Sunday, November 12, 2006

police the police: i'll be watching YOU

And what a welcome home it was!

It seemed to me that the city was on fire. On one hand, activists forced the courts to re-examine the Priyadarshini Mattoo & Jessica Lall cases, and on the other, the sealing drives pitted the traders against the government, causing havoc in the city.

This is why I came home.

While talking to Kundan, he pointed out that for every Jessica Lall case there are tons still waiting for court dates. Yes, I said, but the ones that are getting attention are Delhi based cases, and because of the activist mechanism in place- compounded by media attention, it’s a start. And smaller cities can follow this example. Look at the Dalit murder case- it’s because the people have objected that the police are launching an investigation and now the Chief Minister expects some results in a month.

But, the real problem we face is trickier. No, it’s not an over-zealous media that seems to try criminals and deem the innocent/guilty (yes, Manu Sharma should have a fair trial; I didn’t think he would get it, but I have to admit, Ram Jethmalani certainly has my attention. His theory that someone else shot her because of reasons other than the fact that she refused to serve alcohol—is intriguing. I want to see what evidence he has.) No, it’s not even the judiciary per se- (and yes, the move to make the judges more accountable is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be since the judiciary wants to remain independent and will not allow the legislature to judge it). No, what is worrying me is the state of the police. The guardians of truth, justice, honor (yadayadayada)- and how scary it is that we can totally not depend on them.

First, this is for all of you who may not have come across this very troubling incident in the news. So there was an exam to enter the police, which the 17,000 odd applicants found rather tough. In protest they started rioting- destroyed shops, assaulted women, generally behaved like the sort of hooligans that need to be locked up by the police. Ah, the irony.

On top of that, even in the Dalit murder case- and this is one of many in the country- the police did squat to register a complaint or carry out an investigation till there was uproar amongst the people. On a smaller scale, we have all experienced it, the always bribable traffic cop.

The general lack of faith in the police is troubling me- or rather, the general lack of performance by them. When they need to be efficient, they certainly are. So what it seems to boil down to is that ordinary people who do not have the benefit of the media spotlight or a powerful relative/friends can find police co-operation and efficiency an arduous task.

Let me explain. When a crime is committed and one goes to the police in India, they determine if an incident has taken place. In the case of cognizable crimes (capable of being known as is the dictionary definition) the police are allowed to arrest without a warrant- this happens for theft, burglaries and the like. Now, according to the law the police have to take down a FIR (First Information Report) that is accepted by the law without question. The theory behind it is this: when the police are told of a crime, they do not have any prior information so the statement stands and if the person changes his/her story later, they can be accountable for changing it. Now, a lot of times the police wait to see the scene of the crime, question other people and the like so that the FIR has as much information as possible—however, this is not really what the law envisioned. But, on the flip side, sometimes the police don’t even write a FIR unless they are bribed or forced. This can make it very trying and very difficult for the regular citizen who does not have clout to have faith in the police. For example, as mentioned, this was what happened with the recent Dailt murder case in Nagpur. The police only started to investigate the crime after there were mass protests. It figures, a Dalit family would need a mass based support to get any iota of justice.

It’s the same when it comes to checking corruption within the government- because most Public Service Units have their own Vigilance Commissions that keep a check on the activities. However, this is tricky because to register a complaint, one needs to go through a bureaucratic process, and not surprisingly, many of those in the hot seat look after their own, especially with a little incentive. The CBI does step in to expose many crimes, but they do have a limit on how many investigations they can handle.

So while the media allows power to the people, even more today because of the mushrooming channels that take up causes, the police has not yet stepped up its game. And with the possible inclusion of those horrible hopefuls who went rioting and raping because their entrance exam was too tough- the future appears bleak.

But bringing out these injustices in the open is the only way to change things. The RTI (Right to Information) Act has helped many people find justice because when you demand an official answer to why the law was not carried out, authorities have found it easier to perform their jobs instead of making excuses about it.

