Analysis
Let's not forget India inherited the colonial police system when the British left
KSP-UNICEF

The proposed mass leave announced by a number of lower rung police personnel in Karnataka has given rise to the question of whether or not the police deserve sympathy for the concerns they have raised.

Last week, the media reported that a large number of lower rung personnel had applied for mass leave under the banner of the Akhila Karnataka Police Mahasangha headed by V Shashidhar. Police are not allowed to protest under the ESMA Act.

It is unclear whether the protest is propped up or motivated by vested interests, but what is certain is that it is unprecedented. Such a mass protest has probably never been heard of in the history of the police force anywhere in the country. In Karnataka, a flash protest had been staged in August 2014 over the allegations against P Ravindranath, then ADGP (KSRP) of photographing women without their consent.

Speaking to the media, Shashidhar said that a delegation of constables had approached him and asked him to head the protest, which they had organized in order to demand better working conditions, protection from harsh punishments meted out by senior officers, better pay, and regular leave.

The Karnataka government has said that it has received no petitions from any groups. Initially, the top leadership of the police, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Home Minister G Parameshwara maintained that the police would not be allowed to protest. Subsequently, their stance has somewhat softened and have said that they will look into the demands.

On May 26, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) announced that it would support the protest of the police. It also criticized other political parties for remaining silent on the issue.

The protest is being debated among journalists and on social media, one forward in particular, is being shared a lot on Facebook.

The fundamental premise of the debate among journalists is whether or not the police’s claims are justified. On May 29, Kannada commentary website Vartamaana published an article by television journalist Naveen Soorinje. In a piece titled “The danger of the police being called victims”, he argued that the Left should not project the police force as victims. Quoting statistics, which are not attributed to any source, he said that police were given salaries and other benefits, which disputed their claims of being poorly-paid.

He also said that the argument that the lower rungs of the police force were victimised by the senior police could not be accepted as they themselves were often perpetrators of violence against innocent people.

In discussions on WhatsApp groups and on Facebook, people, including journalists felt that there was some validity in the grievances of constables against the senior officers and that their working conditions were indeed quite harsh on occasions. Others pointed out that constables and indeed the whole police force had erected an economy of bribes, a point which some journalists felt could not be blamed entirely on the constables who were merely the visible face of the bribe system. Many others defended the CPI(M)’s position, saying that the constabulary could not be equated with authority, since they were merely the lowest in the hierarchy and that they too were workers unlike the senior officers.

A news report on Kannada website Samachara quoted a police officer as saying that the behaviour of the police personnel reflected the pressures under which they worked. The officer said if the police were treated in a humane manner they would function in a humane manner. The report on Samachara said that salaries in the Karnataka police were much lower than in the neighbouring Telugu speaking states.

On Facebook, one particular message is doing the rounds. It asks readers whether the police “are truly demons or they humans like us”. Calling the police the “protectors of the public”, it goes on to list six “reasons” with regard to their working conditions, castigating the public for not considering the police as human beings. These reasons however, sometimes make untenable comparisons and exaggerations. The post also exhorts the public to support the police when they protest.

Comments on the shares of this post are quite illuminating. This post has been shared dozens of times. A small number of people, however, believed that the police is a corrupt institution, that the police were better off financially when compared to other government employees. They also pointed out that the police had a bad track record when it came to instilling trust among the public, rather, cops inspired great distrust.

How then, must the police force be viewed?

The CPI(M)'s position could be understood in terms of the police force constituting a class of workers who deserve good working conditions like any other group of workers. BJP leader and former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa has criticized the state government, saying that matters had come to such a head that even the police were protesting.

The top police leadership of the state police, the Home Minister and Chief Minister should have gotten wind of the seriousness of the grievances of the constabulary and acted to address it. This includes victimisation at the hands of senior officers, immunity from scrutiny that disciplinary action that senior officers often accord to themselves while the small fry are penalised, being made to do work is not part of a constable's duties. But there are two major impediments to this. One, there is no mechanism to review the functioning of the police force and suggest improvements in a systematic manner. Conducting research into the functioning of the police in Karnataka isn't a matter of priority for the police.

Second, for the demands of the constables to be addressed, it is first necessary to understand the nature of the police force in India.

In the book “Permission to shoot: Police Use of Deadly Force in Democracies”, Jyoti Belur quotes Kirpal Dillon’s description of the police as being “tied irrevocably with long pre-colonial and colonial traditions of servility to the rulers and oppressive behaviour towards the masses”. Quoting him further, she says that because the Indian police could not break out of this mould, they face a “credibility gap and a performance crisis…. Creating a serious mismatch between police practices and people's expectations”.

In August 2013, writer Saurav Datta had explicated the Supreme Court judgement on the Prakash Singh v Union of India (2006) case. Datta said the Court had broadly given two directions to the states: to remove all colonial vestiges from the Police Act of 1861, thereby shifting the approach from rule to governance; and to grant immunity to the police from the executive and politicians.

This was, predictably, met with hostility by the stated who resorted to various arguments to avoid implementing the directions of the Court. Little has changed in this regard since.

Any journalist on the crime beat can tell you innumerable stories of how the constabulary is treated by their superiors, and how the constables in turn treat the public. The picture that emerges isn't pretty: an institution that itself functions in an unjust manner, cannot help deliver justice to the people.

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