When one of my aunts decided to marry her batchmate who had joined the Indian Police Service (IPS), my grandmother, we were told, howled at her misfortune. How could her daughter, a postgraduate in History, marry a Daroga? Her idea of the police was formed by policemen she saw and heard of during the freedom struggle. With almost everybody she knew participating in the movement—some with terrorists and revolutionaries, others with Congress and the Communists—one can imagine the one-sided experience she might have had.
What was extraordinary was that it did not matter to her that the groom chosen by my aunt belonged to the Scheduled Castes. Nobody in the family actually batted an eyelid but laughed at her, reassuring her that she would like the ‘boy’. Well, the boy did turn out to be one of her favourite sons-in-law. Cultured, affectionate and articulate, he completely won her over. He also rose in his career, worked with distinction and retired as one of the top police officers in the country. His last ambition was to be a Governor but that was not to be.
Since then, I have had the privilege of knowing some very fine policemen and police officers. Some were into literature and writing; some had passion for gardening or wine making; a few had deep sympathy for the poor and went out of their way to help. At least one decided to quit because of corruption in the Government. He chose to be an academic, did his PH.D. in the US and settled down there. One of the officers relentlessly pursued the corrupt and was rewarded with transfers every time. But he was stoical and would shrug and go after the corrupt in his new posting. Another officer, who had studied Physics, retained his passion for the subject, worked mostly in ‘shunting’ posts and would often take leave to go and teach in schools.
There were also police officers who set up police clubs to encourage the ‘youth’ to play Volleyball, badminton, TT and football with policemen posted in the police station. It helped in building community feeling and confidence, he explained. Like most individual efforts in this country though, the clubs ceased to function after he was transferred. The new Superintendent of Police clearly did not think much of such diversions.
From yet another police officer I learnt a valuable lesson in life. I overheard him admonishing some subordinates. “You guys know every despicable character in the locality, every rogue and the prostitutes, but do not take care to find out about the ‘good people’ here,” he berated them.
On my regular tours to the districts to interact with local correspondents and reporters, I often tried this trick. I would ask them whether they knew any writer or poet, a historian or a musician, a social worker or a prodigy…and draw blank stares most of the time. They knew the MP and the MLA, they also knew the local party leaders, the DM and the SP and the SHO…but good, respectable people?
A police officer had once explained why the men in uniform knew so little about what is happening around them. “In British times, it was mandatory for the Daroga to take out his bicycle and go on a round, meeting people. He would stop to have tea, paan or his lunch, pick up all the gossip, learn about trouble brewing in the area and, on his return, put down everything in writing in the diary,” he had pointed out. His successor needed to read the diary to learn in no time whatever he needed to know about people and issues in his jurisdiction. “But now the Daroga moves out in his Gypsy or Innova, drives from point to point and returns,” he had rued. The connect with people is no longer there.
I am not certain if the orderly system in the police continues. But it always shocked me to see police jawans wash clothes at the residence of officers, cut vegetables and even unbuckle the shoe laces of the children when they returned from school.
Policemen also work under poor conditions. When I was the Resident Editor of Times of India at Patna, some miscreants fired at me but thankfully missed. Following a huge public uproar, the state government insisted on giving me a personal, armed bodyguard. The armed police constable or SI accompanied me back home post-midnight and insisted that he could not leave me for a moment. He had to stay with me 24x7 and I had to make arrangements for his sleep, breakfast, bath and so on!
Shocked I gave him some money and asked him to go back to the Police Lines for the night. He could return in the morning before I left for office, I said. He was adamant at not leaving and finally blurted out that at Police Lines, they had to take turns to sleep. There was not enough space for all of them to have their independent cots.
When I was working in The Telegraph, we published once a photograph of a long line of policemen clad in lungis waiting for their turn to use the toilet. There were four or six toilets at the time and 1,600 policemen who had to use them. The photograph was even more shocking because they all stood in the light rain, some of them with umbrellas in one hand and a mug of water in the other.
That is why I am not surprised when I read reports of policemen going berserk. By abusing and beating up harmless, innocent people, they probably are giving vent to their pent-up anger. In their heart of hearts they may feel like beating their superiors or politicians. But unable to risk their job, they do the next best thing and beat up the vulnerable and the weak.
A lot needs to change to make the police more responsive to the people. The Government, which thinks nothing at spending ₹3000 Crore on building statues and ₹7000 Crore on publicity, could surely make conditions better?
Another way out, I have often thought, is to draft policemen as teachers in schools. Interaction with the young students, sharing their experience and concerns will hopefully humanise the men who often seem to be a little too free with their ‘danda’ and a little too drunk with power.
Many of them seem to have forgotten that they are meant to serve the people and not their political masters. A stint in school will do them a wealth of good.