During the 1995 anti-reservation upheaval and the communal riots in Gujarat, the Army had been called in to aid civil authorities. They were deployed, but not used. An incident was reported where nine people were burnt alive, just a few metres away from an Army picket.
It was not the Army's fault, but the civil government's. Since the deployment was not under Afspa, executive magistrates, under the law, have to put it in writing to intervene on a case by case basis, which didn’t happen. When the Centre realised that the awe of the olive green uniform was diminishing because the public saw them as mere spectators, Madhavsinh Solanki, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat, was told to either use them effectively, or send them back to the barracks.
The clout of any uniformed force, including the police, emanates from its effectiveness, credibility and the ensuing willingness of the people to subject themselves to the law. If a constable raises his eyebrows at a transgression of rule, say traffic violation, the citizen should understand and comply. However, we have perpetuated a system where we cut corners, and seek abetment from the police.
When the police become participants in crime, by either diluting the case, or by ineffective or missing forensic abilities and can make an innocent spew confessions of a crime that has not been committed because of the third degree, the force loses its usefulness. By accepting bribe, a constable brings disrepute to the entire force. Though there is the feeling that the police are corrupt by rule, honesty is an exception that deserves mention in the headlines.
Mid-Day has reported instances of police being attacked by people, who were obviously in the wrong, leading, recently to the death of a traffic cop. Recently, a sub-inspector was thrown into a pond by four youths during Ganesh immersion. They tried to keep his head under water, but he managed to swim out, only to be beaten up later. Nitin Dhondu Dagle’s only fault was to monitor the immersion process.
Mid-Day’s list includes only recent attacks – Vilas Shinde, who succumbed to his injuries after a two-wheeler rider assaulted him, when he was asked to share his details; Priyanka Khot was attacked by a biker and the pillion-rider, when she stopped them for not wearing a helmet; a woman police officer was allegedly molested when she responded to a call from a pub where a bill-related brawl was on.
A traffic warden – not strictly police personnel, but assisting them – Vishwanathan Rane was assaulted at a traffic junction. In June, in Thane, an infuriated Shiv Sena worker assaulted a woman constable when she stopped him for talking on the cell phone while driving. A traffic offence which could have been compounded on the spot – that is pay the fine and let go – turned into an ugly situation with the party disowning him. She was punched and suffered a bloody nose. This happened in broad daylight at a very busy traffic junction.
These incidents speak ill of a society that the police are supposed to stand guard over and keep within the rules and laws, and the policemen who have begun to be assaulted. It may not be inappropriate to say "begun to invite the assaults," though that does not mean they should be treated that way. It is as if the people are beginning to stop respecting the police. That helps none – not the people, not the police.
Julio Rebeiro, a former top cop, told Loksatta that people are no longer in awe of the force. There are complaints against senior police officials, those who get violent with the police are also from the well-heeled and well-connected, political interference stops police from performing their duties and this malaise is being felt across the country. Politicians belonging to the ruling party are more assertive against the force.
When a politician takes the law into his hands, it epitomises disregard for the law that he or she is encouraging the society to follow. Two MLAs had assaulted a policeman on duty when he tried to stop them from over-speeding on Mumbai’s iconic sea-link. There was a privilege motion against the policeman. This does not add to the morale of the force, which seems to have understood that they have to "adjust".
Policemen, because of the loss of the respect they should inspire, cannot be asked to be withdrawn from deployment. They have to be protected from the people, which seems so ironic, from assaults which seems to be a trend now. They also need to be retrained to inspire respect among the public for both law and the uniform. Post-Independence, KF Rustomji onwards, every reform recommendation dwelt on the latter.