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Policing in India

In Episode 1 of the DAKSH Podcast we discussed policing in India. The police are at the frontline of the criminal justice system yet they are possibly the most feared and the least trusted arm of the system. Every time there is a high profile incident of police excess there is talk of police reform. Yet as the saying goes the more things change the more they remain the same.

In this episode we chatted with Vipul Mudgal who helped us understand the nuances of the policing system better and suggest paths to reform. Vipul is the Director and Chief Executive of Common Cause. Common Cause is a Delhi-based organisation that has been in the vanguard of the campaign for probity in public life and integrity of institutions. Over the years, it has earned a reputation and credibility for its initiatives, advocacy and public interest litigations (PILs). Common Cause periodically publishes the Status of Indian Policing Report an indepth evaluation of policing across India through an analysis of official data and elaborate perception surveys.

Show Notes

  1. Atman Mehta, IndiaSpend.com, ‘It’s not like Singham’: Policemen in India work 14 hours a day and get few weekly offs The Scroll  https://scroll.in/article/941656/its-not-like-singham-policemen-in-india-work-14-hours-a-day-and-get-few-weekly-offs
  2. Basant Rath, It’s Important to Make India’s Police Force More Welcoming for Women, 2018  https://thewire.in/gender/india-police-gender-women
  3. Crime and Punishment in Indian Entertainment Civic Studios https://sway.office.com/CUIjI1M69CLiVxCN?ref=Link
  4. Human Rights Watch, Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse, and Impunity in the Indian Police https://www.hrw.org/report/2009/08/04/broken-system/dysfunction-abuse-and-impunity-indian-police
  5. India Justice Report 2020 https://www.tatatrusts.org/Upload/pdf/ijr-2020-overall-report-january-26.pdf
  6. State of Indian Policing Report 2019, Common Cause https://www.commoncause.in/uploadimage/page/Status_of_Policing_in_India_Report_2019_by_Common_Cause_and_CSDS.pdf

In the accused Naryan Kamde  865 is charged under Indian Penal Code Section 306 abatement of Sucide.Vikas Dubay is dead he’s been killed after an encounter broke out. This is the big breaking news that’s coming in. Suspense is finally over the Mumbai trial court today gave more with Momhamad Amin Cassab death sentence for murder and waging war against the country 17 months. The Consitutent assembly will frame the Constitution in terms of paragraph three of the resolution.

Leah: Hi, I’m Leah and welcome to the Daksh podcast that is a Bangalore-based nonprofit dedicated to judicial reforms and access to justice in India. Through this series, we will explore the law and justice system with the help of our wonderful guests. In this episode of the Daksh podcast, we discuss policing in India. The police are at the frontline of the criminal justice system, yet they are probably its most feared and least trusted arm. The status of policing report 2020-21 found that nearly 55% of Indians surveyed feared getting beaten up by the police during the lockdown last year. This showed that a large section of the population associates the police with violence rather than protection. Every time there is a high profile incident of police access, there is talk of police reform. Yet as the saying goes,”the more things change, the more they remain the same”. This week we’re chatting with people Vipul Mudgal, who will help us understand the nuances of the police system and suggest paths to reform. Vipul is the director and chief executive of Common Cause a Delhi based organization that has been at the forefront of the campaign for integrity in public life and institutions. Over the years, it has earned a reputation for credibility for its advocacy and public interest integrations promoting democracy, good governance and public policy reforms. Common Cause periodically publishes the status of Indian policing report, and in depth evaluation of policing across India. I started by asking Vipul how he joined Common Cause and why the subject of police reform resonates with him.

Vipul:  Common Cause is an old organization, it was set up in 1980 by Mr. HTD shoury who was a civil servant. And there were many other public spirited civil servants who came together to form this organization to basically work for ordinary people, ordinary citizen’s rights, sometime in the 90s, it was felt by the then leadership of common cause that police reforms was a very, very vital part of the criminal justice system. And it is directly linked to common people’s access to justice, the quality of justice, they get the very fact that justice is the most important and the first foremost part of the Constitution of India. So, we actually felt that if we enter this criminal justice system problem in India, through policing, then probably we will have some clues. So there was a famous case called Prakash Singh versus Union of India case, common cause was a Co-Petitioner in that case, and Mr. Prakash Singh, who later became a governing council member, he is very, very committed to police reforms in his own way. So when I was invited, there was a search committee, which is looking for a director for common cause. I mentioned to them that, you know, if we do a status report, we would know what are the need gaps, you know, where have we gone wrong, or where we are consistently sliding, where you need to arrest that slide. And I gave the idea of involving some organization which can do serious, rigorous quantitative research, you know, where you actually go, hold surveys, talk to policemen, talk to common citizens, talk to victims of crime, talk to leadership’s and then come to some kind of a diagnosis that what is ailing our system. That is how the status of policing in India report as we call it, PIR was born. 

