Biryani Policing and the Leadership Crisis in the Indian Police Service

Beyond the safety of minorities and biryani policing in Haryana, the IPS are under an obligation to act like leaders, not as mere passengers.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters

Representative image. Credit: Reuters

Welcome to Haryana, the state where the maximum sentence for a convicted rapist is three years less than for a cow slaughtering offence and where molesting a woman is a lesser offence than being in possession of beef. At the moment, that is. The state comes in second – after Uttar Pradesh – in terms of number of police complaints filed.

The state has seen large-scale riots (the Jat quota stir), rising atrocities against Dalits (the burning of two Dalit children), communal attacks against minorities (the Ballabgarh riots), female infanticide and frequent attacks on women. It has been recording more than 67 cases per day against women. Here, crimes against scheduled castes increased from 493 in 2013 to 830 in 2014.

This is the state that requested Prakash Singh, the retired IPS officer who is a living legend of our times, to head a fact-finding probe into the Jat quota agitation last February, later asking him to stop working on his second report focussing on “recommending reforms” in the system.

Singh’s first report indicted a sizeable section of Haryana’s bureaucracy and its police, the mighty IAS and IPS, and their blue-eyed and deep-pocketed men, for deserting their posts and failing to respond to warnings from the Centre, which offended the alpha males of the bureaucracy. Some ultra-powerful politicians in Haryana also took umbrage because their butlers had been censured. The Haryana home department letter said that Singh no longer needed to undertake the originally mandated study of the police organisation and structures.

Haryana is also the state that introduced biryani policing as a new wing of law enforcement and added a new phrase to our vocabulary. Last month, just days ahead of Bakr Eid, the Haryana police in the Muslim-dominated Mewat district collected samples of biryani from street vendors to test the meat used. So the Haryana police, equipped with its dismal record in tackling crimes against women, Dalits and minorities and preventing massive riots, was tasked with the all-important job of sniffing beef from biryani cooked for Eid in small street stalls.

Not just Haryana

Haryana is not a stray case. Let’s go national. Last year in September, in UP’s Dadri, a mob of cow protectors entered 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq’s home after a local temple had broadcast rumours that the Muslim family had killed a cow and consumed its meat. They murdered Akhlaq and injured his son. This incident was followed by a spate of public beatings of alleged beef eaters and traders by cow vigilante groups, including the murder of Jammu and Kashmir trucker Zahid, the hanging of two Muslim cattle traders in Jharkhand, the murder of Noman (a 20-year-old from UP) in Himachal Pradesh, the harassment of Muslim women in Madhya Pradesh and the public flogging of Dalits in Una, Gujarat, by cow protection gangs. Many such incidents of cow vigilantism are reported (and many others go unreported) in the local and national press, and most target minorities and Dalits in an attempt to terrorise them in the name of the cow protection.

At the moment, 24 out of 29 states in India have various regulations prohibiting either the slaughter or sale of cows. Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala (animals above ten years), Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura are the states where there are no restrictions on cow slaughter. Assam, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal allow the slaughter of cattle with a certificate. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Bihar, Goa and Odisha have banned cow slaughter, but allow the slaughter of other cattle with a certificate. The rest of India bans the slaughter of all cattle.

Laws that criminalise centuries old food and drinking habits give a lot of discretion to the police officers working at the police station level. How many of them owe their current postings and future prospects to the local MLAs and MPs is not a query that needs a high IQ score to answer. How these police officials use their rule-mandated discretion to serve the interests of their careerist police leaders and investment-savvy political mentors can be seen in Gujarat and Bihar. The political economy of prohibition ensures that smuggling and illicit sale of alcohol are rampant in these states. ‘Folder’ is popular slang used in Gujarat to refer to a bootlegger who delivers alcohol on demand. The corrupt among the police in Gujarat owe a lot of their prosperity to these ‘folders’. It is not for nothing that Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Mizoram and Tamil Nadu have previously enforced but later repealed prohibition.

Enforcement of the beef ban follows a similar political trajectory. In India, most cow owners live in villages and on the fringes of cities. The poor cattle owners in India, Hindu or otherwise, sell their old cows because they can no longer afford to keep the unproductive cattle. What happens to these animals after their sale can be gauged from the fact that there are more than 36,000 legal and 30,000 illegal slaughterhouses in the country. India’s $2 billion leather export industry depends on 4,000 tanneries and leather-goods factories; they depend on cattle, including cows, for their survival and prosperity.

The emergence of biryani policing as a new wing of law enforcement shows that India has a structural problem. What is legal in Kerala can be illegal in Haryana. Beef eating was legal in Haryana in 2014. It is illegal in 2016. What has changed? With the numbers on its side, a ruling dispensation can criminalise an act that is perfectly legal in some other parts of the country. Muslims, even if they account for 77% of the population of a district (as in Mewat), can’t eat beef because of a politically motivated law. The discretionary powers of the police make them unaccountable when they act upon malicious intelligence inputs about what is being cooked in private citizens’ kitchens. The leather export industry in India that uses cowhides is thriving. But private armies of cow vigilantes can harass, humiliate and kill citizens of this country.

