Kerala now has a new dread on the streets, an abusive police force that hapless citizens always fear

The Kerala State Police Complaints Authority is the only watchdog where citizens can approach with complaints against the police.

Naveen Nair April 04, 2018 19:48:16 IST
Kerala now has a new dread on the streets, an abusive police force that hapless citizens always fear

The Left government's home department in Kerala is having a tough time like never before. The state’s police force which comes under Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been caught misbehaving with the common man on the street at an alarming frequency over the last one month.

In the last few weeks alone more than half a dozen such cases where the men in uniform abuse, harass and even beat up unsuspecting citizens have been reported from across the state.

With the opposition led by the Congress party raising the issue in the state Assembly and even staging a walkout following a decline by the Speaker to move an adjournment motion on the issue last week, the government had to openly admit the error and call for corrective steps.

Kerala now has a new dread on the streets an abusive police force that hapless citizens always fear

Kerala Police personnel. Getty images

"We are acknowledging the situation and let me assure everyone that strict action will be taken against those found to be misbehaving with the general public. The department will be a calling a special meeting to address the issue at the earliest," Director General of Police (DGP) Lokanath Behera told media persons this week.

But not everyone is ready to buy the words of the DGP and there is a clear-cut reason for that. In the last two years alone many such situations have come about when the men in uniform have been found wanting when it comes to public behaviour and the state police chief and the department had hardly moved a finger to nip such attempts in the bud.

‘Watered-down policy’ of the Left

A year ago in April 2017, the state watched in shock as the mother of Jishnu Pranoy, a boy who had allegedly committed suicide in mysterious circumstances in a private engineering college in the state, was dragged on to the streets along with her relatives because they had dared to protest in front of the DGP’s office against police inaction in the case.

The uproar was so big that even the Supreme Court citing the incident asked if the state actually had a DGP who could maintain law and order while hearing the former DGP TP Senkumar’s removal case.

Activists say that the Left government’s inability to implement its policy in the home department is the real cause of trouble which has given rise to the feeling that the police have a free hand in the state, an issue that became a hot topic in the recently concluded state conference of the CPM.

"The Left has a policy of governance which is pro-poor, pro-people. It is when that gets diluted instead of getting implemented in the most important department which is the Home, the state moves towards a police raj. The government should show spine to take stringent action against erring policemen rather than shy away from with the excuse of it affecting the morale of the force. Only that will send out the message," said social activist NM Pearson.

Last week a retired railway station master was punched in the face by an assistant sub-inspector for allegedly obstructing the convoy of the governor. The bleeding face of the senior citizen with a ruptured nose took the social media by storm forcing the DGP to issue a circular asking all cops on traffic duty to attend a one-day training session in civility.

Another video that got wide circulation showed Manjudas, a sub-inspector at Erattupetta in central Kerala, showering expletives on bikers.

Again in March, two bikers lost their lives after they crashed while being forcibly stopped by cops checking for helmetless driving in Alappuzha.

CN Shareef, a photojournalist of a vernacular daily was beaten up in a police station at Malappuram in north Kerala. His crime was that he had dared to click the picture of a protest billboard kept at the Areekode police station.

The list of police excesses over the last few months is an uncomfortably long one. But in spite of the DGP’s circular calling for training, it had little effect on the ground.

Even before the ink had dried another incident of police misbehaviour was reported on the same evening soon after the day’s training on behaviour was wound up.

Since the Left came to power in 2016, the state’s police force has often been on the wrong side of the law. The proof lies not just in the umpteen number of incidents of misbehaviour and unruly conduct but also in the steady rebuke that the department had been receiving from the judiciary during the same period.

There are political observers who feel that it is not the lack of a policy on the part of the government that is driving the police excesses but rather it’s a well-crafted agenda of the Left that is at the root of the issue.

"This Left government led by Pinarayi Vijayan seems to have adopted a line of resisting all dissenting voices using the state machinery. The police are a most important tool in implementing this agenda. When that happens obviously the police will also take the law into their hands and behave according to their whims and fancies. I think the present police misbehaviour is a fall out of this government’s policy of gagging any form of democratic dissent," CR Neelakandan, an anti-corruption activist-turned-politician with the Aam Admi Party (AAP) told Firstpost.

