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  • Raajveer Singh Bisht

Injustice: Police Reforms and Accountability in India

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis City Police was the spark that lit the powder room aflame. As Americans of all colours take to the streets in protest, occasions of looting and rioting are reported throughout the nation and the integrity of the entire justice system of the nation is being questioned. The ideals of justice, liberty and equality loom in the background informing the opinions of the masses in a silent, yet profound manner.


A Blind Eye:

To those in India who have so conveniently adopted a “Black Lives Matter” stance on their social media, the stark reality of India’s justice system and the injustice in it remains either too subtle or too common to be considered grounds for outrage. As the myth of the ‘Corona Warrior’ was touted by the government and the masses took to their balconies to bang on utensils and clap in support for our nation’s medical staff, a police officer in Vishakhapatnam dragged a disgruntled doctor onto the streets and kicked and abused him. This is not a singular instance rather a part of larger pattern within many nations’ law enforcement authorities.


A study by the Tata Trust on the perception of Policing in India showed a marked feeling of discrimination amongst minorities. A few of the results from the study said that there is a high feeling of discrimination between both Hindus and Muslims by the Police on the basis of religion (18 and 26 percent respectively). There are also perceptions of discrimination on the basis of gender especially between urban men and women (43 and 44 percent respectively). This however pales in comparison to two factors, the fear of police (two in five respondents being afraid of a variety of police excesses including but not limited to police brutality, false implications and sexual assault/harassment) and the condoning of violence by the public on those in custody (nearly 50 percent supported the practice).


The misconception is that we have a right to morally police the American justice system and law enforcement when we ourselves are either unaware of, or in support of police brutality in India.


A Complicit Populace:

As stated earlier, half of India was in support of violence inflicted on those in police custody. Instances of the infamous third degree continued despite a call against it by Home Minister Amit Shah. In the midst of the lockdown imposed in India due to the Covid-19 pandemic multiple instances of police brutality were noted by the United NGO Campaign against Torture with an alleged 173 plus assaults in the 1st week itself. As sections of India’s youth give bold slogans in the comfort of their home, concerning themselves with the affairs of other nations, they choose to ignore cases of police brutality in their own neighbourhood.


Why then, despite judicial precedents and legislation against such excesses, this practice continues almost systemically within India? The answer lies in the explicit and implicit manner in which this conduct is condoned both by the India’s politicians and a misinformed Indian public.


A report by GD Joshi on Police Accountability in India found that:


“Usually, where the police are needed by government to deal with serious or significant law and order problems of political significance such as terrorism, police excesses get state implicit or even explicit approval, if not encouragement and support. When the assurance of impunity comes from the highest quarter in the State, police officers become emboldened to misuse their powers or to become silent spectators to incidents involving major violations of law. They know that they cannot be asked to account for their acts of dereliction of duty or misdeeds.”


This was seen in instances such as the communally motivated Gujarat riots which saw multiple instances of alleged police inaction in cases of assault and violence against the Gujarati Muslim community. Several archives have been made of these instances, chief amongst which is the 2002 Human Rights Watch archive. Another example is the policing in the state of Punjab during the Khalistan movement. There are again allegations of political consent given towards police excesses in the state which included unlawful detentions, custodial torture and fake encounters.


Unfortunately, India’s mainstream media and civil society often overlook these cases as they get buried under celebrity gossip and sensationalist politics. As a nation we not only accept police excesses but glorify them by showing them as effective tools of dispensing justice, featured in crime thrillers on television and film. The fact is that these police excesses are mostly felt by the economically and socially disenfranchised, the apathy felt by the middle and upper classes of India (those who dominate the social media) is therefore, born from a certain privilege afforded to them due to a higher standing in society.


A Historical Pattern of Tragedies:

Like I had mentioned before, instances of police brutality in India are not singular but a pattern. The longevity of this pattern is particularly disturbing. One of the most tragic cases of police brutality is the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. It is easy to dismiss it as the crimes of colonial regime, however it has to be understood that the majority of soldiers firing on the peaceful agitators within the premises were Indians. The reason why they so nonchalantly agreed to commit such a brutal crime lies behind the mentality with which India’s law enforcement was created. India’s police force started off not as an effort to curb crimes but rather to terrorise those of lower standings within societal frameworks.


Examples of Indians serving in the police force under the British Raj and breaking up agitating worker unions, farmers and artisans are easy enough to find. This also helped create a certain disconnect between the common Indian and those in law enforcement. The entire system was meant to breed loyalty to the government and government employees first, and common citizenry last. This pattern has continued with the clear trend of governmental loyalty being analysed by many Indian and foreign scholars both in context of India and other post-colonial nations. Therefore it also becomes important to recognise the roots of this pattern within our current system and change the paradigm, bridging the gap between police officer and civilian.


