unfolding drama. It was quite a lesson in the way the and work in the United States. What was also interesting was the way the people of Boston and the surrounding municipalities co-operated with them. The press, too, kept its distance from the scene of action, unlike what it did during the 26/11 terror incident in Mumbai.

Perhaps the most important aspects of the whole episode were the co-operation of the people with the authorities and the authorities' communication with the people. People stayed in their homes, vigilant and appreciative of what the security forces were doing. It was impressive to see how they banded together in support of the forces in spite of the fact that they were losing out on enjoying their weekend evening. Equally impressive was the way the authorities were repeatedly communicating with the people. While they never said anything much about what they were about to do or what their plans were, they continually kept reassuring the people that things were under control. What should be an eye-opener to us all is the fact that almost all these public addresses were by local office-bearers. Local officials are responsible to the community where they work, and hence have greater credibility than someone sitting in Washington. I am sure officials in the capital were monitoring the proceedings, but the local bosses were giving the perception, at least, that they were in the loop. Not surprisingly, after everything ended, the people lined the streets and clapped in appreciation as the security forces withdrew.

Recall the 26/11 event in Mumbai. Our television reporters were giving us details about what was about to happen from "official" sources that remained unidentified. Here and there, there were local and distant members of Parliament and members of Legislative Assembly talking to the press and emphasising their importance in the hierarchy by dropping names and positions of the people who were in charge at the site. Most of them were not local officials and gave these statements from places far away from where everything was going on. Remember how we waited endlessly to hear from the Union home minister - but we never expected to hear from the state home minister, leave aside the officials on the ground that day. Our leaders and government officials have never felt the need to explain to the public what they do. As long as they can explain things to their administrative bosses, or their political leaders in the capital, they do not feel they owe any explanation to those who are directly affected by what they do or don't do.

Almost everyone I know, regardless of the country one lives in, is critical of their police force. The police are accused of more than one vice: lackeys of the establishment, prone to use more than appropriate force, discriminating against particular communities, corrupt and what not. However, when push comes to shove, people in many countries genuinely believe that their police forces work for them.

Indians seldom think that way. Police in India have rescued children from kidnappers, caught rapists, solved murders and used great skill to nab Sudipto Sen of the Saradha scam. And yet, we have never appreciated what the police do and, should we have any occasion to deal with them, it is with a great degree of suspicion and distaste that we approach them. I guess there are bad people everywhere just as much as there are good people everywhere. The problem in India is that the system is always bad. This makes even the good people in the police force unable to do much good.

There are two events worth recounting. A friend of mine was caught speeding at 70 kilometres per hour in a 60-kph speed-limit zone. I was in the car. The policeman was an old man and was clearly suffering from the heat and dust of Delhi. He was your typically poor police constable eking out a living in the capital city. When my friend offered to pay the fine and not try to argue, or browbeat, or make any deals, the policeman was visibly surprised. For some time, he kept staring at my friend. Then, he almost broke down. He said he had never been so politely spoken to by anyone he had stopped unless they wanted to avoid paying the fine. And, in his long years of experience in the force, he couldn't recall anyone who had not tried to bribe him!

Another friend of mine had his son's passport done through the Tatkal scheme. His son got the passport and left the country. Two weeks later, when I was at his house, a smart-looking, young policeman was at his door saying that he had to file a verification report for his son's passport application. He was brought into the house, made to sit down and was offered tea, which he accepted. He spoke in fluent English (though my friend is a Hindi speaker and had spoken to him in Hindi at the door). After all his questions were answered and noted down by him on some piece of paper, he finished his tea and announced that he was done. The only remaining thing was for my friend to hand over the "fees" for the verification report!

In both cases, my friends kept the police honest. We must think more deeply about changing our systems.


The writer is research director at IDF and director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at SNU

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