Do not defend Dhoble

Where does the Indian Police draw the line when it comes to law enforcement?

One of the most bizarre sentences  that I have seen written in support of ACP Vasant Dhoble reads “… old-timers say that he has always been a stickler for rules, for instance, when he was earlier posted in Byculla, he used to beat up hawkers who used to hawk their wares on public spaces.”

Of course, it is unlikely that Indian laws or police rules, however strictly or liberally applied, allow policemen to beat up people who they believe are violating the law as a punitive measure. But that sentence accurately captures how we Indians view the role of policemen. We believe that our policemen and government officials have an almost despotic mandate, unconstrained by any rules, to ensure that the commoners obey the law and maintain order. Our popular culture reflects this. In the movie Sarfarosh, ACP Rathore, who’s the good guy, tells his subordinate: “Isko andar kar dena, aur do din tak arrest mat dikhana.” In CID, a popular ‘detective’ series,  the traditional way to  signal that the criminal has been caught is to land a punch on his (or her) face – the scene then cuts from the site of the arrest to the interrogation room where the accused confesses tearfully. Remarkably, though the detectives frequently suspect the wrong person only to realise their mistake later, they have never really punched the wrong person ever.

Coming back to Mr Dhoble then. I’ve seen many otherwise sensible people defend Mr Dhoble on the grounds that he is just enforcing the laws that we’ve allowed to stay on the statute books. The laws themselves are unjust and archaic, but that is not for him to decide- it is for us to change them through our legislatures. I have never seen an explanation for Mr Dhoble’s rather unconventional methods of law enforcement- like beating up hawkers or going around with hockey sticks in juice bars to threaten the owner- from these defenders.  I suspect that this is because they have internalised the view of policemen that I have described in the previous paragraph.

But this view ignores the fact that policemen in particular, and government officials in general are subject to rules and are expected to exercise their powers in good faith.  Policemen, as part of their roles, have powers that frequently result in violation of citizens’ rights. They can detain people on suspicion, they can carry out searches and seizures, they can use violence to maintain order. When they give evidence, courts give their word higher weight. In all of these, they are supposed to exercise their powers in such a way that a reasonable person will agree that the actions were necessary for the limited purpose of investigation or maintaining order.

In India, not only has the idea of acting in good faith broken down, the procedural checks and balances against government officials abusing their powers have broken down as well.

Photo: Industry is virtue

They were never very strong to begin with. India inherited its police and legal system from the British, whose aim was to maintain order rather than enforce the law. When it became independent, its new rulers, rather than put in place democratic checks and balances, decided that dictatorial rules weren’t so bad when Indians are in charge.

Over time, our laws have multiplied while our capacity to enforce them effectively and fairly have atrophied.  Because our courts function at a glacial pace- we’ve taken to venerating policemen who carry out ‘encounters’ and finish off criminals as anti-establishment heroes. We believe that procedural constraints on police actions are impediments that prevent justice from being delivered.

But in reality, what has happened is that the lack of procedural safeguards, checks and balances, mean that policemen do not care to investigate crimes well- why do forensic investigation when you can beat up suspects and claim that they confessed?  The fact that our courts take forever to convict criminals means that our police have no objective way to measure the success of their investigations, which means that they do a lackadaisical job- and this must mean that real criminals get away.

The fact that there are no effective checks on police powers means that they can use them for harassment and extortion. And because there are so many laws, we have a situation where effectively the entire society consists of criminals- and no matter what you do, the police can get you for one reason or the other.

Coincidentally, a month or so after Mr Dhoble’s antics hit the headlines, another incident occurred that illustrates the consequences of a general breakdown in the society’s trust in the police. Two people, a brother and sister living in a middle-class apartment in Mumbai with their mother, died within the space of a few hours, apparently of accidental poisoning. The rumour mill had it that their apartment had had pest control treatment done in the house a few hours earlier. This tragic incident made the headlines, partly because the sister was active in social media and the newspaper Mid Day took interest in the case. What was curious about the case, however, was the stonewalling by virtually everyone concerned. The parents apparently had no interest in getting the deaths of their children investigated. The doctor who issued the death certificate of one of the siblings had done it illegally. The hospital that had done an autopsy on the other sibling had not preserved his viscera, as the rules required.

In any other law-abiding country, such behaviour would be very suspicious. In India, however, there is a perfectly innocent explanation for it- no one, whether guilty or innocent, wants to tangle with the police. There exist ghettos in every country where people exist out of the mainstream of legality. Police find it difficult to investigate crimes in those places because everyone has something to hide, and it is next to impossible to get anyone to give evidence or otherwise co-operate  in investigations. In India, such a situation exists all over the country. The result is a vicious cycle. The police, even when investigating without ulterior motives, routinely manufacture evidence because it is difficult to gather witnesses legitimately. They routinely ask for more investigative powers, powers to carry out preventive detention, and more powers of punitive action that bypass the clogged court system. These powers are then misused (and cynics will argue that misusing them is the whole point) which leads to further lack of trust in the police.

The challenge, then, is to improve the capacity of our law enforcement agencies and courts while restraining their powers. How can we ask our police to not resort to their traditional riot control technique of beating up all in sight if we don’t equip them and train them with modern riot control gear? How can we expect them not to manufacture evidence and beat up suspects if our forensic laboratories are no good?

Reducing the formal scope of police powers, both by making fewer things a crime and by reducing the powers of preventive action that the police have. This requires breaking the vicious cycle referred to above, which will be difficult. As long as the police are seen as corrupt and wielding their powers arbitrarily, decent people will not trust them; and as long as this general atmosphere of mistrust persists, the police loath to let go of their expansive powers.

Reduce political interference in the police while increasing local accountability and oversight. Improve procedural safeguards against police misusing their powers.

This looks difficult, especially as there are powerful forces arrayed against police reforms, and the actions required to be taken need to be co-ordinated. But is it impossible? India is not the first democracy to make a transition to a modern and civilised law enforcement system, but the transition needs to start with the middle-class demanding one.