New Delhi: The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) have raised several complex questions about what it means to be an Indian -- but it has also raised basic questions about the role of the police in the Indian state. Opposition leaders have criticised the way the police have handled these protests, questioned their attitudes to minorities and suggested political interference in policing. And according to data from a 2019 survey of police attitudes and operations, at least a few of these criticisms may be grounded in truth.

In 2019, Common Cause, a non-profit, and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), a Delhi-based research organisation, surveyed 11,834 police personnel across 21 states about their perceptions, attitudes and professional skills.

Results from the survey provide valuable insights into how the police in India works. For a start, across states, police forces seem riddled with prejudices. When asked to what extent certain communities were prone towards crime, police personnel display a definite bias against minority communities. Around 50% of all police personnel believe that Muslims are somewhat more likely to commit crimes, according to the Common Cause-CSDS survey. Similar but weaker biases are also found for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. These biases are reciprocated by these communities through distrust. Muslims, SCs and STs are more wary of the police than other communities, according to data from the earlier 2018 CSDS police survey.

Police is a state subject so there are significant differences in the strength of prejudice across different states. In Uttar Pradesh, one of the states with significant CAA protests, 56% of all police personnel feel that Muslims are more naturally prone to crime; in Delhi, the figure is 43%; but in other states, such as Kerala (34%) and Punjab (23%), the figures are much lower. These prejudices extend beyond just religion and caste. Migrants, even those from other states, are also treated with suspicion. Half of all police personnel believe that migrants from outside states are naturally more prone to crime.

One reason for these biases could be lack of training. Police personnel, especially junior officers, are overwhelmingly under-trained: only 6% of all police personnel received in-service training. This could be affecting how they operate. For instance, when it comes to crowd control the survey found that more than half of all police personnel had last received training on how to handle crowds (such as those at protests) when they joined the police force.

For other issues, such as caste sensitization or human rights, lack of training could be an even bigger problem. More than 10% of all police personnel said they had never received any training or human rights or caste sensitization. Training in these areas is especially important because it can help police address any inherent biases in their behaviour. In Rajasthan, for example, a study found that delivering soft-skills training to police personnel on communication, mediation, leadership, stress management, attitude change improved both the quality of police work and public perception of the police. One big reason why training, like the one in Rajasthan, remains infrequent is resources. Between 2012-16, just 1.3% of total police spending across states went to training, according to the 2019 survey’s calculations.

Another recurring criticism of Indian police forces, both through these CAA protests and other issues (such as encounter killings), is the propensity to use extra-judicial means to resolve situations. Extra-judicial resolutions, though, enjoy significant support within police forces. The 2019 survey found that, across India, 44% of police personnel were willing to use extra-judicial means to address crime; in a few states, such as Nagaland (78%), Chhattisgarh (68%) and Bihar (60%) the proportion is much higher.

Addressing this propensity for extra-judicial resolutions and general police prejudices has long been an agenda for police reforms. Going as far as back as the first National Police Commission in 1977, committees have recommended more training, greater investment and better oversight mechanisms. But many of these reforms are yet to materialize. The inertia could partly be the result of weak political will. In India, politicians may see little value in reform when they themselves are increasingly tied to crime and regularly interfere in investigations.

Even after a landmark 2006 Supreme Court judgement, which directed better demarcation between politics and police, 65% of police personnel have frequently experienced political interference in investigations.

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