The law is on our side. Enforcing it is a whole different ballgame. And we must regain the right to be protected fairly and equally. Its time to take back the night.


‘Dantedownunder’, a fellow blogger, asked me what I plan to do with opinions. It’s a question I have often asked myself. Will participating in a rally make more of a difference than my rants (although, I hope my writing is not construed as ranting) on this blog. Now that I am joining the editorial department of the Indian Express, I know a larger audience means larger responsibility. But as they say the pen is mightier than the sword, and I hope this writing leads to bigger and better things in the future.


emilystrange said...

Love reading your blog! Your writing really makes me think, pops a dozen questions in my head...and it's great that we are finally waking up to more than just urban India... but then, aren't these exceptions? To a large extent, in our country law still remanins a privelege that can be enjoyed only by those who can afford it.

Anonymous said...

So there you have it. Young India takes on Archaic India. But don’t you think you re being a tad bit too harsh on our “guardians”.

It is, indeed, a sad state of affairs. But perhaps we should put it in perspective. What is the Indian police? What is our perception of the Indian police? What impact does our perception of the Indian police have on the Indian police?

It is easy to sit in our perches and look down at the police. How many of us would actually join the police? We criticize them for their incompetence, but we ignore the fact that portraying them as such results in discouraging competent people from joining them. Is it any surprise that they have to recruit from the lowest caliber of society? I m not surprised by the riots. Respect for the police has deteriorated. Its quite literally seen as a welfare program that anyone can join – because that is how it is portrayed. We mock it and we criticize it, but we never ask the troubling question, WHY IS IT SO?

And frankly, there are many answers, but as the so-called activists of society, shouldn’t we be aware of the manner in which we ourselves are contributing to it? What does the police mean to us? A couple of cops demanding a bribe?

I wont deny that it is wrong to take a bribe, but I am sick and tired of our wealthy citizens wailing about giving bribes. On the one hand, they are willing to bribe, to avoid the admittedly exhausting legal process. And yet they are upset that cops demand bribes. There are only two instances when a cop can demand a bribe – when you ve broken a law, and, when you ve not broken a law.

In the former case, where you ve broken a law and want to avoid the legal repercussions, you are willing to pay the cop off to avoid the legal system. At the same time, you re upset about bribing the cop. You cant have it both ways. You cant break the law and criticize the cop for breaking the law too. If you can do it for personal gain, so can he. And he knows it

Lets assume that you did not break a law. In that case, most of our complaining folk would happily fork out the money in order to avoid an archaic law system that would take forever. And herein lies the problem. We deem ourselves too good for the system. Our time is too precious to waste over a few hundred rupees. The sanctity of the legal system is secondary. Our time is our main concern. We feed the corruption. We prolong its existence by tacitly signalling our acceptance of it. And then we rant about how the cops think there is nothing illegitimate about a system that we ourselves think is convenient and indeed justifiable in our minds. The simple question is - Are we, the moneyed classes, above the law? Don’t we have to accept the sanctity of law? If we are looking for shortcuts, how can we blame the police for providing those shortcuts. We are motivated by personal motives – and yet we are upset when they too are motivated by the same motives.

But, you say, they are men in uniform. Government officials. They are supposed to respect the law. Yes this is true. And there are many good men in the service who do precisely that. But there are others who know that they can get away with it. They are humans too with the same motivations and aspirations as you and I. They see the police being treated as some kind of corrupt entity. Some of them fight it with integrity. Others give in and take for themselves whatever they can. The problem here isnt that the police is inherently weak as an institution. The problem is that we are constantly weakening it by putting our own personal agenda before it. The police is a stumbling block for the most part. 15 year old rich kids drive around the city handing out money to cops who barely make any money. Who is to blame here? The cops or the kids? Even if the cop puts the kids through the motions, rich people have money and influence – a couple of well placed calls and the kid is free to go. What kind of impact do you think that has on the rank and file of our “guardians”? They are still at the mercy of corrupt government officials. And those corrupt government officials are patronised by – you guessed it – the same rich households that churn out critics of the police. On the one hand you keep the corruption up and running. On the other hand you complain about it. The simple fact is that there would be no corruption if no one was willing to pay a bribe.

