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What happened in Sipajhar town of Darrang district, Assam on September 22 is shameful, to say the least, and reflective of the unprofessional conduct of police in dealing with a routine law and order situation. The horrific conduct of the photographer employed with the district administration jumping on the individual fallen on the ground after being shot has been commented upon by all and sundry. However, what appears to have been missed or deliberately ignored by almost everyone is the act of a policeman mercilessly hitting the fallen person with sticks.
This behaviour is not only unlawful and abhorrent in the instant case. The police apparently used disproportionate force in the incident. The video indeed appears to indicate that the deceased was moving aggressively towards the police with a danda (baton) in hand. However, he was alone and should have been controlled with lesser force by the posse of police personnel present there. Use of firearms and that too, a shot at the chest was without doubt much more than what the situation warranted.
Police resorting to brutal force has become a routine. The lathi-charge in Karnal on August 28, brutal treatment of the minorities during the Delhi riots in 2020, and police violence at Jamia Millia Islamia are many instances where the police has not covered itself in glory. In fact, the police’s behaviour and investigation have come under severe criticism by courts in many riot-related cases.
The incident at Sipajhar happened on a day when the “Indian Police Foundation”, a think tank working in the field of police reforms, was discussing ways to ensure that the police reforms mandated by the Supreme Court are implemented. The thrust of discussions appeared to blame politicians for all ills of police and deterioration in the state of policing in the country. The panellists were unanimous in their view that the states had ignored the spirit of the Supreme Court directions in implementing their directions.
While the claims of state apathy towards police reforms may be true to some extent, the delegates failed to talk about the proverbial elephant in the room. There is a lot more the police’s leadership can do to rectify policing in the country without looking up to politicians. That they are unable to reform or are unwilling to reform the aspects of policing within their realm does not speak well about their attitudes and capabilities.
A brutal approach, but why?
The police all over the country is increasingly brutal in their approach towards common people. Flouting law rather than protecting the rule of law is becoming the norm. When the chief minister of a state says “thok diya jayega” (will be shot), it is an open call to the police to ignore rule of law in dealing with the public. Even criminals are entitled to due process of law.
The story put out by the police of a state about the vehicle bringing gangster Vikas Dubey to Uttar Pradesh inexplicably turning turtle without even a scratch to it or any other occupant of the vehicle doesn’t sound convincing, especially when the only person killed was the criminal – allegedly shot while attempting to escape after snatching a weapon from the police escort. The episode proves that the police is not only inefficient and unprofessional in the conduct of its core functions, its leaders also lack the mental faculties of even manufacturing a plausible story to cover up for rank complicity and unlawful conduct.
The death of that gangster was convenient for everyone involved. With his death, the secrets that he may have been privy to about the police and politicians have been buried quietly. The police also avoided the need to conduct investigations and proving the charges in a court of law.
The most important reason for the police not behaving in a manner mandated by law is the effete leadership of the Indian Police Service (IPS), which in spite of all the constitutional protections and assured career progression, acquiesces to illegal orders of political masters. The basic reason is the quid pro quo that they hanker for, in the form of “prize” postings – where they can make all the money that they want and feed it to the political masters too.
Many top police officers towards the end of their careers cosy up to the politicians with the expectation of post-retirement rehabilitation. No wonder, the politicians exploit this weakness. Such officers naturally do not have any moral courage to take action against erring subordinates, some of whom in fact might be their brothers in arm in corrupt activities.
The recent cases of the Maharashtra police and many other widely known cases are examples of a widespread lack of integrity. Several IPS officers have indulged in blatant corruption and even some very young officers have been found to have amassed wealth way beyond their known sources of income. Suffice it to say that one would be fortunate to find a police leader of integrity who can call a spade a spade. Naturally, the subordinates take a cue from their leaders and indulge unhesitatingly in corruption and unlawful conduct.
The second reason for the display of lawlessness by the police is improper training. In fact, police training is not a priority. Mostly, only those people get posted to training centres who are found to be unfit for normal policing duties. Thus, there is a stigma attached to being posted to police training institutions and capable people do not wish to be posted there.
Besides, police being a state subject, very little focus is given to improving training infrastructure due to the paucity of funds. The contents of police training also do not appear to have kept pace with the times. The police training curriculum has a very limited focus on the development of soft skills to equip them to deal with a population that is more educated and better aware of their rights.
Another aspect leading to brutal behaviour of police personnel is the fact that they themselves are allegedly subject to such behaviour by their officers. Large number of police personnel are deployed away from regular policing duties for the security of various politicians and police officers where they have to spend long hours without any administrative backup besides being made to carry out menial jobs and being ill-treated. This also diverts manpower from essential duties and thus puts an extra burden on the remaining personnel. The heavy burden of duties on policemen leads to psychological issues manifesting in abusive and violent behaviour.
The IPS officers selected by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), mainly on the basis of their theoretical knowledge, do not have practical knowledge of ground-level policing. Field training is perfunctory and doesn’t equip them with essential skills and attitudes to become an effective police leader. Besides most of them coming from elite backgrounds do not have the aptitude nor are they prepared to sweat it out to learn the ropes.
Therefore, the selection of police leadership in particular and other personnel in general needs reforms. They should be subjected to rigorous psychological tests to assess their aptitude. The policy of direct recruitment of the IPS officers and, in fact, the direct recruitment to most civil services needs to be thoroughly examined for its effectiveness in the present context.
The system was introduced by the British for perpetuating their rule over their colony in order to ensure that the chain of command remains with their people. The British themselves have a system where the junior-most Bobby has a fair chance of reaching the top if he has the potential. Under the present circumstances, we have a mass of junior-level police personnel stagnating over very long periods while the IPS leadership enjoys rapid advancement in their career. Lack of avenues is a further demotivating factor for the errant behaviour by police personnel.
It is extremely important to ensure that the police — which is the most visible face of the authority of government to the common public — redeems itself through proper behaviour and lawful conduct. The leadership has to play a proactive role in ensuring the proper conduct of the police on the ground. Leadership reforms coupled with reforms from within must be carried out urgently to ensure this.
The police leadership has to ensure that the “police force” that the British created to rule over Indians is transformed into a “police service” that the British have in their own country.
Sanjiv Krishan Sood retired as additional director general, Border Security Force.