Leah: Oh, before we get into the meat of the issue, if you could just describe to our listeners, uh, how the police is structured in India. And you know, given all the different governments and agencies involved, is it actually possible to have a national level policy for police reform? Or should we just leave it to the states? The police actually is governed largely by the 1861 Indian police act, you know, right after the 1857 mutiny in India, also called the first The War of Independence, the British wanted to control the system. This was the face of the state, this is how the state presided over violence, it took everything in its own hands. It controlled the freedom movement, suppressed Indian people. So the spirit is that that act was never changed in its entirety. And the police were given a structure which is very, very military light, there are all the trappings of a military system, there are flags and there are those caps and there are stars and there are salutes and all the accompaniments of the armed forces are there in the police as if you know, it is a disciplinary thing or it is like protecting you against something very big, very sinister. So, it was never seen as something which the citizens need for establishing rule of law like being an arm off the law of the land, you know, it is always seen as like a disciplinary force. So, in fact, when we filed that case, I mean, Mr. Prakash Singh, who was chairing the case, and he was basically saying that just look at what is going on, I mean, the entire system is governed in such a way that there is no grievance mechanism. For instance, there is no complaint mechanism, there is no system where you can actually have transfers and postings in a transparent way. So the police, willy nilly in the 19th century was working for the rulers of the day. And we find that it is still working for the rulers of the day, rather than for the people of India. Its masters are the rulers of the day. That’s how the police is continuing to work. And your other question about decentralization, I think is a key- in a democratic process. You have to have decentralization and police is a state subject and rightly so in India. But it does not stop us from giving suggestions, you know, like the Supreme Court of India has said that every state will have a State Security Commission for transfers and promotions, you know, every state will have a police complaints, authority, etc, etc. So those things can be there in the state and state can form their own acts like the RTI Act in India, right to information, the same thing, the states had their own act modeled on the model RTI Act, what we are working on, is not just the efficiency of the police, but also the accountability of the police, to the common people of India. 

Leah: So do you think that police have simply continued with these colonial practices and just the colonial Master has been replaced with an Indian master?

Vipul: No, that’s absolutely right. And I think we did not realize in the beginning, because, you know, it was always felt that there are Law and Order problems, there are contentious societal groups, which are conflicting with each other. So you need a police in a diverse society and all that was felt. But you know, India also has, like people, nations also have their ambitions, India has this ambition of being an economic superpower, we are on way to becoming an IT superpower. But that kind of prosperous democracy cannot be built on a obsolete criminal justice system, where the police is working for the rulers of the day, and not for the citizen. So you need a criminal justice system, which is responsive, which is modern, which is transparent, and which is also accountable in the end to the people and not to the elected leadership. So we see and we believe that a lot of people have started seeing the police. Now as a citizen centric service, they are not our masters in any way, you know. And if there is anything, which is about the police and people, metaphorically, that is the law. So they are supposed to extend the law. They’re supposed to enforce the law. That is how it should be. If the police is not efficient, and the police is not doing its work in any state see all over the world, you would find that that country would probably become a failed state. If the police cannot enforce law, then what is the legitimacy of the whole system, but if you do over policing, and police become the Lord, then it becomes a police state. So between the failed state and the police state, you need a fine balance. And that balance can come from accountability and from the rule of law.

Leah: Could you just explain to our listeners also, you know, the working conditions of the police at the state level, you know, especially the constable level, and you know how that affects their interaction with citizens and the way they work?