With regard to the Dalit case, the police is simply acting according to norms set not by the police, but by our society. Every civilization has a dark side and ours is no different. Some lives are more equal than others. Untouchables are killed for killing cows. The navy has a special set of sailors especially enlisted for cleaning bathrooms. If we are willing to accept this across every level of society, why are we so surprised that the police are too. It may not be constitutionally allowed, but it’s a norm accepted by society and our cops are members of that society.

There is no doubt in my mind that the public services need reform. The sad truth is that they were not always corrupt. They were corrupted by the educated. Many “public” school students went in with the sole aim of making money and that is precisely what they did. They leave behind a culture of corruption. There are, always have been, and always will be good men in the public service, but those men are from well established families with financial cushions. Look at the Nanda family – a man who has served his country well also made a fair bit of money on the induction of Israeli missiles. His grandson killed seven cops. His grandson is free courtesy of bribes. These are people you associate with. But where is the outrage? “He is one of ours”, eh? Theres too much selectivity in the way things work. Too many rich people fiddling around with the system. People you know all too well. People you arent willing to criticize. Do you think the cops are blind to this?

Our public sector does not pay well. Why? Well, let me put it this way – how many of our rich folk pay taxes. How many of them waltz into the country without paying duty on the goods they re importing. It is easy to criticize our public service agents for being corrupt, looking out only for themselves, and breaking the law, but are our critics angels? And is this lost upon our corrupt government officials? They can ask for bribes because they know we ll pay up to avoid the legal course. They know we don’t respect the law as much as we should. And they make us pay for it.

This isnt about reforming just the police. This is about reforming society as we know it. The media has a role to play, and so do activists, but they would do well to get their own house in order. The manner a democracy functions is not entirely distinct from the manner in which people in the country behave. Start paying your taxes. Start treating the law with respect. Start using the legal system even when its inconvenient. If you don’t, then stop complaining about how broken the system is, especially when you aren’t doing your bit to maintain it. The problem is a lot deeper than a dysfunctional police. We have a society that is inherently unequal and it is this that we have to change. Accountability, as always, is key and so is a rehaul of the legal system.

However, in light of this rant, I hasten to add that not all is lost. India is a country in transition and these are obstacles that other democracies have had to deal with it before consolidating themselves into the entities that we now admire and compare our police forces to. This is an example of changing India – perhaps even a sign of the bureaucratic elite losing its control. Having suffered under this ludicrous set up for nearly half a century, it is clear that people want change and that they are willing to make noise. The sons and daughters of archaic India don’t like the system they ve inherited and they want change. You media folk have a hell of a job ahead of you in this transition. Be careful. Either you want reform or you don’t. Personal allegiance has no role to play.

mahima said...

Wow Special K, you weren't kidding when you told me you'd ranted your little heart out... see, this is when you KNOW papers are giving you too much stress- you relieve it by writing even more!! Hah!

But, to your post- as usual, you are, of course, right. It reminded me of something Throor wrote in his novel that I've been pimping out... that India is not a developing country but a highly developed country in decline.

The question is (and not in the sense that the answer can solve something, but that I would really like to trace the process)- who/what was responsible for the decline of the services (bureaucracy)- because certainly, it is looked upon as a money making gambit for the ones who choose to enter, while the ones who *should* [people like you and me?] are not. What is going on? We need change but we can super impose it on society now can we? Perhaps we cn work it from the belly of the beast- but again, that does imply you have been swallowed.

Ah well, I'm at work so I'm going to get to it. But great rant by the way.

Anonymous said...

It was like Altos at 3 am. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but I woke up wondering why I did it. On the bright side, I doubt many people will bother going past the first two paras. So much more fun than sitting and citing stuff.

