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Home >Opinion >Views >Police reforms alone won't revive public trust in cops

The police in India are often portrayed as too incompetent and ill-equipped to carry out their tasks, as little more than ‘yes men’ to their powerful masters, or as brutal and corrupt ‘little tyrants’. However, what is overlooked is an ongoing process of police disempowerment through everyday interactions with politicians, other higher authorities and even the local elite (Jauregui, 2013). While this image of how the police function in the country is plausible, it is incomplete, as argued here.

Our analysis of how public trust in the police has evolved between 2005 and 2012 is based on the India Human Development Survey released in 2015. The report is more than half a decade old, but remains our only all-India panel survey with a question on trust in the state government, lower judiciary and the police. Our commentary here is confined to the police.

In 2005, about 23% of the surveyed households expressed a great deal of confidence in the police; over 49% only some confidence; and 28% hardly any confidence. In 2012, there was a rise in the share of those with a great deal of confidence to 27%; those with only some confidence remained unchanged (about 50%); and those with hardly any confidence fell to 22%. Thus, confidence in the police rose over that period, but moderately.

Among Hindus, the highest proportion was of those with only some confidence (over 49%) in 2005, which rose slightly in 2012. The next highest was of those with hardly any confidence (37%), which dropped sharply (to 26%) in 2012. Those with a great level of confidence were fewest (just over 16%), and grew (to 22%). Among Muslims, too, the highest share was of those with only some confidence (50%), which rose moderately in 2012. Of those with hardly any confidence was high (29%) in 2005, but it fell (to 24%) in 2012. The share of those with a great deal of confidence was low (22%), but rose moderately. Christians offer a striking contrast, with the highest share of those with only some confidence (57%), which fell sharply (to 49%). Besides, their share of those with a great deal of confidence was also the highest (30%) and rose markedly (to 39%). The share of those with hardly any confidence was also lowest (13%), which decreased slightly. While the shares of Muslims and Christians with a great deal of confidence rose markedly, that of Hindus rose slightly.

As respondents in the ‘upper’ brackets of the country’s caste hierarchy displayed broadly similar patterns, we confine our analysis of caste group responses to Brahmins. Among them, the share of those with a great deal of confidence rose (16% to 22%). Of those with only some confidence also rose (from 47% to 52%). However, of those with hardly any confidence fell sharply (from 37% to 26%). As for groups in the caste hierarchy’s ‘lower’ brackets, Dalits saw a rise in the share of those with a great deal of confidence (from 23% to 29%); an unchanged share of those with only some confidence (about 48%), and a reduction of those with hardly any confidence (from 29% to about 22%). Adivasis showed a negligible reduction in the share of those with a great deal of confidence (about 28%), a moderate rise in the share of those with only some confidence (from 49% to 53%), and a moderate reduction in those with hardly any confidence (from 23% to 20%).

Two striking features of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance regime that achieved power in May 2014 are centralization of authority and a relentless ideological pursuit of Hindutva. New Delhi is seen to rely heavily on constitutional authorities such as governors to impose its diktat on states and encroach on state autonomy. The record also reveals that Hindutva has been promoted aggressively by not just some agencies of government, but by militant followers of Hinduism as well.

What is missed in the disempowerment thesis are the inherent biases of the police that have been exacerbated in many states and Union territories by discriminatory legislation like the Citizenship Amendment Act, a variety of state laws on cow slaughter and so-called ‘love jihad’, and a political atmosphere favouring their ruthless application. Protests have been crushed and innocent lives have been lost, even as the accused in cases of ‘cow lynchings’ have largely gotten away while the police turned a blind eye, and first information reports are filed against the hapless victims who are mostly Muslims and/or Dalits. As there are numerous examples of such forms of injustice, it is unnecessary to recount them.

The Status of Policing in India Report for 2018 revealed that police personnel have an inherent bias against minorities and marginalized sections of Hindus such as Dalits. About half the police personnel were reported to hold the view that Muslims were “naturally prone" to committing violence. About two-thirds or more in Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Bihar shared this view. No less surprising was the fact that a high proportion of police personnel in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh expressed the belief that people from Dalit communities are naturally disposed towards committing crimes. Worse, about 20% said they felt it was better to put dangerous criminals to death than on trial. Almost 75% were found in favour of violence towards criminals. While more than one in every three members of the police force were found to conform with the belief that it was natural for a mob to punish alleged culprits in cases of cow slaughter, about two in every five displayed the same disposition in cases of other crimes.

An erosion of trust in the police is, thus, highly probable in the country. Unfortunately, police reforms have been on the back-burner for several years. Even a police complaints authority has not been created by any state or Union territory so far. Reformist legislation, however, is unlikely to be effective in solving the problem without a strong political opposition with an inclusive agenda.

Vani S. Kulkarni & Raghav Gaiha are, respectively, lecturer of sociology and research affiliate, Population Aging Research Centre, University of Pennsylvania

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