The images are as stark as they are real. The burly man in khaki comes tearing at the protestors aiming his stout cane at their heads. The men in blue pocket a wad of notes from a truck driver. The bored man sitting with his cronies spits out betel juice to say that a complaint cannot be registered. And the drunken man pushes a woman to the floor as he weighs down on her.
From Chennai to Calcutta, and Imphal to Srinagar, these are images that spring up the moment you mention the word police. Arguably, the most hated section of society in India isn’t the politician, but the policeman. The December 22 lathi charge on protestors in Delhi’s India Gate — voicing their concerns about the safety of women after the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman — only reinforced the general belief that police forces were there not to safeguard the people, but to harass them.
To be sure, there are any number of honest, efficient and considerate men and women in the force. But the number of people who are at best uncaring, and at their worst brutal or murderous, is so overwhelming that the police continue to instill fear among the people. “The police are an essential force but unfortunately not popular,” admits former additional commissioner of Delhi police, Gautam Kaul.
And that’s putting it mildly. “They don’t discharge their duties correctly, they are rude and abusive and they intimidate people... These are some of the most common complaints,” adds Prakash Singh, former director general of police, Uttar Pradesh, who filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2006 demanding police reforms.
A rape survivor in east Delhi recalls how traumatic it was for her to lodge a complaint with the police. “First, they were not ready to believe that I had been raped as the rapist was known to me. They insisted that it was consensual sex. Then they started questioning me instead of nabbing the culprit,” she says.
The image of the police — who are under the jurisdiction of their respective state governments, except in Delhi, where they come under the home ministry — has not improved over the years. In 1979, a study conducted by the Bureau of Police Research and Development said: “The image of the police in the minds of the public is not good. As a result, the police fail to secure the co-operation of public in its fight against crime and disorder.”
The image emanates from police action — or even inaction. Recently, a minor girl in Patiala committed suicide a month after she was gang raped, mainly because of police inaction.
The police are accused of a host of crimes — from bribery and intimidation to rape and murder. Custodial deaths are rampant. The Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights said last year that 1,504 people had died in police custody in India over 10 years.
Rapes by policemen are even more common. In Mumbai, constable Sunil Atmaram More allegedly raped a 17-year-old girl in 2005 inside a police station. The inebriated constable had hauled the teenager to the police station with her boyfriend when he found them together at Marine Drive. He sent the boyfriend out after threatening him, and then raped the girl.
The police are also often accused of engineering encounter killings. The fake encounter killings of Sohrabuddin and Tulsiram Prajapati in Gujarat in 2005 created such a furore that the Supreme Court ordered an inquiry into the case.
The situation is similar across the country — though the intensities vary. According to National Human Rights Commission data, UP has the dubious distinction of scoring the highest number of fake encounter killings. In 2010-11, it received complaints that 40 people were killed by security forces in UP in such encounters.
Police firing on citizens is another common occurrence. In September last year, a fisherman was killed when the police opened fire against demonstrators protesting the opening of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu. In June, four villagers in Bihar’s Forbesganj died in police firing. A scribe was killed in police firing in Imphal last month. In Kashmir, 91 civilian were killed in 2010.
Some argue the police conduct these acts with impunity because of political patronage. “The public is seen as threat to the State (government) by the police as they are trained to be the protectors of the State and not its people. In any other democratic nation, the public is dealt with professionally,” says sociologist Nandini Sundar.
The police-politician nexus hit the headlines after Jessica Lal’s murder in 1999. The Delhi Police had admitted that senior officials had tried to help the main accused, the son of an influential Haryana Congressman. “The police don’t feel the need to be accountable to the public because their loyalty lies with politicians. Cops know that they will get good promotions or postings if they please politicians,” says a home ministry official.
Even women cops do little to instill confidence among the people. “The problem is that female cops too come from the same police culture of corruption and brutality. How can they be any different?” asks N. Dilip Kumar, joint commissioner of police, provision and logistics, who had earlier served in the anti-corruption and vigilance departments of the Delhi police. “Indian policing is all about batons, bullets, criminals and charge sheets. It is unfortunate that cops don’t remember that they are dealing with human beings,” he says.
There are reasons for this. Experts say the police are carrying on the legacy of their colonial predecessors — who saw the people as the State’s enemy. “Since the colonial times, the police are seen as the instrument of torture,” says a senior officer in Calcutta. “The uniform and the baton symbolise power,” adds S.A. Huda, director general of police (law and order), Andhra Pradesh. Coupled with this is a feeling of resentment. “So they vent out their class angst on the public, whenever they get a chance,” Huda says.
Moreover, corruption begets corruption. In most parts of the country, just to get a lower-level police job means giving bribes of Rs 3-9 lakh. “So the moment they get inducted into the force, they want to recover the money,” says Prakash Singh.
Defenders of the police force point out that its men are maligned. “Corruption in other departments is more rampant but subterranean, whereas for the police it is directly felt and very tangible,” says former IPS officer Y.P. Singh.
The police also point out that constables are overworked and underpaid. “The stress piles up and then they snap in public. We manage a population of one crore only with 11,000 cops,” says additional commissioner of police (Law and Order) T. Sunil Kumar, Bangalore. Delhi has a shortage of 7,000 personnel.
Experts stress that it’s time for reforms in the force. “We need classes on gender sensitivity, timely promotions and honest officers at the highest level,” says Singh.
A model Police Bill was framed in 2006 suggesting that state police boards be set up for deciding on promotions and transfers. Other recommendations included a fixed tenure for a police chief and other key functionaries. The Bill, however, has been gathering dust.
A sense of belonging, some argue, has to be instilled in the forces. “They also have to feel that they are for the people,” says Sanjeev Kumar Singhal, joint commissioner of police, Pune. That, however, seems a distant dream. For the present, many would say that the police are not for them — but against.
Caught in the act
A police inspector in Amroha (UP) turns the body of a dead man with his boots to locate a bullet injury.
A policeman finds and detains a teenaged girl who had been abducted in Sitapur (UP) and rapes her for five days.
A Delhi Police sub-inspector is caught taking a bribe of Rs 3 lakh.
Policemen in Satna (MP) drag and kick a mentally challenged man.
A constable is arrested on charges of raping a schoolgirl in southeast Delhi.
A 35-year-old man dies in police custody in Dharavi (Mumbai). Family alleges police torture.
With additional reporting by Kavitha Shanmugam in Chennai and Velly Thevar in Mumbai