I take exception to Tharoors comment. I havent read the book, I dont know the context, but I don’t buy the whole India was a developed country but is now declining. Every nation has a knack for looking at the past through rose tinted glasses, and what we end up with are ultra conservatives like the VHP. Acknowledging a great past can result in trying to emulate this great past. India was great, yes. But I don’t think we want to recreate the India of yesteryear. We do however, want to create an India that is compatible with our values and not mired in a past that has been misconstrued as great, but has flaws of epic proportions – think caste system, sacrifices etc.

We are a developing country insofar as we have not reached that stage at which our institutions reflect our ideals, our beliefs, and our values (though some might argue that our institutions depict the latter two, way too accurately). We cannot afford to look at the India of the past – we wont be able to rebuild that “great” thing without its flaws, for even its flaws had legitimate functions – the caste system did, in fact, serve a purpose. WE are in transition in that our institutions are adapting to our changing demands on a near daily basis. It ll take a while, but we have to make it happen.

Tharoors comment is indicative of the cynicism that has pervaded our society and especially upwardly mobile classes. And that has played no small role in the decline of the civil services. Sab kuchh chalta hai. Its true. In a sense we lost the plot when we sang “Hum honge kamyab ek din”. That “ek din” is terribly illusive and always in the future.

Its bound to take a toll on society. The bureaucracy was a money making tool. And it still is. One generation serves in it so that their children may have more opportunities. It serves a function in that it allows for class transition. They are poor when they join it but they are middle class when they leave it. Corruption gives them disposable income. And that allows their children to vie for higher positions. The culture of corruption is embedded into it.

Sadly that’s the way, we, you and I, perceive it too. It That level of comfort it provides is a lot more attractive to lesser privileged people than it is to us. In terms of material wealth, it is a step down for us.

And frankly, our own experience tells us that there is no point being an honest bureaucrat in a corrupt system – someone else will take the money. The only way to change it, I daresay, is to change the political culture. The bureaucracy is answerable to politicians who are answerable to us. Go after the corrupt politicians and the bureaucrats will have no choice but to fall in line. Simplistic? Yep. But its still true to some extent.

The educated folk of good breeding used the Civil services to make an extra buck. Sadly, their ostensibly one off antics have evolved into a culture of corruption that can only be fixed through our representatives – politicians. They re not answerable to us, but they are answerable to politicians. Aiight, back to more gradable work.

mahima said...

Ah, true. The India of 'today' is developing, and I should probably point out that his book laments the decline of a very developed society because he talks of how the British killed it for us. And that is why, when the Brits think we are underdeveloped etc, hes more like, well actually, you're the reason we had no oxygen going to the brain thank you very much- and brain activity just died. Then his book goes on to chart the freedom movement and India post 1947. You SHOULD check it out, I think you'll like it. Or not. But we'll def have a great debate on it, and no one else I know has read it so I'm really waiting for that to happen!

Right, perhaps if stopped being so goddamn fatalistic as a people and actually got off our asses, we'd make more progress. You're right though, 'ek din' is ek din too far.

mahima said...

I love when BBC follows up on my story ;)

Check it out, the RTI act put into use!

The Dude said...

Nice post kiddo...

im not gonna rant, do too much of that anyway, but for the most part I really do agree with you...

I was reading a travel book written by a brit couple on India and according to them, here there is no such concept as a tip - at least not as the rest of the world see's it.. according to them in India a tip is something given not to reward a service, but to ensure that a service is given at all... says something bout us doesnt it? and this couple aint all wrong...

Besides which I think our biggest problem is probably that we think too highly of ourselves and suffer from dramatic self doubt and pity at the same time - lethal combination! Ive found that we are very often among the most bigotted people Ive ever come across..

when you said if writing and ranting really does any good, think of all the books youve read and the blogs visited and the things written that other have read and reacted to... thats the power that proves the superiority of the pen... as with Bush's war on terror, the pen proved mighty, but in that case sadly not enough to stop him, but we will prevail... meek though we are not.. =D

well I hope things get better... the optomist in me hopes so...