Police should evoke trust, not fear

I’m not the sort of person who has encounters with the police. In fact, it’s only happened once. I was 21, an undergraduate at Cambridge, and clearly in the wrong. It’s the contrast between how the British police treated me on that occasion and the behaviour of the Delhi police today that I want to point out.

With a group of friends, I was returning from Benazir Bhutto’s presidential debate at the Oxford Union. We decided to take the village route which was lonely and dark. In high spirits, dishevelled dinner jackets and singing loudly we were tearing down hoping to get back before 2 am. Suddenly a police car appeared flashing: “Stop immediately”.

All four of us tumbled out, apologising profusely. Not only were we guilty of speeding, we were also visibly over the limit. Our appearance made denial impossible. I was convinced we were for the slammer. The policeman, however, was generous and understanding.

“Well, gentlemen, you’ve clearly had a good evening. Why spoil it by doing something stupid? Drive slowly and go home to bed. You look as if you could do with a good night’s sleep.”

The policeman could see we were young, exuberant, foolish and clearly in the wrong. But in his eyes a telling-off was more in order than punishment. Such behaviour is typical of many British policemen. That’s why they’re affectionately called Bobbies.

Now consider the Delhi police who are investigating the February riots. Senior officers have cautioned the constabulary not to offend Hindu youth but no such concern is shown for young Muslims. Although 38 of the 53 people killed in the riots were Muslims, 13 of the 15 charge-sheeted are also of the same faith. While students protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens are accused of conspiracy, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who clearly provoked hatred if not violence, are unscathed. Prominent Opposition leaders like Sitaram Yechury are alleged to have “provoked and mobilised the crowd” on the grounds one of the accused has said so. But the so-called deposition is unsigned and in garbled English.

So deep runs our dismay with the Delhi police one of their most highly-regarded former commissioners has forcefully and publicly criticised them. Before I remind you of what he said, remember Ajay Raj Sharma was appointed by AB Vajpayee.

In an interview to me for The Wire on February 28, Sharma said he was worried the police have become communal. Videos of their behaviour during the riots clearly suggest this. Equally worryingly, the police seem scared of the BJP and intimidated by the government. “Lack of professionalism is the main problem here,” he honestly admitted. Their leadership, he added, lacks spine and moral character.

I asked Sharma what he would have done about Anurag Thakur, Parvesh Verma and Kapil Mishra if he had been police commissioner. His answer was as explicit as it was short: “I would have arrested them”. I asked how he would have handled Ved Prakash Surya, the deputy commissioner who was standing beside Mishra when the latter threatened the crowd. He said he would have immediately demanded an explanation and, if it wasn’t satisfactory, suspended him forthwith.

Interestingly, it was Sharma who compared Indian policemen with their British counterparts. I smiled when he said British policemen are called Bobbies because people trust them. Indian policemen evoke suspicion and fear.

For us in India, it’s hard to believe policemen can be liked. Our experience makes that impossible to accept. Yet with a little conscious effort things can change. Sharma told me the first step is to isolate the police from political interference. But that’s not all. The constables who man local police stations and are, therefore, the first point of contact of the people with the police must be taught to be friendly, effective and polite.

Now is anyone in the Delhi police — or the government — willing to listen to Mr Sharma?

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story

The views expressed are personal

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