Policing in the Era of Social Resistance

Violent Policing

The demise of father and son due to an alleged custodial death in Thoothukudi has sparked discussion to focus the role and essence of policing. Add to this, the recent encounter of an individual being transported from Madhya Pradesh to Uttar Pradesh – Policing in India is tough. The evolving perception about police and the idea of authority is an interesting development that needs a closer look.

As a society, a strong collective conscience against torture, uproar against the ‘actions’ of the policemen on social media is increasingly apparent. While this does help pressurize the state to act, the matter should not be yet another issue that will be dealt with, on an ad-hoc basis. 

Evolution of Policing

Pre-colonial era, policing was not considered to be a specific profession or a career choice. Apart from investigation, duties collided with those relating to revenue and finance. Matters relating to law and order were more often linked to armies. The rise of British power along with their expansionist policies (colonialism) created a strong  authoritarian police system. It served to be a powerful tool to expand the control  and  create a sustainable system of local governance. The police-zamindar nexus – forced eviction from land, physical torture for debt can be found in every other modern India history book.

 Post 1800’s there has been an emphasis on studying police sciences along with Criminology. Police were  to act as a centralized force with the basic roles that stand mainstream as of today. Policing system in India has come a long way past these experiences.  Apart from technological interventions, policing has evolved differently from its authoritarian stance. A much more decentralized policing system was considered to be a solution post-colonial experience. Recently,  the framework for policing is more sophisticated in theory and undoubtedly has a spillover in practice. However, incidents relating to police brutality highlight some of the structural issues that the ‘not so authoritarian’ modern system face.   

There are some important questions that are raised in the context of custodial deaths. Are these custodial deaths investigated? Who investigates them? Do these events in any way share a bond with the perception of citizens about the police? If police personnel are trained in interrogation and methods of investigation, why are there reports of physical torture?  Another way of investigating would be to ask – ‘Why?’  – Why do these incidents occur in the first place when the police system was created to safeguard rights of the citizens and to maintain order? 

To state facts practically, the police – to a common person is an agent of the state. They are least concerned about the methods of investigation/training quality/qualifications that the police officers gain during their training. An individual is not concerned with Hobb’s theory of leviathan (referring to the police as a tool/weapon controlled by a sovereign) or factors that may influence police behaviour during their interaction.  As a victim, witness or legal participant – a smooth interaction with the criminal justice system becomes a priority. Hence, when such incidents highlighting the role of police is raised, stress is laid on the particular event rather than paying attention to the systemic issues. 

Solution? Enact stringent laws? 

Factors affecting policing include – powers given by state government to the police officials (Policing is in the state list under 7th schedule of Indian constitution), media narrative on alleged extra judicial actions of the police, pressure to perform/prosecute, directions from the court to provide evidence that proves commission of crime beyond reasonable doubt, Politicians-Police-Criminal nexus, differential training of constables, Sub inspectors, Inspectors and IPS officers, clumsy work schedule from criminal investigation to patrolling, low police to citizen ratio in our country (We are far below UN standards). These factors are to be considered in case we are interested in legal solutions. 

One can argue that India is a signatory to convention on civil and political rights, Declaration of Human rights. These do not pose as a deterrent to the extra-judicial actions committed by the officials. The role of the state (refers to the legislature, executive and judiciary) is equally questionable because of the low convictions– zero between 2008 and 2016. Passing of ‘stringent’ laws, in this case is not the solution. Existing law protects the rights of the accused by making it mandatory to produce the accused before the magistrate within 24 hours of the arrest. Nature of examination by magistrates in several cases is questionable. 

It is the moral accountability that is to be brought into the system

Why do they act the way they do?

This is similar to questioning the basic instinct of an individual to act. Nevertheless, they do so within the ambit of the justice system. Looking at these acts solely from the police perspective will give short term solutions. Apart from the aspect of police reforms, mentioned in Prakash Singh judgement and Malimath committee, in order to understand police in India, one has to look at the Criminal justice system as a whole. Low conviction rate is not an issue that is exclusive to extra judicial police actions.

The Prakash singh judgement dealt with several solutions such as constituting police establishment boards for decisions on postings and transfers, secured tenure for DGP’s, Security commissions to evaluate police performance. These commissions, though constituted, lack independence and are dependent on bureaucracy. They lack powers to issue binding recommendations. The 2nd Administrative reforms committee wanted the parliament to consider the concept of ‘federal crimes’. Police training as an issue has received less attention as far as the recommendations are concerned. 

Here’s an assumption if one believes that police reforms  alone can solve the matter. Barring other variables, if the quality of training of police affects their actions in their career, it might be one of the factors affecting investigations, court trials, agenda of prosecution – leading to low conviction rates. Similarly, training could affect police-citizen relations. 

It is obvious that the assumption mentioned above is too broad. Nevertheless, the point is that it is indeed time to reopen our books and find out if officers at the police station level can be trained with an approach that focuses on emotional intelligence. Do we need cameras fixed to each police officer during interrogation? Do we have the required resources to do so? Do we need more directives other than the existing ones that state mandatory investigation of cases involving custodial deaths? 

What if our assumption is wrong?

The role of magistrates, prosecutors, involvement of witnesses and victims also influence the action of the police. Absence of witnesses may mean a weaker case for the prosecution. Additionally, the media trial and a narrative justifying extra judicial execution of the police, is born. Increased court benches, stress on methods of restorative justice can ease police burden – if we assume that only systemic reforms are needed. 

What do you need to know?

As consumers of information on social media, we need to be aware that opinions brought to use may not resemble truth. Use of torture is unacceptable irrespective of the fact that there might be strong evidence to prove commission of crime. Glorifying the encounters of criminals charged and wanted and criticizing them for custodial deaths could qualify as  a mark of hypocrisy and a mockery of rule of law. The first step to advance a better system of policing is to question the fundamental source of power  and fit it in the legislative framework. A categorical conclusion by the masses on what morally right or wrong might be a costly affair if it is undertaken beyond the ambit of the justice system. 

Chidambar Navalgund
Pursuing Master's in Sociology from Indira Gandhi National Open University.Completed graduation in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Rani Channamma University (2016-19).