On a sunny Sunday this past September, a friend and I were walking in central London, headed towards the south bank of the Thames. We were enjoying the scenery and the weather, when, at a road running along St. James’s Park, we came across thousands of men, women, and children on bicycles. So far as the eye could see, there were Britons pedalling away, Britons of all ages and classes and colours. As the line went by, we waited—impatiently, since we were Indians—for the police to spot a breach in the flood of pedallers and allow us pedestrians to cross the road.
A charity had organized this cycle yatra, in aid of funds for Aids or some such noble cause. As I crossed the cyclists, the thought struck me that they constituted a suitable target for a terror attack. But then I looked more carefully, to see that the possibility had been anticipated, and protected for. Apart from the cops at the pedestrian crossings, there were other cops at intervals of about a hundred yards, equipped with walkie-talkies, and possibly also with concealed guns. The policemen were at hand to husband the charity cyclists through this vast and teeming city, and to spot and tackle any passers-by who might seek, in any way, to disrupt them.
A week after this walk in London I was in the Bangalore Cantonment railway station, waiting for a relative to arrive from out-of-town. With me were very many others, who had likewise come into the station without buying a platform ticket. Earlier in the year, the city had been subject to a wave of bomb blasts, and this unpoliced station seemed a sitting duck for another. What if one of the people on the platform placed a packet on a bench, containing a bomb timed to explode just as the train arrived at the platform? The question entered my mind, and prompted a sense of insecurity. It was not until I had picked my relative off the train and bundled her into my car that I felt that I had regained control over my life.
That day in Bangalore, there was not a policemen or security guard in sight at the station, but even if there had been I doubt I would have felt more secure. On the other hand, the sight of those ten or twenty policemen in London was most reassuring to me, as it must have been to the cyclists as well.
Why does a visitor to London trust the police, when even a long-time resident of Bangalore has reservations about the guardians of law and order in his city? This difference has nothing to do with genetics and culture, but all to do with politics and history. If the London policemen is more honest, more efficient, more alert and awake than his Bangalore counterpart, this is because he is part of a system that does not brook interference by the politician or discrimination according to ethnicity and religion.
The head of Scotland Yard does not have to be the personal favourite of the Prime Minister. The Mayor of London has no hand in the selection of the chief of the city’s police force. Promotion and preferment within the British police are a reward for performance and ability. On the other hand, one can be certain that the Police Commissioners of Bangalore, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Lucknow are handpicked by the Chief Ministers of the states in which these cities are located. The choices may be dictated by the fact that Minister and Commissioner belong to the same caste, subscribe to the same political ideology, or have a common love of the game of cricket.
This politicization of the Indian police is by no means restricted to jobs in state capitals. An M. L. A. or M. P. often decides who shall be posted as the Superintendent of Police in the district in which his constituency falls. The most prestigious and powerful jobs in the police are allocated, as often as not, on the basis of kin and caste. At other times they are bid for in the open market. In some states Chief Ministers are said to have demanded, and obtained, lakhs or even crores of rupees in return for posting an officer to a district or division of his choice.
Once the top jobs are decided on considerations other than competence, it hard to prevent lesser jobs being allocated in the same manner. So inspectors and station head officers and constables are also often chosen on the basis of caste, religion, favouritism, or bribery. Down the line, this puts a premium on the policeman pleasing the man (or Minister) who appointed him to his post, rather than focusing on his main job, which is the protection of the ordinary citizen. It also encourages corruption, the desire to make hay before one is suddenly divested of one’s responsibilities when a government changes, an M. P. fails to win re-election, or the boss retires.
In this manner, we have systematically run down and degraded a vital apparatus of our state and our democracy. We have encouraged fragility and insecurity among our police officers, these feelings passed on to the citizens they are mandated to protect. In a directive issued in September 2005, the Supreme Court drew attention to the causes (and consequences) of this degradation. ‘The popular perception all over the country’, remarked the Court, ‘appears to be that many of the deficiencies in the functioning of the police have arisen largely due to a dose of unhealthy and petty political interference at various levels starting from transfer and posting of policemen of different ranks, misuse of police for partisan purposes and political patronage quite often extended to corrupt police personnel’.
Having made this broad but not unsubstantiated generalization, the Court went on to suggest that the procedure for appointing senior officers be changed, such that a state’s Director-General of Police be appointed by the Union Public Service Commission rather than the Chief Minister, and have a fixed tenure of two years. It also asked for the establishment, in each state, of an independent Police Establishment Board, to monitor postings and promotions at the lower levels of the force. Another recommendation was for the constitution of a State Security Commission, which would check and monitor political interference, and periodically evaluate the performance of the police.
When first offered, these recommendations of the Supreme Court were ignored. Now, in the wake of the horrible events in Mumbai, they need to be brought back into public debate. Admittedly, democracries will always be more vulnerable to terror as compared to more tightly controlled authoritarian states. However, one reason India in particular has been so prone to terror attacks are the manifest inefficiencies of our police and intelligence forces. The reasons for this lie, as I have underlined, not in the genetic or cultural make-up of the ordinary Indian but in the political manipulation of the Indian police.
This manipulation has continued for decades now. All political parties have practiced it. No state or city is immune from it. And yet there remain some outstanding police officers who, down the years, have placed their Constitutional obligations and duties above their personal interest or those of their political masters. Among the names that come to mind in this connection are Julio Ribeiro and the late Hemant Karkare. As of now, these remain exceptions. The task before us is to make them the rule. For this to happen, we need to insulate the police from political interference, and simultaneously set in motion other, long overdue reforms—such as technological modernization, more focused training and skill development, and better pay.
The rage and anger at the Mumbai attacks is understandable. But it is also increasingly in danger of being misdirected. Rather than calling (as some hotheads have done) for war against Pakistan, this anger would be more constructively channelized towards the renewal of our police forces, such that it may function effectively, impartially, and promptly in permitting, to the best of its abilities, the free movement of people, goods, and ideas that is the basis of the democratic way of life.