The decline in policing standards in India is linked to the growing size of the black economy, which spawns corruption and results in systematic violation of laws.
The recent arrest of Sanjiv Bhatt, an Indian Police Service officer who has been suspended from his post of Deputy Inspector General of Police in Gujarat; the mysterious death of a National Congress worker after he was seen emerging from the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister's residence; and the severe beating of a group of women in Bihar, have left the public bewildered. Almost on a daily basis, there are cases of brutality, torture and disappearance of people in various parts of India. Undeniably, society needs the police force to maintain order and prevent wrongdoing, but it is now increasingly in doubt whether the police are playing that role.
The decline in policing standards is linked to the growing size of the black economy, which spawns corruption and results in systematic violation of laws. The system has deviated from its ideal form, leaving only the pretence of a law. The growth of the black economy (currently it accounts for 50 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product) is both systematic and systemic, and a result of the existence of a triad of corrupt businessmen, politicians and the executive. They act in concert to violate laws and generate black incomes. The corrupt executive itself consists of the corrupt bureaucracy, the police and the judiciary. In brief, the entire power structure that should maintain the rule of law is systematically involved in its subversion. The police, an integral part of such a corrupted power structure, alone cannot be held responsible for the growing illegalities.
The police force was set up by the British colonial power as an instrument to control and subjugate the population. That role hardly changed after Independence; the rulers of free India found it useful for their own manipulations. The common people continue to fear the police, which often brutalises them.
The police have become extortionist, collecting hafta. They extort money on a weekly or monthly basis from those involved in legal activity — traders, transporters, rickshaw-pullers, shop-keepers and so on. They collect also from those who indulge in illegal activities, such as sex workers, drug-dealers, pick-pockets and thieves. As one former Secretary to the government told this writer, “every additional police station in Delhi means more crime.” The posts of Station House Officers are virtually auctioned, and the money goes right to the ‘top.' In order to recover the money, beat constables have to generate hafta. So, how can the higher-ups discipline constables?
According to a former Director General of Police, in Mumbai money collected from hafta is shared and packets of cash are delivered to each desk on a particular day of the week. The few honest officers are bypassed. According to him, the pick-pocket is protected from encroachment by other new pick-pockets — a neat nexus. At the New Delhi railway station, the taxi driver will tell you he pays the policeman on duty, and, that sanctifies his fleecing of passengers. Complaints made to the duty policeman are mostly futile.
Delhi is full of illegal and dangerous construction in spite of stringent building by-laws and zoning laws. The police are supposed to keep an eye out for such illegalities. Indeed they do so, hawk-eyed, but in order to fleece unscrupulous builders.
In a case of theft in the house of a powerful politician, the police brought back the stolen goods the next day. However, the television set was not the one that had been stolen and the politician pointed that out. The next day the missing TV was brought. How well the local police knew the local thief is clear.
Under the circumstances, law and order can only deteriorate and crime can only flourish. The motto of those in authority seems to be that “power is to bend rules for oneself and for others, for a consideration.”
Not being in power and not being connected means one must remain on the right side of the law. Even then one may unwittingly get entangled in a problem in an increasingly decrepit system. One may have a traffic accident, there may be a theft in the house, one may be cheated, and so on.
No wonder, often people seek to settle matters themselves. In traffic accident cases, bystanders advise both parties to settle the case rather than call the police. As a corollary, people increasingly take the law into their hand — brutalising each other or getting musclemen to settle scores. In India, the police are mostly feared by the weak and the honest who do not know how to bribe, but cultivated by the powerful and the dishonest. Either way, the police have lost respect in society.
The nexus with the powerful means the police and the investigative agencies, such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), help the powerful escape prosecution if they are caught. The judiciary has often taken them to task for doing so. Usually this is attributed to a lazy, ill-trained and over-worked force. But that is hardly the case. The police act on behalf of the powerful with brutal efficiency, to trap the weak and the defenceless. The CBI was placed under the Central Vigilance Commissioner because it was spoiling cases, but has that improved the record of investigation of illegality in high places? As one former CBI Director implied on television, the CBI has become an instrumentality of the ruling power.
No wonder, in Gujarat Mr. Bhatt is at the receiving end of the same police he was a part of because he dared to take on the powers-that-be. It required courage to break away from the decrepit system of which he was a part. Obeying the orders of superiors is a part of the training regimen of the police. The Chief Minister is the head in the State, so his orders cannot be defied even if one is or was a part of the system.
Servants turn masters
The members of the bureaucracy and the police are supposed to be public servants, but they are the masters. They are supposed to stand firm against illegal orders, but as a rule they hardly do so. There are advantages to doing the bidding of those above, while defiance can involve heavy costs. Individual officers cannot stand firm and change the system; they will be bypassed. For each honest officer who does not bend, there are dozens who are ready to obey. The system has to change as a whole.
It is sometimes argued that policemen are ill-paid considering the nature of the duties they are supposed to perform and so they give in to inducements. This argument hardly stands scrutiny since the officers receiving the bulk of the share of hafta are not ill-paid at all. If they were not corrupted, the beat constables would not dare collect hafta and crime would not flourish the way it does. The issue is not one of salaries but of pride in one's work and of faith in the system one is working for. Further, what multiple of the per capita income can a government functionary be paid? The policeman is only one amongst many employees, and his salary alone cannot be raised. The government's administrative expenditure is already high.
Police reforms have often been talked about, but its context is hardly specified. The illegalities in which the police are involved are part of a subverted and exploitative system operating in this increasingly imperfect democracy. The police are indeed overworked, but that is because of what they do and not because of what they ought to do. The police alone cannot be reformed, independent of its links with political power; the same applies to the other institutions of democracy, such as the judiciary. We have to be clear about their roles, and the kind of democracy we want. So, police reform cannot be delinked from larger political questions.
(The author is with the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This article is based on his book, The Black Economy in India, Penguin (India). He is at firstname.lastname@example.org )