An Untrained Protector:

It is important however, to understand that a large reason behind the heavy-handed functioning of the police in India comes from the lack of training, equipment and empowerment. It is easy to assume that the police in India are all powerful since many times they are allowed to use excessive violence, the reality however is that these are the tools of untrained vigilantes, given the duty to protect a divided and prejudiced populace, handicapped by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.


The PRS Legislative Research centre reported that India’s police force was undermanned with 24% vacancies in the year 2016. This meant that in that year there were only 137 police officers for 1 lakh civilians. This ratio helps underline the idea of an overburdened police force. Therefore, their performance can never really be satisfactory. In an attempt to make up for this a set of coercive, borderline illegal practices are adopted by the police yet despite this the rate of conviction in India remains low despite a marked rise in crime.


This already outnumbered police force is also outgunned. Further research reveals that there is an absolute lack of sufficient firearms and ammunition in the hands of the police forces across state lines. In 2015 there was a gap of 30% in the number of acquired police vehicles and the sanctioned number.


The under-utilisation of funds for modernisation in police departments has led to a chronic problem of obsolete equipment, dated investigative methods and general apathy towards the resolution of crimes. The PRS centre found that only 14% of the sanctioned police modernisation budget was utilised in the year 2015. What happens to the rest of the allocated funds?


A Vulnerable Psyche:

The psychological evaluations of police officers all over the world have raised multiple matters of concern. For example, a study published under the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that the average male police officer had a higher chance of exhibiting psychopathological traits. There are multiple reports which analyse the sociopathic tendencies of police officers.


Essentially, it is believed that both at time of recruitment and over a period of employment, police officers responding to conditions of adversity, danger and a constant sense of mortality develop sociopathic traits including a lack of empathy, impulsiveness and narcissism. In such circumstances it is shocking that the mental health of law enforcement officers is not considered a crucial aspect by police administration in many nations. India too falls into the same trap.


A study conducted on the Andhra Pradesh police (in the town of Vizianagram) concluded that 35 percent of officers were in psychological distress. There were marked cases of officers showing symptoms of neuroticism and even more alarming were the coping mechanisms adopted by police officers to counter the stress of their lives. Malicious coping mechanisms such as tobacco, alcohol and gambling often combined with a denial/blame psyche developed by police officers during their tenure showed a positive correlation to instances of psychopathy and sociopathic disorders.


Another study published in the Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology in 2009 concluded that for policemen:


“The inability to effectively manage stress is directly reflected in their performance of duty”


And that:


“The unrealistic expectations imposed by professional police culture discourage officers from admitting the feeling of stress and from openly expressing negative emotions.”


It becomes clear that the lack of India’s focus on mental health evaluation and therapy in law enforcement stands to cripple the police forces. The ignorance of administrative elements in handling these issues may well be a root cause in cases of police brutality against suspected criminals. If the mental health of police officers is not monitored and cared for we cannot expect them to carry out their duties while maintaining empathy on the same level as a civilian.


A Misguided Civil Society:

Bringing us back to the preliminary observation of India’s support of the BLM movement and clamouring against police brutality in the United States we find that there is no basis for it as long as the same pattern of societal oppression, stagnation in reforms and ignorance towards mental health continues in India. The current conditions of law enforcement in India are not only archaic, but the support shown to utterly ruthless and cruel practices by the Indian public cancels out any moral superiority we may claim to hold over other nations.


It is imperative that the social media voices of India’s youth be directed first at the broken systems of governance, administration and justice that plague India before even beginning to consider the plight of other nation’s minorities. The almost bi-polar attitude towards police officers adopted by India’s citizens, viewing them as either the harbingers of corruption and incompetence or as the bravest souls of the nations has to be thrown away with a more consistent call for police reform. This process of improvement, reformation, re-organisation and development must remain a constant aspect of India’s law enforcement, both for the sake of civilians and police officers.


Conclusion:

To summarise, India’s law enforcement itself is draconian in the manner with which it treats civilians, criminals, suspects and even its own officers. Unless India’s civil society rise up and voices these concerns to the unconcerned nexus of administrators and politicians we will continue a pattern of ignorance and arrogance. However, it is even more important to raise the issue within India’s citizenry and make them aware of the instances of custodial torture, psychological breakdowns suffered by Indian police officers and the utter lack of modern equipment and training to our law enforcement. Otherwise our support for the oppressed citizens of other nations is nothing more than virtue signalling that is rooted in a hypocritical sense of superiority.


Further Reading:

On the Racial and Class Bias of Post Colonial Policing

The Argument for Better Training

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