Writing in Indian Express on November 13 about the arrest of Sridhar Vagal, a senior Indian Police Service officer arrested in connection with the counterfeit stamp paper racket, Julio Ribeiro argues that the need of the hour is for civil society to organize and protest against the castration of the police force, particularly of its IPS cadre. The remedy, Ribeiro - himself a former IPS officer - suggests, lies in empowering the IPS further. But laying every scandal at the feet of disdained politicians is too easy; what is really needed is to place some of the blame upon the police leadership itself.
Among public officials, there is a naive longing for the past when political leaders were honest and did not interfere in administrative matters. Ribeiro says that in that golden age the IPS officers were overwhelmingly free from corruption, that they laid down norms and led by example. Furthermore, they ensured justice for the common citizen. Ribeiro of course is partially right. Some of the stalwarts of that era, officers like BN Mullick and Rustomji did indeed lead by example and worked to serve the country. But their numbers were small then as they are now.
Corruption within the IPS has existed since the beginning and has been increasing steadily. Vagals case is not an isolated one. IPS officers make money from transfer and postings of subordinate officers, take bribes and give favors. They demand cuts from vendors supplying uniforms, office equipment and vehicles to the department; even extort from the business houses and subvert investigation of cases on pecuniary or political considerations. Hafta the weekly extortion collected by police station officials from local businesses is only one part of the corruption in Indian police. Corrupt practices are now part of the Indian police system and are found in every department, in every rank and in every police institution including training colleges. The malaise has spread all over the country and in every aspect of policing.
To serve and protect
It is not as if Ribeiro's generation - or that of his predecessors - did not know about police brutality and extortion. Police officers have been corrupt and brutal from the very beginning. This was the way that the British created the Indian police system - one that could strike terror in the hearts of the people. The Raj itself was symbolic, based upon an implied authority and total subjugation of the people. However, even after independence the IPS did nothing to change the organizational culture and functioning. Despite having the opportunity to work under honest political leadership [for a short time], at the time when a new system was being forged the first generation of IPS officers did nothing to usher reforms and emphasize the due process of law. The IPS simply continued the organizational culture and ethos of policing established by the British in 1861.
The British IP officers were not dishonest in their dealings. But although they did not accept money like Vagal and his type are doing today, they purposely created an aura of grandeur for themselves and functioned no differently from the extortionist subordinates. 'The British not only borrowed the structure but also took over the feeling tone of the Mughal administration - a mixture of great pomp and show... writes Cohn. Ostentatious pageantry and grandeur of the senior officers was an obvious, visible form of authority. The morning parade and salute to the commanding officer, the armed sentry at the Superintendents gate and armed escort on their tours were symbols that placed the officers on a high pedestal.
This style of policing created a cultural setting in which the IP leadership were way above everyone and this distance was deliberately maintained. There was no way in which any citizen could dare to approach the senior officer thereby leaving no avenue of complaint against the corrupt subordinates. These senior officers maintained an image of incorruptibility even though their subordinates took money right outside their gates.
Nevertheless, there was institutionalized corruption indulged by the senior officers. The tiger hunts and lavish entertainment were part of the organizational practices in which the officers on tours would combine business with sports and pleasure. Zamindars showered lavish treatments during officers' tours; this helped them build associations with the rulers which in turn helped maintain their hold over their tenant farmers. The fruit, flower and gift baskets that reached SP residences during Christmas and other occasions were blatant bribes.
These practices continue today. In present day India, tiger hunts have been banned but the Raj lives on. The same traditions of grandeur for the senior officers and unaccountability to the people continues. The lavish living style of the senior officers is still quite visible. Instead of tiger hunts there are New Year parties, picnics and official get-togethers with family and friends at Dak Bungalows. The entertainment of senior officers by the subordinate staff is even now an established practice in the police departments and beyond a token payment all other expenses are passed down to the station-in-charges.
Similarly, the practice of glorifying senior officers still survives. In many provinces like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, IPS officers are still addressed as Huzur Bahadur, or Kaptan Sahib, titles used during the British period. Personal drivers, body guards, even armed guards for the residence and family are common appendage for senior police officers. Constables and even middle level officers do not sit down in front of any IPS officer. It is not uncommon for police station personnel to take care of the comforts of the senior officers. Thus, official vehicles, telephones and staff are used for personal purposes; subordinate officers escort the children to school or the spouse for shopping and making social visits. In Bihar, a senior officer had almost a 100 police personnel tending his large garden and orchards! The subordinate officers are routinely utilized for making purchases, for making arrangements during private parties and functions, for obtaining special tickets during major sports or cultural events and even for getting railway or airlines tickets.
The inevitable consequence of these practices is a quiet acceptance of the corruption in the subordinate ranks. The IPS officers, who themselves misuse public funds and demand services from the subordinates, are unwilling and unable to provide any control over the mercenary actions of their subordinates. They have little legitimacy and moral strength to take firm action against the extortion indulged by their officers. Most actively share the booty while a small minority remains at best passive and indifferent towards these corrupt practices. This form of corruption is not due to the pressures of dishonest politicians. The organizational culture and norms have made corruption and extortion a part of the police system in the country.
Will all this change if IPS is given more power and police leadership is placed beyond the purview of political control? The elitist nature of the police leadership, the lack of any accountability to the people and outdated management practices have all combined to make corruption endemic and even acceptable within the organization. The persistence of open corrupt practices by officers is clearly indicative that the organization itself has become deviant. In a culture where pomp and show of senior officers is maintained through expenses borne by the subordinate officers, it is not surprising that regular extortion in every police station are not inquired nor frowned upon by the senior ranks. It is therefore not surprising that the station house officers extortion are common public knowledge and the traffic constable dares to collect money from truck drivers in plain view. Corruption within the police department is every citizens common experience and every rank is without blemish.
Meaningful reforms in the police system require a transformation of organizational structure, management practices, supervision procedures, decentralization of power, creation of local accountability system, even a change in role and functions of the police in the society. But in today's situation, an IPS independent of the political authority can only be more dangerous. What if Sridhar Vagal had all the power and was beyond political control? To entrust a system already tainted by its conduct with the responsibility to reform itself is foolhardy, and political control, however terrible it may be today, is still a useful tool.