PUCL Bulletin, June 1981

Whither Police Violence
by Syed Shahahuddin

From the atrocities of Moradabad to the apathy of Nalanda, it is a far cry but the gap is more apparent than real; the result is the same for the victim. The pattern deviation from the natural role of using force to contain and control social violence to maintaining law and order depends on many factors, general as well as local in origin.

The important thing is the overall social ethos of the police force which is a byproduct of its social origin, its composition, its training, the interaction with the given social milieu and its understanding of the dynamics of development.

That police uses violence when it should not and does not use force when it should are well -known and well documented. False accusation, inspired FIRs, arbitrary arrests and detentions, tortures, extra-legal methods of elimination such as fabrication of false evidence, laxity in investigation and handling prosecutions, tampering with case records are all known practices, time-honoured with an inexplicably high degree of social tolerance.

Policemen have linkages with the underworld and anti-social elements; they enjoy the patronage of corrupt politicians and give protection to them; they serve the rich and the propertied and are paid for their services. This proves that the police force in its present form cannot serve as a neutral and impartial force. Its bias has been evident on numerous occasions, whether dealing with agitations or with the land-less, the Harijans, the Muslims and the Adivasis.

Generally, the force has the reputation of being trigger-happy - replying to brickbats with bullets, the firing is always justified in the name of self-defence but it is rare that a policeman dies in action. Even the slightest provocation leads to an orgy of violence-lathicharge, firings, searches and arrests, rape and looting by the defenders of law and order. Respectable citizens are treated as criminals and are deliberately harassed and humiliated. A policeman may be at the lowest rung of the social or bureaucratic ladder but his being armed and having the powers to detain give him prestige and weight and bestow upon him the power of life and death. To the common person the policeman symbolizes the State authority. He has to be kept in good humour at all cost. No one would like to buy his ill-will.

I am convinced that in a democratic society, this power needs to be regulated and controlled and in particular, any loss of life arising out of social unrest or police action must be inquired into to establish the justification thereof, if any. The quantum of force used has also to be examined in the light of the circumstances, before and after the event.

Such an inquiry would be meaningless and even counter-productive if there is an inordinate delay.
To avoid the delay, the administration must reveal the extent of casualties and release the lists of the killed, the injured and the missing whether it is a-case of social violence or of police action. One way to help the process would be to record the statements of eye-witnesses or those injured immediately thereafter under Section 154 of the Criminal Procedure Code, pending administrative or judicial and/or criminal prosecution.

Today there is total alienation between the police and the people. Yet no civilized society can exist without the police. A national crusade is called for to establish a rapport between the people and the police, particularly because the police will increasingly figure in all cases of social violence when it is bound to be accused of partiality or excesses by one side or the other. And social violence is on the increase because the society is in the process of being restructured.

In the recent past, the police has used violence against undertriais, against the blind, against lawyers, against Harijans, against Adivasis, against minorities, against youth and students, against kisans and mazdoors. Interestingly the police has always been depicted as being in the wrong except when atrocities were committed against the minorities. This has something to do with the social environment. But that is a separate question.

If the police ethos is to be changed, its composition has to be as broad based as possible and generally reflecting the population complexion of the catchment area. It should not remain the preserve of one social group or another. A well-balanced force alone would command the confidence of all groups resulting in a less parochial ethos. Secondly, its conditions of service must be improved and the content of training must be reviewed so as to make it function as a professional force, with a sense of honour and dignity and with complete neutrality as well as restraint in situations of pressure and provocation. The police cannot be permitted to become the instrument for establishing or maintaining the predominance of one social group over another, whether definable in terms of religion, caste, language, class or otherwise. Thirdly, the methods adopted by the police should be strictly legal. It is possible to base police investigation on scientific analysis than on third degree methods. It is possible to be a policeman and yet not be brutal or insensitive.

Some thought needs also be given to the idea of separating the law and order function of the police from its investigative function. The creation of a judicial police which alone would be competent to handle searches, arrests, interrogations and prosecutions may be the answer.

Lack of confidence in the police on the part of the working classes of society gives rise to a vicious circle. If they cannot depend on the police to protect their life, honour and property, they are bound to make defensive arrangements of their own-from piles of brickbats to explosives and firearms.

More searches lead to more charges of partiality and less confidence, more preparations. This sets up an arms race and widens the gulf not only between the social groups involved but also between the weaker social groups and the State. This in turn breeds disaffection and alienation and decelerates both integration and development. If unchecked, this process may even lead to violent confrontation between the weaker sections and the State.

The time has come to review the role of the police in all its manifestations-from atrocities and encounters to apathy and indifference. Indeed the future of the country may well depend on how we recruit, train and deploy our police force. No civilised society can live with a Frarkenstein, with a will and purpose of his own.


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