The phrase ‘the other side’ is generally meant to denote the darker and lesser known perspective of an issue. Peculiarly enough, the phrase has positive connotations in the case of the police in India. We have travelled very far with this negative understanding of the police. The recent movie Jai Bhim has emotively depicted the dark underbelly of the behemoth that is our law enforcement. Very few movies have managed to capture the imagination of the audiences in the way this artistic work based on real life events does. One can hardly watch the movie without feeling a sense of helplessness in the face of patent injustice meted out to Rajakannu by the State at every point of his life, especially at the end.
The police in India are generally portrayed to be brutal, dishonest and a prime suspect of human rights violations. Jai Bhim also depicts the cruel side of the police, especially custodial torture.
While custodial torture is a reality that can neither be wished away nor ignored, according to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), 100 deaths in police custody and 236 cases of torture in police custody
were reported in 2020-21. Given the total number of police personnel (2,091,488) in the country, the figures (like 0.004 and 0.011 per cent respectively) are negligible.
It stands to reason that the police officials as individuals involved in wrongdoing do not represent the police as an institution in terms of justification to such type of wrongdoing. However, the police as an institution are forced to share the blame. Those who judge the police based on media-inspired narratives tend to generalise the issue to an irrational extent. Objectively speaking, the instances of police misbehaviour in this country are seldom ascertained by facts and figures. Rather, they are often deduced from the prevailing narratives.
Such narratives seek to vilify the police as an institution. The misdeeds of individual police officers are rebranded as the tacit acceptance and encouragement of such atrocities by all personnel on the force. This narrative is spun with the objective to delegitimise their standing, and to stain their credibility as upholders of justice. The uniform and those who wear them, the narrative goes, are permanently stained in the blood of the innocent.
I do not advocate to condone custodial violence or the use of extra-legal measures contrary to the rule of law for the purpose of securing real or perceived ‘justice’. At the same time, I believe that it is important to recognise the fact that custodial violence is well rooted in the colonial foundations of our criminal justice system. And it is often committed by the officials based on their behavioural profile and personalities under strong sub-cultural influences.
In a recent interview, Justice Chandru, who filed the habeas corpus petition showcased in Jai Bhim, pointed out that our techniques of investigation had hardly advanced since Independence. Without the adoption of modern and scientific investigative techniques and adequate training of police officers in their use, the question as to how the police are supposed to efficiently and effectively discharge their investigative duties is begging to be asked. Moreover, in view of the fact that extra-judicial killings of rapists and gangsters are publicly celebrated, it is hardly surprising that a few errant officers overcome by greed would be willing to take the short road to success in the name of ‘justice’.
The police often find themselves working on extremely sensitive cases in full gaze of the media and under immense political pressure. When read with a policy shift in the fundamental values underlining our criminal justice system towards a greater focus on crime control imperatives, it becomes obvious why it seems to be the case that due process values have taken a backseat. There seems to be scant regard for human rights in the face of ‘investigation’ and ‘interrogation’.
It would be a folly, however, to label the entire police force as crooked murderers with ulterior motives. The police are often the only wall that we, as a society, have between order and disorder. They are the enforcers of our social contract. The police are tasked with a function to both prevent the commission of crime as well as to investigate and bring the perpetrators to book. The scope of this task, in the Indian context, is both unimaginable and unenviable. With a population of around 1.4 billion, we have only 156 policemen per lakh of population. A majority of the force consists of constables and the lower ranks while officers empowered under our Code of Criminal Procedure to investigate offences are only a fraction of the total.
In the face of such odds, the police find themselves to be a soft target of any and every political opposition. The overall work of the police aimed at crime prevention and investigation goes unrecognised, while specific incidents are amplified far and wide, whether for political reasons or otherwise. The good deeds of the police are suppressed while the misdeeds are counted and recounted. The Indian police is also in the grip of a ‘Dirty Harry syndrome’ which is characterised from a movie detective who used unconstitutional means with the belief that a clearly ‘good’ end can be achieved only by using ‘dirty’(unconstitutional) means.
It is not my case that errant officers should not be brought to book. Not even the slightest of their atrocities should be brushed under the carpet by the police department or taken lightly by the judiciary. They deserve only the strictest of punitive and disciplinary actions. The institution of police, however, should not be judged en masse on the basis of actions of such errant officers alone.
Police and policing are necessities. Despite being a condemned agency, the police as an institution cannot be abolished. Inadvertently, the burden of criticism of the police is making it more non-functional. Destructive criticism to the extent of undue condemnation of the police in India has not been enough to herald reforms in this institution. Let’s not forget that it takes aeons to build an institution, but very little to bring it down.
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