A few recent developments have once again put the Indian police in the limelight over its functioning, performance and infrastructural problems. Unfortunately, most of these developments have exposed the cops in an adverse light. The police force is an important agency in guarding the rights of the citizens guaranteed by the Constitution. Hence, its performance is closely related to the very concept of citizenship in the country, based on the equality of all.
The cases raising questions on police conduct and professionalism include the recent Hathras incident in Uttar Pradesh in which a Dalit girl was allegedly raped and murdered, the controversy over the investigation of the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput in his Mumbai residence, the death of a father-son duo in a police custody in Sathankulam district of Tamil Nadu, the NCB (headed by a police officer) in drug-related cases in Bollywood, and the investigation in the February Delhi riot cases, among others.
These have not only led to intense media coverage and political debate, but also reactions from within the police community. Police officials, both in service as well as retired, feel that these inadequacies arise mainly due to a reluctance to implement the long-pending Supreme Court-mandated police reforms, a serious shortage of manpower, and infrastructure leading to personnel fatigue, among others. It is true that there are nearly 25% vacancies at the national level (the State of Policing in India Report 2019). In Uttar Pradesh, it is 46.9%. All this adversely affects the criminal justice system and maintenance of law and order.
But the current scrutiny of the police goes beyond these infrastructural deficiencies, which do have a role in the quality of policing. In any case, the need for police reforms and better facilities are not new. But incidents like the Hathras case and others posit new problems and issues which go beyond these existing deficiencies. These have to do with the vital norms of police functions and responsibilities and powers. These are rooted in its mandated legal roles and responsibilities and the attitudinal issues. Unless the police leadership steps back and defines its legitimate role and responsibilities, such controversies will continue to haunt it and affect its credibility seriously. It seems that with polarised political landscape and rising social tensions, the police are going to be severely tested on the law and order front. Thus, it must introspect seriously on its role and responsibilities in the scheme of things as something towards the citizens’ rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws of the land.
The above observations will arouse angry debates. But the need is to keep it simple as it is mainly about the attitude and understanding of police responsibilities. If simply stated, all these pitfalls become apparent if one objectively examines the latest Hathras case. No one, including the media, politicians and the police, are above blame. From the beginning, the case had an obviously volatile caste angle in a normal feudal rural setup. From the FIR to medico-legal aspects, things were fudgy, with the police being accused of neglect. Second, the midnight cremation of the victim by the police was unwarranted. Was it all mandated by law?
After receiving the body of the victim at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, along with the autopsy report, the police ought to have handed over the body to the kin in the national capital or at their residence in the village for cremation. Even if a law and order situation was feared over the body, the District Magistrate, health department and panchayat should have taken charge of it, under police protection, if needed. It is not the police’s function to cremate identified dead bodies—which, in the Hathras case, was at the heart of it—with meddlesome politicians fanning the caste conflict and other tensions and allegations.
On top of these legal issues, a senior police officer publicly asserting conspiracy theories does no good to their image, and neither does discussing medical reports on rape publicly. The Hathras police should have stated its case clearly about the rape not being reported initially. Many new facts have come out, raising questions on the incident itself. In the Hathras case, the roles of politicians and the media was also questionable. The police should be doing their job quietly and as per the law, not becoming a part of public paranoia on legal and law and order matters.
It is this attitude of the police—of doing more than their share and looking strong and decisive—which puts them in trouble. Being correct is the need. The temptation to be part of the politico-social narrative should be curbed. The police leadership must know its limits and learn to say no. They should also avoid co-option in conspiracy theories and take action, if there is one, and leave its publicity to the government.
In the Sushant Singh Rajput case, a state DGP criticising the police of another state and pontificating on the rights of a citizen vis-à-vis a Chief Minister did no good to the department’s image. It also reeks of small-time flattery. If the police of one state send an investigation team to another state, it will lead to chaotic situations. Has anyone questioned the propriety of Bihar Police in sending its team to Mumbai for investigation without the latter’s consent?
In the Tamil Nadu case too, it was their attitude towards crime and the criminal which led to the ghastly tragedy. In the drug cases too, it was a spectacle of the NCB’s knights in shining armour trying to save Bollywood from a drug menace caused by a few grams worth of cannabis—something available in licensed shops in some states. Such actions make law enforcement questionable.
In brief, and all semantics apart, the time has come for the police to define and understand their legal limitations and refuse to be part of popular social and political narratives. The registration of serious sedition cases should be based on investigation and not on the drop of a hat. Moreover, doing the job quietly and legally should be their mantra.
The writer is a former IPS officer and the editor of the quarterly magazine, ‘Dialogue’. The views expressed are personal.