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Bad policemen, bad politicians

The drama surrounding the arrest of a number of senior DMK leaders, including former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, demonstrated the power and impact of televised imagery on public perceptions and left behind many disturbing questions: regarding the circumstances and manner of the arrests; the obvious political posturing for the television cameras; and the conflicting images that were alternately projected by rival television channels aligned to the political parties in conflict. Many questions relating to the case have been debated in the media since, but one that is among the most unsettling for men in uniform is the issue of the ‘politicization’ of the police and the exploitation of the Force, or of some its officers, for partisan political or personal ends.

The startling imagery of the widely televised arrests, the subsequent protests and police responses in Tamil Nadu, and recurrent reports of ‘political interference’ in police functioning in other parts of the country, however, project reductionist images that are far from an accurate representation of the reality of police functioning. It would be absurd, of course, to deny that politics is often the cause of many unjustifiable police actions. What is forgotten, however, is that nine-tenths of police activity is ‘invisible’, and we notice only those incidents and cases where something manifestly wrong occurs. Our entire perception is then colored by these few, aberrant actions.

There are, in fact, thousands of cases every single day and across the country, where police officers at every level resist unwarranted pressures from a wide range of sources, even as there are many cases where they succumb or, more significantly, enter into collusive and mutually ‘enriching’ arrangements with compromised and partisan elements. The reality is far more complex than the simple stereotypes in the public mind.

Those who stand by their principles often have to pay a price that can hardly be imagined. I know of one instance in which a young IPS officer recently sought my intercession. His case illustrates the sheer insecurity and danger that can confront an officer who does his duty at extraordinary personal risk, and against the capricious demands of the politically powerful. This officer had pitted himself against a group of organized criminals who enjoyed political support at the highest level in the State. He was pressurized on several occasions, but continued to do what the law required him to, with the result that he and his family received a multiplicity of death threats, and had to live under constant armed guard. Suddenly, however, he found that he had been relieved of his charge, and was not assigned any other charge for an extended period of time. His personal and his family’s armed guards were also withdrawn and, with mounting threats from the criminals, he had left his cadre State and was running from pillar to post to ensure that at least his family received the minimal security that could assure their survival. He had failed to receive any relief from the senior officers of his own cadre or from any other institutional body.

This is not an exceptional case, though political vindictiveness does not often go this far. Almost every upright officer in the Police Force would, however, be able to relate at least a handful of personal horror stories of political vengefulness. It bears repetition, however, that despite these enormous risks, a very large number of officers refuse to follow politically colored directives and improper orders, and they are invariably made to pay a high price for their principles.

The greatest danger to the discipline and integrity of the Force, however, does not come from those who succumb to manifest pressures, but from those who willingly collude with the corrupt. Once again, such collusion can go to startling extents. I am, for instance, aware of an Inspector General of Prisons in Punjab who had written to all IG Prisons in the country where convicted terrorists from Punjab were incarcerated, informing them that the prisons in Punjab were empty, and that terrorists serving sentences in these various jails could be sent back to Punjab. Some of these terrorists, after being sent back, then sought and secured parole with substantial political support, and were released. The levels of collusion and corruption are, thus, simply incredible.

All political interference in police functions, however, is not illegitimate. In some case, especially where mass agitations by political parties, labor groups or other collectivities and associations of citizens are involved, it is not sufficient to go by the letter of the law. The political ramifications of any action are to be assessed, and the political executive is often best equipped to make some of the critical decisions in this context. In the case of involving the investigation and prosecution of crime, however, the investigating agency must be completely autonomous, and is theoretically intended to act without interference from any other agency. It is here, unfortunately, that interference, both by the political executive and by the courts, is becoming more and more frequent and corrosive in its impact on the institutional integrity of the Force.

There are a number of areas in which such political interference has become overwhelming. The most significant among these is a range of organized criminal activities. In the border areas of Punjab, thus, one hears openly of smugglers affiliated to particular political parties. Political connections are most important to secure a degree of immunity from arrest. On the other hand, the police often make unwarranted arrests to project a false image of executive efficiency. In the early 1980s, when terrorism was just emerging in Punjab, a number of railway stations, government buildings and records were set on fire. The Police made over a hundred arrests of the alleged ‘miscreants’ – all of who were subsequently found to be poor migrant workers entirely unconnected with the crimes. Similarly, arrests are often made as a panic response after incidents that have the potential to bring the political leadership into disrepute. In Assam, there was a case that occurred immediately after the Emergency of 1975-77 was lifted. A short circuit caused a fire and the destruction of a large volume of records in the Assam Secretariat. A Chowkidar was immediately arrested for this act of ‘sabotage’ because it was believed that the incumbent government might be accused of trying to destroy the records relating to alleged ‘Emergency excesses’. I ordered an investigation, which made it clear that no mischief was involved, and, fortunately, the Chowkidar was freed after only a few hours of detention. Not everyone is quite as lucky.

In many States, political interference has reached a level where postings even at the rank of SHOs are made, not by senior police officers, but by politicians. The result has been the unprecedented erosion of the authority of the police hierarchy. I know of one case in which an SHO offered to have his SP’s unwanted transfer cancelled.

Honest officers in many of the poorly administered States in the country now simply leave the State and spend extended tenures on deputations with Central organizations. The result is that only the worst of officers are willing or eager to remain in the worst run States. The folly of excessive political interference is, however, dawning on the political leadership at least of some of the better governed States, and the value of an honest and efficient Police officer is now increasingly, albeit often grudgingly, conceded.

(Published in Hindustan Times, August 17, 2001)





Copyright © 2001 SATP. All rights reserved.