The death of inspector Subodh Kumar Singh, shot while trying to control a mob of cow vigilantes in Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh, is a vivid expression of the contempt of our ruling classes, and those aligned to them, for the rule of law. The increasing number of human sacrifices for the alleged protection of cows signals a steep rise in this contempt. These incidents shock us because they are graphic and indicate a discernible change for the worse. The shock turns into dread as the ruling elite fails to condemn and punish the perpetrators. Mob violence is growing, and the government’s efforts to contain it are wanting.
Underlying these shocking incidents is an equally terrifying lawlessness, which is quiet, insidious and pervasive. The stunningly casual statements from the establishment after the incident are a new development in a systematised attack on the rule of law. This is illustrated in my case study of an unobtrusive, sleepy looking police station in the tribal belt of central India.
The police station was structured to perpetrate lawlessness in two ways. First, it was simply not enabled to enforce the rule of law. Manned by 16 people in all, with six of its 22 posts vacant, and headed by a sub-inspector, it was expected to serve 83 villages across 2,680 sq km. The police personnel were expected to investigate crime, maintain law and order, and were frequently deployed on VIP duty. The personnel rotated through it rapidly, as there was at least one transfer per month. The senior officers complained that postings were based on patronage, and it was not possible to deploy the best people for the most difficult tasks. The thana was always short of money, and personnel spent from their pocket on stationery and other needs.
The police personnel were extremely dissatisfied. They were entitled to 16 days of leave in a year, but this was never actually sanctioned. They reported being overworked, on duty 24 hours a day, with high stress. Their families were neglected. A head constable said that he had never attended a parents’ meeting in his child’s school. A majority of the constables lived in the nearby city because of lack of housing, schools and health facilities in that area. They travelled to the police station everyday, which is not how things should be as they need to be available in case of a crisis. This cost them around ?5,000 per month. They saw themselves as underpaid and not respected.
To this demotivating background were added idiosyncratic working styles. Though a police station is expected to respond to the needs and events of the area, it was assigned targets, such as for seizing a certain amount of liquor and issuing a number of challans. Every year, the targets were increased. Sometimes they simply did not correspond to the situation. For example, it had problems achieving its targets for issuing challans in the case of people riding without helmets, because there were few motorcycles in the area and people simply did not have money to pay the fine.
Discussions with the police personnel showed poor understanding about enforcing the law. When violence against women was discussed, many said that women usually made false complaints. During the study, a mentally disturbed person was beaten up as he stood hallucinating, decrying imagined enemies. The shortage of personnel, the sorry working conditions and their ignorance created a system not capable of upholding the rule of law.
The second way in which the police station became an agent of lawlessness was corruption. Interaction with the community showed that the village people feared and avoided the police. They said that the police listened to those who had money. The usual dismal tales of police greed and brutality emerged. Constables extracted money from vehicles plying the highway, snatched away mobile phones of ordinary people and returned them only when they were paid money. When an FIR was lodged, the police evinced sympathy for the victims as well as the accused, and took money off both to solve the case. An attempted rape was ignored after money exchanged hands.
One police personnel admitted that it was difficult not to be corrupt, because everyone was. She had started her career determined to never accept bribes. But over time, her perspective changed, as she faced pressure from senior officials as well as local leaders to ‘help’ in various ways. The pressure from inside, she said, was worse. This problem was clearly systemic and not individual, as the police personnel themselves were not happy with their corruption. They tried to atone for their sins by ensuring proper last rites when bodies were not claimed by anyone after accidents, by spending their own money.
This dull-looking police station was not newsworthy, and its activities did not shock anyone. But it symbolises the pervasive lawlessness to which we are now habituated. It is out of this system of lawlessness that the more dramatic incidents like the death of Singh emerge. We remain apathetic to systemic callousness, which also needs scrutiny and action.