On Sunday, March 18, 1984, Vinod Mehta — who was the deputy commissioner of police, Calcutta port division — was brutally killed in broad daylight by a rampaging mob led by a notorious political goon who enjoyed protection from the ruling party in the state at that time. One cannot be sure what action was taken against the perpetrators of the crime.
Fast forward to Tuesday, December 31, 2002. A police sergeant, Bapi Sen, was murdered by his own inebriated colleagues in Calcutta for trying to prevent them from sexually harrassing a woman. One wondered whether change for the better would ever come to West Bengal as had been promised by the current dispensation at the time of the assembly elections. The prospect of such a change, however, seems bleak. Tapas Chowdhury, a sub-inspector, was shot dead on February 12, 2013, at Garden Reach by goons who reportedly owe allegiance to Trinamul Congress leaders. This incident, once again, points to the potentially devastating demoralization in the West Bengal police force. In the long run, this will inevitably lead to more violence and bloodshed, thereby paving the way for a rampant misuse of the law in a sensitive border state like West Bengal.
In a striking resemblance to the Vinod Mehta murder in 1984, history seems to have repeated itself (at least partially) in 2013 — despite the presence of comrades-in-arms on the spot who were equipped with weapons, none could stop the murder of the hapless policeman in broad daylight. The police force, in both cases, expressed anger and anguish at having failed to save their colleagues from the brazen violators of the law of the land. This is not a good omen.
There is a startling picture of apathy and indifference that emerges from the murders of the three policemen. Faulty administration and the suppression of professional policing made an unprecedented and spectacular entry into the state. The present-day establishment and its privileged rulers too seem to have forgotten — or continue to ignore — the basic fact that West Bengal is a highly sensitive border state of India with a myriad social, political and economic issues plaguing it. It requires professional administration and fair, objective policing to curb crime and contain the unrest that is created by demoralized men in uniform. These signs of demoralization are exactly what seem to be surfacing at the moment. Although the present picture could easily be identified as a relic of the misgovernance of the previous regime and the steady politicization of the police force, it is time to stem the rot. Whatever may be the political compulsions and the electoral concerns of the leaders of West Bengal, keeping the police subservient to the needs of politicians and governments can lead to an abysmal failure of the state machinery.
The police force is an arm of a state. The fundamental responsibility of running it lies on the shoulders of the senior officers whom the rank and file look up to. Any uniformed service runs on at least two common factors — a unity of command and a concentration of focus on the issues at hand. The onus for the implementation of the former lies with the seniors; the latter with the operational staff. The concept of the police versus criminals exists everywhere, even in present-day West Bengal.
However, one feels the need to ask why, and how, there exists a trust deficit between the police and the people of India. Is it owing to the persistently poor image of the former? Or is there something more to it, like the bad memories of those who may have been victims of police actions in the past? Whatever may be the reason, the fact remains that the killing of policemen on or off duty on the streets of crowded cities do not improve matters in any way. If such things occur, then two diametrically opposite fallouts could be expected. First, an increasing indifference to duty in day-to-day work; second, an unquestioning submission to the whims and fancies of the political class which will create a reign of disillusionment and cynicism in society.
The worst possible scenario, however, could be the large-scale transfer of policemen from sensitive positions, after which those posts are to be filled by ‘yes men’. In doing so, the government will be compromising on professionalism and merit in an organ of the state which cannot do without those qualities.
This piece would be incomplete without recalling an incident I had witnessed on the afternoon of the last day of November 2004. The place was one of the busiest traffic signals at Dalhousie Square. A sergeant was being badly beaten up by two taxi drivers whom he had reprimanded for a violation of traffic rules. Understandably, there was a crowd of onlookers who appreciated and applauded every blow that rained down on the hapless sergeant, Lal Mohan Bhoumik. What shocked me the next day was a news item stating that suspension of the sergeant was being contemplated for an alleged “dereliction” of duty and indiscipline. Unable to tolerate such injustice, I wrote a strongly worded letter to the police chief saying that I was witness to the entire episode. Fortunately, Bhoumik was not made to pay for crimes he did not commit. It is again time to ensure that errant cops are punished, while the ones who do their duty are spared.