On December 5, 2016, over 150 journalists and camerapersons stood anxiously outside the Apollo Hospital on Greams road in Chennai. This road had transformed into their workstations from September, when the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister was rushed to the multi-specialty hospital for medical aid. But today, was different. The atmosphere was charged and the dread amongst the party-workers, almost pulsing through the air.
It was close to five-o-clock in the evening when the commotion began. One Tamil channel, jumped the gun, not waiting for an official announcement, in their hurry to 'break' that- J Jayalalithaa was dead. What followed next was complete bedlam, fury and a flurry of accusations, all aimed at the media. Journalists still recall, the war-like cry from the large number of party workers and supporters, before they started pelting stones at them.
Startled media personnel were cornered near the Apollo hospital gate and would have reportedly come under massive attack if not for the khakhi clad layer that stood shielding them from the attackers. The Tamil Nadu police had once again become the cushion that protected the common man from events that have been plaguing the state for the last 6 months.
From Jayalalithaa's hospitalisation on September 22 to the trust vote that rocked the Tamil Nadu assembly, on February 18th, the police forces in the state have been spread thin in an attempt to maintain the law and order situation. And largely, they have succeeded in their attempts to maintain calm, despite a shortage of close to 20,000 police personnel in the department.
A document accessed by The News Minute, details the vacancies in the police forces in Tamil Nadu, as of February 1, 2017. While the sanctioned number of police constables and officers in the state is 1,23,561, there is a 16% deficit on paper itself. A senior police officer further told TNM that if a station were to contain 55 policemen, then only 50% of them were on law and order duty. The rest had fixed duties, such as the sentries, reception officers, constables assigned to court duties and to help the Assistant and Deputy Commissioners. That would essentially mean that, of the 1,03,758 police personnel in Tamil Nadu, only a little over 50,0000 personnel have been handling one crisis after another to hit the state.
"When the former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa passed away, 12,000 policemen were mobilised in the city. In addition to this police officers from other districts also gave us a hand," said a senior officer from Chennai. For over 400 of these policemen, this was an extension of their 72-day duty, spent ensuring that the Chief Minister's deteriorating health did not lead to chaos on the streets. "The constables were already working in 3 shifts everyday. In addition to this Assistant and Deputy Commissioners, did night shifts as well. Our health was taking a massive hit because of the timings and nature of work," he adds.
With the shifts of the constables and lower rank policemen lasting for about eight to nine hours a day, the initial phase was still manageable, claims one inspector. "The real struggle began when a larger number of policemen were required for the patrolling," he claims. What began as one nine-hour shift a day, reportedly turned into two shifts every alternate day. "If the constable comes at seven in the morning, he would stay till three in the afternoon. He was expected to go back home, rest and then be back for duty at nine o clock. The insufficient number of police personnel has been a huge setback. Yes, we have still managed the law and order situation but at a huge loss to our own health and personal lives," he admits.
In December, to add to their woes, was the Vardah cyclone that brought Chennai and neighbouring areas to a standstill. While advisories were issued to the general public against venturing out, the policemen were once again out on the street. The Puducherry Government, for instance, reportedly deployed police along the two and a half kilometre beach road to prevent tourists from coming to the area. In Chennai meanwhile, police struggled to direct traffic as the cyclone ravaged the city. Just when the storm died down and some calm seemed likely, the Jalikattu protests erupted.
Sources in the police force tell TNM that two senior officials in Chennai, were both hospitalised due to heart conditions, during the Jallikattu protests. "We were out there on Marina Beach strategizing and deciding how to allocate forces day and night. There were thousands of people gathered there. We were responsible for their safety, for the calm, to ensure that the general public that traversed the roads were not troubled and even to provide securities to VIPs who came there. It was a highly stressful period. We were being stretched beyond our limits and there was nothing we could do about it," says a colleague of the two officers.
According to the list of vacancies, while the number of DGPs, ADGPs and SPs are close to the sanctioned list, DIGs, DSPs and ACPs are far lesser in number then the strength requires. This is just the rank of officers. As you move down in the rank, the deficiency becomes more glaring. In the taluks, for example, there is a shortage of 1,753 sub-inspectors.
Why then has there been no move by the police department to overcome these deficiencies? "There has been constant communication on the part of the police department. It is the bureaucracy that has failed us," says a senior police officer, who has been personally supervised police deployment during the Jallikattu protests. "The DMK during its tenure had formed the Third Police Commission which gave a list of recommendations to the Government. One of this was that the power of recruitment be linked to vacancy and given to the Chairman of the Uniform Service Recruitment Board. When this was in place, there was immediately some sort of order to the recruitment and we were clearing most vacancies. But when the AIADMK Government came to power, all that changed." The AIADMK reportedly handed over the reins for recruitment back to the home secretary, who in turn failed to move files. Multiple attempts by TNM to contact the former Home Secretary to question him on the allegations, however went unanswered. "What more, the Home Secretary became so powerful that even the DGP did not have access to the Government. The former and present home Secretary together completely ruined the police department," he alleges angrily.
Despite this bureaucratic apathy, for seven days in January, police personnel from across the state made the Vivekananda Cultural Centre their home. They could be seen in sweat-stained uniforms, leaning against the Centre's pink walls for some respite from the unforgiving heat. Their khakhi uniforms broke the monotone of black that the protestors were clad in and their presence was constant and unwavering. "Do you know what the worst part of our constant vigilance at the Jallikattu protests was?" asks one senior police officer. "Despite all that we did, we still got a bad name. We slept there with those protesters and hardly even ate but in the end, we were the villains," he sighs.
On January 23, a week after peaceful protests at the Marina Beach, violence shook the city as protesters and policemen fought it out on the streets. Policemen armed with lathis and tear gas shells, while protesters swung stones at the department. Videos that emerged from these disturbing scenes near Marina showed police personnel setting fire to autorickshaws and destroying public property. Visuals which continue to haunt the police department.
"Out of one lakh policemen in the state at least 10% will be rogue elements. Nobody can stop this and that is how society functions," explains KS Murali, Addl SP (Retd). "The entire police force cannot be labelled negatively for the work of some frustrated and misguided personnel. The police was under a lot of stress and had been working constantly up to that point. Can you imagine what the situation was when the violence broke out? When these anti-social elements are throwing stones and a colleague has been injured, it is natural for anyone to react and even retaliate. Is it difficult to believe that we have human emotions too? The problem really is that people forget so easily, that under this khakhi uniform and cap, lies another human being." he appeals.