Vipul: There is no doubt that the service conditions have been poor. But let me start with a caveat. If the police arrest somebody like they did in Tamil Nadu, they are Tuticorin district, you know the father and son, and you take them to the police station and you beat them to pulp. It’s so inhuman that you make them stand up and clean their own blood until they collapse. And then you say that, look, my service conditions are poor, my house is leaking, there is no water for two days. Sorry, no, this you can’t do this. There are certain things which do not have a direct correlation, and which cannot be justified. With that caveat, I would say that, yes, the working conditions are poor. Particularly, the working hours are very long. You know, in one of our SPI reports, we found that about 20-25% of policemen are working 13 to 16 hours a day. And there are almost a quarter of all policemen in the country who are working more than 16 hours. That is really, really serious. If you see how many policemen in India get a day off, you will be surprised that there is no state which gives a compulsory day off. Again, because the 1861 law said that policeman is supposed to be always on duty, which means that there is no off-day. So yes, it is understandable that a large number of them suffer from mental disorders. They have all the problems that are created out of you know, severe and bad working conditions, their housing is not adequate. In fact, there have been CAG reports, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India has reports seriously bringing out how bad are the conditions living conditions of constables, and if ISPs transferred, he is given a bungalow in the city. But there is no way that you can ensure you know, decent working conditions for the constable. And it became very apparent during the pandemic. They were living in very small quarters, and they were going back home after a day’s duty when everybody else all the other organs of the state had wound up and the police men would go out to the hospitals, to the crematorium, to the roads, you know, and force all those things which are not supposed to be part of their usual duty. And then you come back home, where you may have old parents, you may have somebody sick, somebody in farm, you had little children, you know, and then you don’t even have enough uniforms. So it was not even made compulsory for all the states. We knew that the hotels were not working, the small guest houses, etc, are all available. So anybody who was on the frontline duty could have been rehabilitated there that you operate out of a place where you’re not in direct touch with your family members. And as a result, a large number of policemen also died. A disproportionately large number of police personnel died in the line of work. Yes, the working conditions are very, very poor. They don’t even have proper separate toilets for women, police personnel inside the Thannas in many places, you don’t have proper drinking water. I mean, in fact, we found in one of our studies that 12% of personnel do not have access to clean drinking water, the 18%, almost 20% One in five, don’t have to clean toilets, there is no provision of seating, you know, sometimes they just have to stand. Very often they have to spend money from their own pocket for stationary. There are no papers to write the report on this lack of government vehicles, you’re supposed to go for investigation immediately somewhere, and the vehicle is not available. And for what there is not enough staff at the station, which is making people to work 16 hours,18 hours a day. And in fact the last point in this I must say I can’t overemphasize this enough that no state gives a compulsory of the Maharashtra is the only state which is now giving one day compulsory off, but not in all districts. Every person should be working eight hours a day in today’s time and should have why one two days off in a week. It’s a productivity tool. You will have better police they will be in better humor if they spend more time with their children with their families. So you have to fill the vacancies which are there. And if you see the vacancies for SC ST Women, I mean it is appalling. It’s just mounting. So all that increases the workload of existing police officers you know. There are rules like, if there is crime against women or children, there has to be a woman officer present. If you don’t have enough number of women officers, then the workload will be insane. Yes, the working conditions remains a serious problem. But it should not be connected with their brutalities.

Leah: Every time there is an incident of custodial death, like the one you referred to the death of Jay Raj and Bennicks in Tamil Nadu, there’s a furor. And a lot of articles are written about police reform, and then soon things go back to square one. So why do you think it is so difficult to move the needle on this?

