The political capture of the police in India
The police are repositories of all our social biases, an institution where objectivity and independence are hard to come by
Kathua and Unnao. The eight-year-old, gang raped and murdered in Kathua, was reported missing in early January—more than three months ago. According to the chargesheet, the victim’s body was discovered on 17 January, five whole days after her father reported her missing.
In Unnao, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator was accused of raping a minor girl in June 2017 and on 8 April, the survivor tried to commit suicide outside the Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister’s house. This was reportedly due to the family’s repeated and unsuccessful attempts in getting an FIR registered since June 2017. The girl’s father was sent to jail on 3 April after a fight between him and the legislator’s family members and on 9 April, he died in police custody, allegedly due to torture. The Allahabad high court ordered the arrest of the accused legislator and also chastized the UP police for filing a false case against the girl’s family members.
All this sudden and swift action has taken place after widespread outrage and media coverage. Comparing these cases to the “Nirbhaya” case is factually incorrect given that these cases took months to gain national traction and even get an FIR registered, while the December 2012 gang rape and murder received almost instantaneous attention and condemnation. This is an India where we need the power of the media to gather public outrage to ensure “prompt” action on the part of the authorities, simply in order for the police to do what they are supposed to do, what they are trained to do, and what they are paid to do—follow the Code of Criminal Procedure and follow due process.
Filing FIRs, arresting the accused after an investigation, filing a chargesheet—these are basic principles of due process and criminal procedure in our country, those that have been constantly reiterated by the state and the judiciary through cases such as Lalita Kumari v. government of Uttar Pradesh (2013). The recent incidents in Unnao and Kathua have left our politicians in a tizzy of righteous anger, engaging in routine lip service and mud-slinging, instead of asking our police to do their job and enabling and demanding better facilities for investigation.
What these cases and others show is the lack of independence and the capture of the police in our country—its political capture, capture by the elites, its majoritarian capture, and capture by dominant groups and dominant ideology. The police mirror the worst in our society, practising every form of marginalization there is. Policing in our country has institutionalized a culture of othering. It happens every single day. In Kerala, a 26-year-old died in police custody last week, allegedly after brutal police torture and denial of medical care. The case has raised hackles in the state, with new and more shocking information emerging every day, and questions raised about whether the wrong person was arrested . The case also reminds one of the July 2017 case of an 18-year old boy, who was tortured by the police for his uncommon hairstyle, and his subsequent suicide a day later. Nine months later, the State Human Rights Commission has closed the case, the Lok Ayukta and the State Police Complaints Authority are still hearing it, but the police officials who were suspended are reportedly back on duty.
The everyday violence inhabiting the lives of scores of vulnerable people in our country escapes media glare, bypasses public outrage, and is never an election campaign war cry. The police are tools of the political and class elite, and torture and violence are used as tools of punishment, control and retribution. The police are repositories of all our social biases, an institution where objectivity and independence are hard to come by.The Kathua and Unnao cases starkly expose the fault lines in our policing system, where those who are meant to protect and uphold the law sometimes turn out to be criminals in uniform lacking basic investigative intent, skills or facilities.
Criminals must be punished. The grand project of police “reforms” in our country, heralded by the Prakash Singh case, must be revisited urgently. In 2006, the Supreme Court, in its landmark judgement in Prakash Singh v. Union of India, took serious note of police violence and impunity and issued binding directives to state governments, one of which was the establishment of police complaint authorities (PCAs). PCAs were envisaged as independent, tasked with receiving and investigating complaints from the public and others against the police, to ensure that the latter upheld the “constitutional rights and liberties of the people”. This is in addition to existing mechanisms in the form of the State and National Human Rights Commissions, the Lokayukta (for corruption-related cases), and the regular criminal complaints that victims can file against errant police officials (the most opaque mechanism).
Continuing and widespread police apathy, impunity and criminality, is possible in India because accountability mechanisms are mired in insufficient and obfuscatory legal drafting, and existing fora and mechanisms are unable to tackle the problem. This, coupled with the very real issue of poor investigative capacities of police officers, and the lack of political will, has created the monsters we see today—in Unnao and in Kathua.
It is time we treat the moral abyss that is policing in India with the seriousness, urgency and immediacy the victims, and our people, deserve.
Urmila Pullat is a lawyer and researcher and runs the India desk for the Asian Human Rights Commission (Hong Kong).