The custodial death of a father and son in Thoothukudi last month has led to widespread outrage and protests around the country. The incident, which occurred soon after massive protests across the US against the death of George Floyd, has also begun a much-needed conversation on police brutality and the need for reforms in India.
A recent report by the National Campaign Against Torture said that 1,731 people died in custody in India during 2019. Custodial deaths, The Hindu pointed out in its editorial last month, often occur because many police officials still torture the victim to admit to a crime, adding, however, that “it is not uncommon, regrettably, for the police to use their power and authority to settle personal scores”.
Retired IPS officer Meeran Chadha Borwankar, who is now an author and motivational speaker, told HuffPost India in an email interview that punishing such officers “expeditiously” is the only way out.
While many commentators have been pointing out for years that there are systemic problems with the Indian police force, Borwankar says such incidents are a result of “sadist elements” getting into uniform. She also weighed in on the calls to “defund the police” like in the US, saying this wasn’t a practical solution.
Instead she suggests steps to “demystify” the police, including offering internships to students at police stations and inducting trained social workers and counsellors.
“Let there be an end to the bamboo curtain. Change will come in police when police stations in India change,” she said in an email interview.
The Thoothukudi case has once again brought the issue of police brutality to the forefront. And these aren’t one-off incidents. Several such cases are reported each year. Reports from the days of the lockdown detailed how the police harassed migrants and poor people. Why do you think the police routinely resorts to high-handedness and torture?
Words fall short in apologising for what happened in Thoothukudi. But I do not agree that police routinely resorts to high-handedness and torture. Sometimes, sadist elements get into uniform. They need to be weeded out at the earliest. Our failure is in not identifying them early enough and throwing them out before they cause irreparable damage.
While incidents of police harassment of the poor and migrants were noticed and exposed by the media, there were an equal number of stories of police men and women going out of their way and beyond the scope of their duty to help citizens in need during the lockdown.
How can police personnel be trained or sensitised to ensure that they do not resort to coercion or brutality? Have any steps been taken in this regard?
Sure, several steps are taken both during training and at the police station itself to develop a culture of respect for citizens and their rights. Training curriculum in all police academies in the country has been synced accordingly. Unfortunately, these black sheep escaped the cultural change that has taken place in the department during the last about twenty years. Punishing them expeditiously is the only way out. Our message against such brutalities should be loud and clear across the country.
Is there a mechanism to bring accountability to police misconduct?
A number of mechanisms exist. Disciplinary action by police leadership itself, by courts and various commissions/committees appointed to enquire into specific allegations. The Supreme Court has mandated creation of ‘Police Complaint Authority’ in all states. A few states have created them and those who have not, need to do so expeditiously. Independent people with high integrity should be made members of these forums so that people get justice in their complaints against erring police officials.
Since the Thoothukudi incident came to light just after massive protests in the US, some Indians have also called for defunding the Indian police force. Is this something that can actually happen here? Why or why not?
Every society needs an agency to implement the rule of law. It is extremely unfortunate when the ‘fence starts eating the crop’ as in this case. The solution is overhauling the working of police stations and not to lock them up. Defunding is not practical. Sustained interest in the working of the police and stringent action against misuse of uniform are some of the solutions.
Is there a different way to imagine the role of the police in a society like India, especially at a time like this?
Yes, demystify the police. Make them think of themselves as service providers. Change the mindset of a police personnel from his being ‘the coercive arm of the state’ to one who provides services for:
1. Prevention and detection of crime
2. crowd control
3. Protection to those facing security threats
Following are some more suggestions.
- Induct more women in police; that will help in demystifying police
- Induct qualified trained social workers and counsellors in police stations. It will change the atmosphere in the police station from being an agency of retribution to one that provides multiple services
- Offer internships to students in police stations at very regular intervals. Youth with their idealism will be reality checks to those misusing their authority
- Open the police stations to citizens
- Increase the forums of formal and informal interaction between police and citizens. Let there be an end to the bamboo curtain. Change will come in police when police stations in India change.