Vipul: I think some of it is connected to our attitudes, you know, the attitudes of the citizens. In one of our studies, we ask indirect questions in such a way that we they’re not leading up to a you know, a solution. So we ask them something like, if there is a road accident, and it seems to you that it was the mistake of the driver, then is it alright, to beat up the driver? A large number of people said yes, yes, it’s the right thing to do. Which also means that if somebody does more than kind of customary beating, the driver could die on the spot. So taking law in your own hands is all right. The society believes that it’s fine, unless it’s me. So don’t do violence with me. We did this. In fact, we did a whole status of policing in India report on the pandemic, and we asked the people, is it all they said, it’s perfectly fine, if they are harsh with others. You know?  If they’re harsh with people, how else would they do policing? So it’s perfectly alright, for them to be harsh. And then you ask them things like, you know, what is your attitude towards violence? Is it alright for police to be violent to criminals? Perfectly? Alright. How else would you tackle criminals? But who knows who is criminal? Your job is to arrest and do investigation and find out whether the person is criminal or not, then we ask them questions like for minor offenses? Is it okay to give a small punishment, instead of taking them to legal trial? And a very large number of something like 40% police officers in India said that it’s perfectly alright, what is the point in legal trial? Just beat them up? Or do you know small violence, if that can solve the problem? And then you ask them, but what about dangerous criminals? This was like minor petty offenses, thieves, and that kind of thing shoplifting. What about dangerous criminals? Is it okay to kill them? Rather than taking them to the court? So 19%, like, which, which is a substantial number, because they they are the custodians of law and order. One in five said that it’s perfectly alright, policemen themselves to kill dangerous criminals, rather than taking them to legal trial. And then you ask them other questions like a little bit of kind of beating up for getting admissions, or to understand what happened, etc. So about 75%, or a little bit of beating up is perfectly in order. It’s like, it’s my job to do that, you know, nothing wrong with beating criminals, to extract confession, for instance, you know, so 80%- 85% people are, say, 83%. In fact, the exact number of people who said that it’s perfectly alright, so if our attitude, the society’s attitude is that violence is all right. Their bosses think so. The one chief minister, very recently famously said “tohk doh”, which means just, you know, kill them. And then the spate of fake encounters started in the state. If that is the attitude of the whole society and the political class, then I think the policemen are taking the cue from both their masters and the people they’re supposed to serve. So I think we need more legal literacy, we need better understanding of constitutional conduct of what are the courts therefore, we want the courts to work better so that people’s trust in the entire criminal justice system is repurposed. Rather than leaving everything on the police.  Look what they did in Hatteras, they cremated a woman’s body, a victim’s body of rape and violence, serious violence victims body against the wishes of the family, you are setting fire to evidence, and this is like dehumanizing, and what did the political class do? They protected the policeman through and through. So I think in one sentence, we can say, the biggest problem of Indian criminal justice system and the Indian police. It is violence, use of violence, and custodial deaths, torture and fake encounters like this.It is this form of violence is completely unacceptable in a democratic society. 

Leah: we see that in a lot of movies, there is a glorification of police violence, you know, and vigilante action. How much do you think this encourages the police to behave in brutal ways, or it normalizes this kind of behavior? 

Vipul: No, I think I agree, it’s quite well said, I would say that it does normalize the behavior and also the movies capture the popular feelings,you know, they would not be successful if you write about something which does not really matter to a majority of people. But at the same time, nobody stops you from giving everybody at least once in a year training around torture, nothing stops India from signing and ratifying everything that in the world is being done against torture, we are not doing that we are not giving our police personnel human rights training. If you give one in a lifetime training, you need to do more refresher, you know, in a country, which is divided into caste, and the lower castes are discriminated against as a rule, shouldn’t there be a caste sensitization course?, there are minorities sensitization about how to deal with the other people who are not like you with the poor with the poorest with the slum dweller, with women with children, you will be surprised that in India, the cases, the disposal of all cognizable crimes, if you see the disposal of cases in which women and children are involved, they take much longer then disposal of cases of normal cognizable crime which is which is so heartbreaking. You’d say that if there’s a child who’s languishing, you know, you give speedy justice but no. Cases involving women and children take longer in resolution or in disposal. SC and ST minorities take longer. And then again, we are seeing that we do not have proper SOPs around crowd control. You just go and start firing or you just go and start attacking people. No, there are ways you’re supposed to talk to those people, you’re supposed to find out who these people are, try to delay try to get their leaders to come forward, find out why they are agitating. And what do we have? I mean, only 6% police personnel in India have had any training. You know, they’re given those for 30 days to 90 days training at the time of recruitment. And after that no training, if at all. You have any training, that’s for IPS officers, not for other senior officers, not for the constables.

Leah: So just going back to this point about SOPs, you know, do these SOPs exist and are ignored? Or is it that they don’t exist at all?

