As per popular perception, Himachal Pradesh is a quiet, serene place with minimal crime. Its police outposts, perched on lush green hills in far-flung small towns, have very little to do, so they occupy themselves in traffic management duties or book people for petty offences just to perk up their crime-busting records.
But, when earlier this week, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur cracked the whip on the top brass of the police force, telling them bluntly, "Either you perform, or tell me you can't do it". It indicated that something is very wrong in the idyllic khaki universe of the state. In less than a year, the state police hit national headlines twice for its unprofessional conduct and the sharp words of the chief minister whipped across the state's thanas like a cutlass.
Thakur has good reason to give his men and women in khaki a mouthful. A special inquiry by the Divisional Commissioner of Shimla, who was tasked to probe the sensational shooting of a government official on duty in Kasauli on 3 May, has laid most of the blame at the door of a lackadaisical police, who barely reacted when the firing took place.
Shail Bala, the assistant town planner, and a PWD employee both died when Vijay Singh, the owner of a guest house whose illegal portions were being demolished under the supervision of Shail, fired at them on 3 May. Shail was executing orders of the Supreme Court to demolish illegal construction by hotels and guest houses in Kasauli, and her death sent shock waves across the nation and moved the apex court to take suo motu notice of it.
The chief minister is particularly anguished that the accused Singh managed to flee the spot after the shooting, despite the presence of policemen and a Quick Reaction Team (QRT) on the spot. It turns out that one Station House Officer who gave chase had to back off because he was without his service weapons.
The two QRT personnel who did have AK 47 rifles, also failed to react after Singh opened fire. There is also anger at the initial police attempt to cover up the failing by saying that Shail went to the demolition spot without informing the police, which was to provide security to her. The inquiry has reportedly indicted the Superintendent of Police, Solan and the two SHOs among others.
For the newly appointed chief minister, who has been in charge of the state for barely five months, the Kasauli shooting is a shameful blot on his government and he has promised that heads will roll.
What should worry him more as state's home minister, though, is that the rot which has set into the police is so deep that even its shameful conduct last year, which led to the arrest of nine police officers including an Inspector General, has not encouraged the top brass to introduce corrective measures.
The matter relates to the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl in Kotkhai last July, which created a furore in the state. When one of those arrested for the crime died in custody, it triggered off violent protests in the state and the Himachal Pradesh High Court handed over to the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
It is the CBI, which zeroed in on the police officers and found that not one of the five persons arrested by the police for the crime were involved in it. Among those held responsible for the custodial death of an accused Nepali labourer, are the head of the Special Investigation Team (SIT), an IG, the Senior Superintendent of Police heading the district and a DSP.
The BJP, then in Opposition, had whipped up anger across the state and the Kotkhai rape became a major issue in December 2017 and during the election to the state Assembly, in which the party emerged the winner.
One of the first acts of the new chief minister Thakur was to change the Director General of Police in January. So, Somesh Goyal, who was the DGP during the Kotkhai incident was replaced by SR Mardi, a Kannadiga who is said to be close to the chief minister's wife, a party worker from Karnataka.
Since then, the working of the police force became characterised more by political manoeuvrings and one-upmanship in the higher echelons, which had an impact on the already deteriorating work ethic down the chain. "Petty politics and infighting between two camps have permeated the force so deeply that even routine policing is given short shrift," said an officer in the know.
In February, the entire market of the small town of Rajgarh in the backward Sirmaur district marched in anger against the SHO of the local thana. They were angry at the propensity of the trigger-happy official to book people on frivolous charges or beat them up for imagined offences.
The protest was sparked off when the SHO beat up a shopkeeper who was smoking inside his shop, accusing him of smoking in a public place. The public pressure forced him to apologise before the market and admit that he had gone too far by taking unwarranted action against the shopkeeper.
Unsurprisingly, no action was taken against the errant cop and the message which went down the line is that abuse of authority is not a transgression serious enough to attract disciplinary action.
Now that the Supreme Court is monitoring the investigation into the Kasauli shootout, the state government is under pressure to show that it is proactive. Thakur blamed the police for 'damaging the image of his government' and undoing the work which he has done in the last few months.
But the malaise in the police force began much before Kasauli and even before the botched investigation of the Kotkhai rape and murder. In many ways, both the Kasauli and Kotkhai blots are symptoms of the deeper malaise which is breeding unprofessionalism.
Shortage of staff and a relatively low crime rate in previous years bred lethargy and complacency. Political influence in transfers and postings has taken a toll, impacting the work culture.
What has gone unnoticed is, that in recent years, people from other states have begun coming to Himachal Pradesh to live and work, as a result of which the crime pattern has registered an upswing. But police functioning hasn't caught up and remains lethargic and demotivated.
Crime against women, in particular, is on the radar. As against 1,261 crimes against women in 2016 the police registered 2,060 in 2017. Of this, approximately 250 rapes have begun to take place in the small state each year, according to figures released by the state police early this year.
Thakur has given the police 15 days to come up with an action plan to combat crime more effectively. That may be just the beginning.
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Updated Date: May 20, 2018 17:09:30 IST