In India, law enforcers and the public have an uneasy relationship. The belief that an ordinary citizen will not get justice from law enforcers is strong, and not always baseless, given that the conviction rates for the rich and the powerful remain woefully low.
In the Swathi murder case, the police was heavily criticised for arriving at the murder scene hours after the crime had taken place. And though the police nabbed the alleged culprit, Ramkumar, within a week, social media was rife with conspiracy theories.
People who had been baying for Ramkumarâs blood suddenly decided he was being âframedâ. Many drew a parallel to the Tamil film âVisaranaiâ, which portrays police brutality, corruption and the victimisation of underprivileged sections for the policeâs own benefit.
Why is the publicâs perception of law enforcers so poor? What do law enforcers feel about this and how does this affect them as they perform their duty?
Sangeetha*, a Deputy Collector in South India, who grew up in a family with many police officers, shares her views with The News Minute.
Like many young people in India, Sangeetha was not sure what to do after her schooling. Though interested in the Civil Services, she studied engineering. âThen I got a job, got marriedâŚ it was an easy, happy life,â Sangeetha recalls. âBut the itch for Civil Services would return sometimes. When I was calculating my income tax, I would think how little that was in terms of giving back. The itch would become stronger when I filled in my fatherâs competency review.â
Sangeethaâs father was in the police force (he has since retired) and the two of them share a very close relationship.
Sangeetha says, âI had to do competency review documents for my own work too, and the distance between mine and his was staggering â in terms of the importance of what we did. 96% crime detection rate. 80% recovery of stolen goods and property. 7 communal clashes prevented and 3 settled. Unresolved murder cases (that were four years cold) resolved, and the accused convicted. A medal from the CM. That was a very small part of his previous yearâs work alone. It filled me with a deep sense of despair. Time was running out and I hadnât even gone one step in the direction of answering my calling.â
Sangeethaâs itch finally led to her putting in her papers and following her dream. Now a Deputy Collector, she says, âA lot of people produce some visiting card or the other for ârecommendationâ when they approach me, though the cards seldom make sense! But the majority who meet me don't care and that's a good sign â It also depends on the officer's reputation. You don't have people queuing up to bribe an officer who is known to be honest.â
Sangeetha admits that the first instinct of a person is to approach the system through a short-cut. âI met a person from a school management who needed a certificate and he came with someone who was known to me when I was Class V! That is meticulous research, but is also an indicator of how things are,â she smiles wryly.
But what about people who canât pay a bribe and donât know anyone important? âWord travels very fast,â notes Sangeetha. âIf you are an officer who takes up, say, destitute widows' cases on priority, you'd have a lot of applications from them in a matter of few days.â
Sangeetha says people take the unlawful route for one of four reasons:
A) They've been running from pillar to post for a long time. And they'd rather pay and get it done.
B) What they are going to do may involve violation of rules. They'd like to have the officers on their side.
C) They think that's the only way it can be done. This group usually has a change of heart when they see that committed people do exist who don't need a bribe to discharge their duty.
D) To get things, which will cost the Government/exchequer, done. The giver of the bribe and the receiver benefit here, and the Government loses.
About the conventional depiction of law enforcement officers in visual media, Sangeetha is candid. âStereotypes are often vilified, but there's also some amount of truth in most stereotypes.â
She continues, âThe problem is when the stereotype is shown as the only truth, the rest don't have any incentive to perform. I'm glad to see that this is changing, that netizens take note of honest traffic cops etc., these days! But the larger audience always see the pot-bellied, corrupt, morally bankrupt cop. No one sees the crazy hours the cops put in, the many meals they miss, their families usually functioning in isolation.â
Referring to the Swathi case, Sangeetha says, âI will not criticise a person who has had a bad experience in a government establishment. But I do have some choice words for people who won't help a bleeding woman in a railway station, but will heap conspiracy theories when the police nab the accused. I'm not hopeful about change of perception in these cases. Change can happen when some part of your mind is open â where you see things, and then you re-calibrate your opinion. That doesn't happen if you are determined to see people in bad light.â
Sangeetha points out that there have been many debates on the alleged failure of the election machinery, on preventing the use of money power in the recent elections, but not as many on why people were accepting a bribe. âThere are no conversations around such topics!â exclaims Sangeetha.
The media coverage on the work done by law enforcers too tends to be lop-sided and sometimes, unfair. Sangeetha recounts one instance: âTwo years ago, we had an emergency â a fuel tanker hit a transformer. The soil was loose, and the tanker capsized. We worked so hard to get it up, and even today I cannot imagine the catastrophe that was averted. So many things could have gone wrong.â
The media coverage, however, was entirely against them, she says. âAll we had on TV that day was scores of people being interviewed on how we were holding up traffic, how we had âupsetâ people's normal lives because we had shut down power and said no to cooking/lighting. We could have done with some support that day.â
Sangeetha is realistic about the situation. To the public, she says, âI agree that our service is not up to your satisfaction. We have quite a number of people who are not interested enough, not hard working enough, and not smart enough. But the society we come from is a lot like that too â we have all kinds of people. I'd like that to be acknowledged. And every time you distance yourselves from us, we work the furthermore in isolation. It is not good for us, but it is actually the worse for you.â
And thatâs something weâll all do well to remember.
*Name changed to protect privacy