Vipul:  No, that’s a very good question. You see this, some of the SOPs are so take, it took a BP r&d, the Bureau of police research and development, that’s one organization which has been doing a lot of good work. So they have a crowd control SOP here which is around why and then you start with if at all you have to use violence you start with very light charge and you you have to understand why you are doing it, are you doing it to disperse them?Or are you doing this to punish them or to take revenge of what you have to be told what is not your purpose.  Revenge is never, even in a case when the crowd has indulged in violence. Revenge is never your purpose, your purpose is to disperse them and defuse the situation for the time being. Everybody appreciates, that police can never be prepared for everything they will like there was a pandemic, it was not their job to find out if somebody’s wearing a mask or not. It is not their job to find out or punish people who are not maintaining social distance. We are actually not doing scientific policing. The only thing we are interested in is modernization which means more weapons, more machines, more weapons, no training, no sensitization. I think we are heading in a dangerous territory. 

Leah: Could you just tell us a little bit about diversity in the police force in terms of gender, caste and religion and again, how that affects their functioning? 

Vipul:  Actually, that diversity is one of the most serious problems in the Indian police system. You know, if you see the India Justice Report, in which Daksh has been a partner, Common Cause, SJM, Vidhi and Tata Institute of Social Sciences have put together which is available. It’s in public domain anybody can do a search and find out. So that gives you details about what kind of diversity is there or is lacking in the entire criminal justice system. And in fact, that has Daksh has done a very good job of lack of diversity in judiciary. So in the Police you have a binary with must be understood by everybody. That one, we have less representation of the weaker sections of SC, ST, minorities, even women in the police force. And you have over representation of the backwards and more vulnerable communities in the prisons. So more people from these communities are discriminated against and end up in the jails, and less people of their community are represented in the police force. So it’s a double tragedy. So the diversity is a very good way of improving the working. According to me, whatever little I’ve understood in the process of bringing out status of policing in India reports is that the most vulnerable and the most discriminated against are the tribals. And among the tribals, if you go to the D notified tribes and those who were historically branded as criminal tribes absolutely wrongly, those are the people who are the biggest victims of police violence, and discrimination. And again, the minorities also tend to be victims of police discrimination. So if you have more representation of tribals and the minorities in the police, it will be good for policing because you will get more human intelligence, you will have more people who understand their mores, their ways of living their zeitgeist, you know that you have so much input by diversity. So diversity has its own functions, it’s not just a table to be filled, diversity makes the police more human, more representative, it becomes a microcosm of the society in which the Thana of a police station is situated. So the diversity is a serious problem. The recruitments don’t happen. And if they happen, they happen in spurts. Just before the elections, the political parties in power would give out advertisements for police, you know, the “Band Baaja” saying that, you know, we are recruiting we are recruiting, and then you do recruitment, and then again, there are no recruitment for the next five years. So I think there should be an automatic system, that if the vacancies are more than, say, 7% or 8%, there should be some kind of alarm bell, which should ring and there should be some action against somebody taken. So I think diversity is a is a huge issue in Indian police.

Leah: Just in your opinion, what would be one police reform that can be done quickly in the short term and which will be effective? 

Vipul: No, I don’t think one will work. I mean, if there is one, then I would say that it’s the supreme court judgement 2006 in which they gave seven guidelines. One of them was a to have a police security commission. You have a Police Complaints authority, you have, you know, methods of transfer and promotions and the complaints. So if that is done in letter and spirit, I think half of the problems will be solved. And if one thing that you think the whole society should work towards is to realize that we want an accountable police. We don’t want a modern, efficient police to suppress us. We want a modern police to do good investigation, but we want accountable police. Accountability is the most important thing.

Leah: This was my conversation with the Talmud girl and you’ve been listening to the ducks podcast. This episode was hosted by me, Leah Verghease. If you liked the show, don’t forget to follow or subscribe to us wherever you listen to your podcast so that you don’t miss an episode. We would love to hear from you. So to share your feedback either by dropping us a review or rating the podcast where podcasts apps allow you to talk about it on social media. We are using the hashtag Daksh podcast it really helps get the word out there. Most of all, if you found some useful information that might help a friend or family member, share the episode with them. A Special thank you to our production team at made in India. Our production head and editor Joshua Thomas mixing and mastering Karthik Kulkarni and Project Supervisor Shaun Phantom. If you want to find out more about this topic, please have a look at the reading list in the episode description. And to get in touch visit our website DakshIndia.org that’s D-A-K-S-H India dot org.  Thank you for listening.



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