The concept of citizenry, the constitutionally mandated relationship between the state (as different from the government of the day) and an individual citizen of the country (minus the intermediate identity markers of religion, region, caste and gender) is what makes this young country and old civilisation what it is. This relationship is the foundation of our constitution in the context of democratic governance. This is the foundation of the idea of India. Biryani policing as a model of governance has exposed the fragile nature of this relationship in Haryana and other places afflicted with the twin diseases of private policing and unfettered discretionary police powers.

The IPS’s involvement

Now a few questions for the police leadership of this country – the members of the IPS. Which sections of the penal code and Criminal Procedure Code allow the police to enter kitchens of private citizens on information given by other private citizens? What if the complaint is found to be false? Who is responsible for what the ‘beef suspects’ and their families go through in the local communities? What about the hard fact of the police raids making them vulnerable to violence by politico-economically motivated cow vigilantes for life? How are police officials acting on politically motivated intelligence inputs and carrying out biryani raids punished in the event of their unsuccessful raids? Where are the laws and standard operating procedures to make the erring police officials accountable for their crimes?

How do the IPS contribute to this mess? Let’s count the ways.

One, India’s policing system is collapsing under the burden of rule-based, but unaccounted, discretionary powers available to police officials at the police station level. In case of politically motivated police raids and arrests, the lives of innocent citizens and their family members get destroyed beyond redemption and nothing happens to erring police officials. The IPS play ‘office-office’ and claim sainthood for themselves, individually and collectively. They ask for legally mandated police reforms, but refuse to stand up to the criminals among the police.

Two, the police in India has a math problem. Our police organisations are definitely majoritarian in their demographic profile. The all-India figure (minus Jammu and Kashmir) for the percentage of Muslim policemen and women is four, for Delhi it is two, for Maharashtra it is one, for UP 4.8, while for Bihar it is 4.5 and Rajasthan it is 1.2. Apart from having a low representation of Dalits and Muslims, most police organisations are divided along caste lines. Police organisations in the country are characterised by a low representation of women as well. The national average is less than 5%. The IPS claim they are helpless in these matters. But the usual mad-rush among the alpha males of the IPS for the post of the police chief shows that they believe they can add value to the functioning of their respective state cadres. The tragedy is that their optimism doesn’t extend to the diversity of the workforce.

Three, more often than not, police leaders perform their duties in politically strategic ways over what is necessarily legally correct. Conspiracies between police officers and their political mentors are a hard fact. The IPS lobby ensures that criminal elements among the police don’t get punished for their commissions and omissions. Attesting to this is the fact that no police officer – IPS or state cadre – was punished for dereliction of duty in cases like the 1984 Delhi riots or the 2002 Gujarat riots. The latest addition is the Haryana Jat agitation in which the state lost properties worth Rs 20,000 crores as state police leaders stood idle on the sidelines and were busy protecting their chairs.

Four, the police organisations in the country are caught between two misdirected segments of the polity. They have to bear the brunt of the increased might of the mob and anti-social elements, backed either by the establishment or by those opposed to it. The former uses the police to remain in power, while the latter want the police to fail so that they can use the resulting chaos to damn the government. When the former and the latter belong to the same political dispensation, they use the police as match-fixers. How the police handled cow vigilante groups in various states is a case in point. In the process, police accountability becomes a pipedream in our democracy. And the IPS are a part of the problem.

Five, the IPS refuse to realise the fact that police organisations of the country, in their present compositions and structures, are not capable of giving the masses a secular, democratic policing-related delivery system. And that the conventional ‘unity-in-diversity’ model tom-tomed by the National Police Academy believes in an India dominated by its majority community, the Hindus. All other religions, the argument goes, must “assimilate” to India’s Hindu core, accepting as a matter of first principle that the Hindus are the chief architects of the Indian nation and also its superior citizens. Let’s take a specific example. For Hindu nationalist ideologues, the 2002 Gujarat communal violence was an ideological victory. In a formal resolution, the RSS, the ideological and organisational centerpiece of Hindu nationalism, said: “Let the minorities understand that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority”.

Beyond the safety of minorities and biryani policing in Haryana, the IPS are under an obligation to act like leaders, not as mere passengers. Their credibility is at stake, both on the crime-ridden streets of New Delhi and in the 33% of districts that face some sort of armed conflict against the state. Accepting this will be a welcome start. Beyond the world of badakhana and darbar and Powerpoint presentations. Ameen.

Basant Rath is in the Indian Police Service (2000, Jammu and Kashmir) and works in Jammu and Kashmir. The views expressed are personal.