Lack of leadership

Most of the top brass of the police whom Firstpost talked to were worried about the audacity with which the cops at the lower rung keep breaking the directions of the state police chief.

Despite bringing out circulars and verbal ultimatums that those found taking law into their hands would be dealt with an iron hand, there is hardly anyone who shies away from doing what they deem fit on the ground.

Retired officers say that this 'non-ownership attitude' of a few puts the entire force's reputation at stake and it is also the crux of the entire problem.

Subash Babu is a retired superintendent of police who had also spent considerable time at the Police Training College in Thrissur.

Babu says that the lack of strong leadership at the top is killing the force and that there is hardly any uniformity in the 'uniformed force' in the state at the moment.

"Police is a team work where ownership is very important. When you have a DGP at the top who hardly has a personal connect with the even the district police chiefs what else do you expect? See when a policeman does something which he very well knows will bring disrepute to his senior officer and the force, it should make him think twice before doing it. But he hardly cares because unlike our times when we used to have a personal connect with the top brass, there is hardly any such feeling nowadays. It’s a failure of the leadership to inspire," Babu told Firstpost.

That the current DGP Lokanath Behera had come to the seat under controversial circumstances after the state government shunted out former DGP Senkumar also hardly helped Behera’s cause in gaining the trust of his force.

Senkumar returned for a month with a Supreme Court order before retiring to pave way for Behera. But since then the new DGP has hardly been able to fit the bill of a Senkumar who was well known for his personal touch with senior and junior officers in the force.

Behera also earned the displeasure of the apex court when it openly criticised him for the way he dealt the protest of Jishnu Pranoy's mother. For over two years the DGP has hardly been a rallying point for the force is something which many see as a big drawback.

Political godfathers

Policemen having political godfathers are nothing new. But the system in Kerala is such that the nexus between the force and the political leadership runs very deep.

Most of it becomes much evident when a cadre-based party like the CPM takes control over the reins of power. The party decides where to put which officer and once it is a political appointment even the cop knows that the politician will watch his back.

Such is the nexus between the political class and men in uniform that any disciplinary action is also met with a high amount of resistance using the politicians. It is here that Kerala Police Association (KPA) comes into the picture. Formed for protecting the welfare of policemen and women, it is now a centre of misuse claims retried senior officers.

"It is very difficult to see that on the surface. But certainly the association is what bails out erring policemen. One suspension for a few days and soon the cop makes a re-entry through the back door and gets transferred for a new posting. All this is stage managed by the association by putting pressure on the politician who then puts pressure on the senior officer to ensure that any departmental enquiry is stalled. This is how they get away. So they have no fear at all," said former DGP Siby Mathews.

Babu also said that the present atmosphere in police stations across the state hardly make it a unified force.

"Almost every police station in Kerala is a divided house now. On one side you have two political groups, the CPM and the Congress right inside the station among the men. Then you have two other sets where one will be a super discipline group and the other an indifferent group. It’s an eternal power struggle between these groups which runs a police station nowadays, leaving little room for control from the top officers," said Babu.

Stressed force?

The Kerala State Police Complaints Authority is the only watchdog where citizens can approach with complaints against the police. In 2015, the then chairperson of KSPCA, justice Narayana Kurup had openly said that young officers of the force need to reform themselves and not try to behave like super cops.

Kurup had even suggested to the government of the day that the 2014 batch of sub-inspectors need to be recalled for training since the authority had received innumerable complaints against them. But nothing had been done since then.

"They are not able to reconcile the newly experienced sense of authority to the reality of citizens' rights. That is the major problem. You can only change this by reinforcing on them the idea that citizens are not here to live by your command but you are here to help the citizens in need. The policemen need to understand authority in the context of protection and not power," said former DGP Jacob Punnose.

But psychologists said that stress plays a crucial role and it is easy to blame the policeman for his behaviour.

"Displaced aggression is a common phenomenon here. Take the instance of road rage shown by traffic policemen. Here is a man who is under pressure from his superiors, working under poor conditions, facing disparity in pay for the kind of work he does. It doesn’t take much for him to lose his cool. What is needed is a scientific approach to recruitment as well as training. You need to equip him to meet the challenge," said psychologist KS David.

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