THE police in independent India have inherited some unwelcome legacies. One such legacy is alienation from the public. The police are viewed by the public with fear and suspicion. The Police Act, 1861, which outlines the structure and functions of the police in the country, sought to create a ruler-appointed police to keep effective control over the people and not uphold and safeguard their rights. The same tradition has continued in independent India. The outcome is a widening chasm between the police and the public. The people, in general, seek to avoid the police.
In 1969, police scholar David Bayley, in his seminal work, Police and Political Development in India, had written that the police-public relationship in the country was characterised by a powerful “avoidance syndrome”. The public avoids contact with the police and this avoidance syndrome is more pronounced in rural than urban areas. He states, “The Indian public is substantially unwilling to volunteer assistance in (giving) information to the police. They would rather not get involved.” Other studies and surveys have confirmed this conclusion.
A bottom-up assessment of the Karnataka Police, Mirror of the Police, done by the Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru, came to the same conclusion that for the Indian police time had stood still and public trust in the police had not registered any improvement with the passage of time. In this survey, complainants from all walks of life as well as police personnel of all ranks were interviewed. One of the major findings of the study was that a significant section of the public does not ‘feel at ease’ in dealing with the police. The psychological barriers that continued over the years have remained unchanged. The avoidance syndrome is more pronounced among the backward, illiterate and marginalised sections of society.
I witnessed this phenomenon while serving in the National Human Rights Commission. Most of the complainants against the police were from the depressed classes. Besides serious complaints of custodial violence and non-registration of cases, there were many complaints of rude and boorish police behaviour, which prompts them to avoid further contact with the police. This highlights the imperative need for human rights sensitisation of the police and inculcation of respect for human dignity.
Dr Bayley’s study further shows that negative and unflattering views about the police are more readily found with individuals who have had unfavourable contacts with the police. Familiarity breeds contempt. Surveys done by the National Police Commission (1978-81) have also confirmed that people who have had the experience of police misconduct are prone to believing that the cops are to be avoided because they frequently misbehave.
Again, several poor and unlettered complainants are unaware of their legal rights and do not complain of rough treatment by the police. They also feel nothing can be achieved by complaining to the authorities. Thus, spreading awareness about human rights among the uninformed public should be one of the foremost functions of civil society and human rights groups.
A significant number of complainants in the Karnataka survey stated that they do not get any information regarding the status of their complaints. Any such information is furnished only after repeated visits to the police station. This is an all-pervasive malady witnessed in police stations. The police seldom take initiatives to inform the complainants of the status of their complaints. Some police officers attribute this failure to staff shortage and work pressure. But this perhaps does not reflect the truth. The real cause is the lack of police culture to improve the complainants’ satisfaction and their perception of the police. Our police officers forget that even small proactive gestures are appreciated by the members of the public and enhance the image of the police in the public mind.
During the British rule, the police were discouraged to forge close relations with the public because of the erroneous presumption that it would handicap the police in dealing with the native populace. The Police Act, 1861, specifies various duties of the police, but fails to mention the most important responsibility of winning public support and cooperation, without which the police work becomes difficult.
In independent India also, the same gulf between the police and public continues. Political bosses fear that close rapport with the public will erode the fear of the police and affect law enforcement. Community policing experiments in India have not been by and large successful because the police have not given the public a meaningful role in supervising police work and operations.
The assessment review of the Karnataka Police revealed another disturbing aspect of the problem. There is often a difference between the complainant’s version and the description of the case as recorded in the file by the police. Many complaints are not registered as cases and in many instances there is minimisation of the offence. Thus, the first encounter of many complainants with the police often is not a happy one.
A small sample study carried out in Odisha revealed that people in general are appreciative of the problems and constraints of the police, but they feel disillusioned and irked when the police do not even visit the crime scene to make a worthwhile effort to crack the case, and eventually submit a wrong report. The Law Commission in its report submitted in 1958 said, “The police force, as a whole, is not regarded as a friend of the people. This mistrust does not encourage contact with the police.”
Viewing the problem from a global perspective, Bayley has said the situation is not unique to India. “Few American observers would expect an overwhelming vote of confidence in the police in their own country.” Even in Britain, where the police enjoy a good reputation, a survey undertaken on behalf of the Royal Commission on the Police found that at least 10 per cent of the people thought that the police take bribe fairly often, use unfair methods to get information and distort evidence in courts. Suspicion and avoidance of the police may be worldwide, but its magnitude and forms are critically different from country to country.
Today, in India many bright and accomplished young men and women are joining the police service in leadership positions, but for a number of reasons, some of them systemic, they have failed to transform the Indian police. The old order continues and not many signs of change are visible.
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