Policing in India is less about law than about order. This is how it has always been in a nation whose population tends to anarchy, even when under self-rule. Democratic India continued the Raj structure of administration, focusing on two elements—revenue collection and a heavy-handed maintenance of law and order. This is thought to be carrying forward colonial rule, but how else to govern Indians? Law is for slightly more civilized societies. In our parts, order is desirable because it is not always present.

The focus on order over law is why the conviction ratio in India is poor (about 22% compared to over 90% in Japan and over 70% in the US). It was higher in the British period and has fallen from 60% over 50 years ago, according to a former chief justice quoted by Business Standard.

Our policing is what it is not because the Indian policeman is corrupt or lazy or incompetent. He is a creature of his environment and trained primarily for crowd control.

When I translated Saadat Hasan Manto’s memoir of his life in Bombay, I noticed that he was surprised by his father-in-law’s profession: fingerprint specialist with the police. This was in the early 1940s, and it is unlikely that the Mumbai police have retained the department. Their policing is done as we know mostly with the stick and a thrashing of the usual suspects.

As an aside, more order than law is why police television drama like CSI is not possible here. There isn’t much investigation and little of the forensics kind. There is the long-running Sony serial CID, which shows some detective work. But a more accurate—and more entertaining—depiction of the police in India is in the SAB TV situational comedy FIR. It stars the fetching Kavita Kaushik as a Haryanvi thanedar who fixes things with her lathi. Policing is India is done through mainly something called bandobast—a Persian word (band-o-bast) that my Platts dictionary says means “binding and fastening" and is used to describe planning and organization. But planning and organizing what? Not how to solve crimes, but how to keep the natives in control. In essence, to prevent mischief by the citizenry. Unless one is mindlessly nationalistic or unobservant (or, I suppose, a Bharatiya Janata Party supporter) we can accept that India’s population is largely primitive. No need to go far in search of evidence. We can riot for a week and murder dozens over such trifles as a single incident of molestation. This is what happened in Uttar Pradesh last month and it isn’t unusual.

Indians will go berserk episodically and the state needs to stamp its boot on them. We can observe because of this that policing here is a group activity unlike in the West. In our parts, groups of policemen move out to enforce order on groups of the citizenry.

In India communities take collective offence against other communities (“Jats versus Muslims" and “Assamese versus Bengalis"). This happens even though they might personally not have suffered. The constituents of caste groups are like-minded which often produces in them an unpredictable and dangerously charged uniformity (think of cattle stampeding).

The opposing community, whether defined by faith or caste, is also monolithic and its every member is therefore an enemy. It is this sort of environment that has shaped the functioning of the police force and not, as I said earlier, incompetence.

In a riot, like the rest of society, the policeman is inclined to participate in favour of his community. This is true especially because he is mainly drawn from the peasantry, like the Maratha in Maharashtra and the Patel in Gujarat, groups which are familiar with violence. I wrote in Mint Lounge a few months ago how the murderers of Muslims during most of the Gujarat riot incidents were to man the Patels.

When a member of such a community enters the police, it is his superiors in the structure of the state whose control over him prevents his participation in civil violence. That is the only reason we had fewer riots during the Raj.

The citizen, no matter what segment of society he comes from, is terrified of the police in India (we use words like lafda and jhanjhat even to describe casual encounters with them). I do not think that is a bad thing, though I keep changing my mind about this.

In the cities, policing is mainly done through an eye on the bad elements in the neighbourhood, who are identified often by community. My neighbourhood police station in Bangalore has a wall of infamy with “rowdies" identified by face, though many have probably never been actually convicted.

I have always found it interesting to engage with the police and to see how they work. My beat as a reporter was sessions court and I had years of opportunity to do this.

Two years ago, my wife’s Pajero was stolen the day after it was bought. This was in Mumbai and I went over to Bandra’s police station on Hill Road to file a complaint. This took a few minutes, and once it was done, as the senior constable was filing his report, I asked him about his name. He was from Satara and a darzi, from the caste of tailors. Once he retired in a couple of years, he would go back to his village and take up tailoring, he said. He didn’t want to be a security guard, because they didn’t get any respect, and he would be too young to retire and not well enough off to not be working.

He sensed some empathy in me and said I ought to meet the senior inspector before I left and I did this. This man, overweight and avuncular, was sitting in his first-floor office with a newspaper circling classifieds. I asked him what he was looking for. A flat, he said. He was retiring soon and would need his own place but there wasn’t anything in his budget. He had three daughters. One wanted to be an air hostess but she was plump and it would be difficult to get her married. A second wanted to be a dentist but hadn’t got the marks to qualify. A third was in a call centre. It was tough getting by on his salary and his wife was not a particularly understanding woman.

I had gone to the police with my problems, and returned with a much more interesting account of theirs. Drawn from us, less different from us than we think and trained to function in the unique ways this country demands.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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