The Indian police, which traces its origin back to 1843 and is still largely run on the British-era Indian Police Act, 1861, has been struggling to come to terms with India’s class, caste, gender, and religious diversities. The reasons for this may be due to a lack of training, sensitisation, and/or inherent personnel biases, according to the Status of Policing in India Report 2018.

High trust levels

We at the Common Cause and the Lokniti (Public Policy) wing of the Centre for the Studies of Developing Societies (CSDS), a research institute in Delhi, found contradictory claims among the respondents in the survey (ranging across 22 States in India), where people exuded high trust levels in the police despite fear of assault and implication. At least 44 per cent expressed fear of being beaten, 38 per cent were afraid of being falsely arrested, 38 per cent feared false cases, 29 per cent of women feared being sexually exploited, 54 per cent personally experienced police brutality, and 51 per cent believe the police discriminate on the basis of class (as high as 73 per cent in UP and Bihar). Despite such negative opinions, 69 per cent exuded high trust levels and 65 per cent claim high satisfaction levels toward the police.

Despite citizens’ awareness about police brutalities, trust and satisfaction in the police could be viewed in terms of a prevailing “nationalistic” environment in India

Policing behaviour

The report also reveals that at least 50 per cent of citizens condone violence against alleged criminals in police custody. However, Hindus and Muslims (regardless of education) gave similar endorsements of police violence while Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Christians agreed less. At least 48 per cent of rural Indians endorse police violence; seven percentage points less than the urban outlook. STs and Christians are communities which have been less vocal about their issues and could be considered politically marginalised, while Dalits and Muslims, despite facing institutional discrimination, have been able to politically channel their anger in the form of protests and demonstrations. This democratic mechanism allows them more trust in the police.

States that had a majority endorse police violence were Tamil Nadu (61.5 per cent), Gujarat (58.1 per cent), Kerala (61.2 per cent) and Delhi (60.1 per cent). States where the majority opposed police violence were Himachal Pradesh (54.1 per cent), Odisha (42.2 per cent) and West Bengal (36 per cent). Given that the former three States are more industrialised, educated, and considered more vibrant than the latter three States, the notion that modernisation, money, urbanisation and higher education lead to more respect for human rights and similar methods of governance is not supported by the survey findings.

Sixty-seven per cent of the people in Punjab, 78 per cent in Karnataka, 72.7 per cent in Tamil Nadu, 68.5 per cent in Andhra Pradesh, and 63.3 per cent in Telangana were found to be fearful of the police. In broader terms, South India, except for Kerala, was found to be more fearful of the police. North India, excepting Punjab, was less fearful, while Himachal Pradesh (92.3 per cent), Uttrakhand (88.6 per cent), Haryana (93.6 per cent), Kerala (79 per cent), and Delhi (77.3 per cent) were found to be less fearful. Our report busts the myth that police in southern Indian States — regarded far ahead in terms of other aspects of governance, education, industrialisation, and social and economic development — work in more people-friendly environments.

In addition, Muslims in South Indian States have exhibited more fear of police (61 per cent) than other regions of the country, likely due to higher numbers of arrests based on ‘fabricated’ charges of terrorism. Sikhs (46 per cent) have voiced themselves as the religious community with the most fear of police, it would seem, due to their experiences with militancy in Punjab in the 1980s and 1990s. Among Hindus, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) (52 per cent), Scheduled Castes (45 per cent), and STs (45 per cent) have reported the highest fear of police, while upper castes (36 per cent) have reported the least fear. This data could be seen in the context of under representation of these vulnerable groups in the police force and the failure of the reservation system to provide them solace.

Vulnerable communities

The report also busts political myths of OBCs and reservations “eating up” government jobs in Hindi heartland States like Uttar Pradesh. It argues that reservations are mostly in proportion to the community population in any State. The UP government, then under Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav (2012-17), has met with less than 40 per cent of the reserved quota for OBCs, while the percentage of reserved seats sharply declined from 61 per cent in 2013 to 39.6 per cent in 2016. In Tamil Nadu, the report points out that the percentage share of reserved seats for SCs has fallen from 91.1 per cent in 2012 to 63 per cent in 2016. Therefore, when it comes to representation of vulnerable groups, things are on the downslide under governments considered to be ‘pro-backward castes’.

Despite reporting moderate trust and low fear ratings of police, people from vulnerable communities have accused the police of implicating them on fake charges. Thirty-eight per cent of all respondents and 35 per cent of Dalits believe they’ve been implicated on false charges of petty crimes. Twenty-eight per cent of all respondents and 27 per cent of tribes said they’ve been implicated on Maoist charges, while 27 per cent of all respondents and 47 per cent of Muslims said they’ve been implicated on fake terrorism charges. The accusations against the police have been substantiated by low levels of convictions in terror charges, as scores of those arrested have been set free after courts declared them innocent.

In the latest string of acquittals, on February 27, 2019, 11 Muslims (which included a PhD scholar, three doctors, one engineer, and six councilors) were found innocent by a special TADA court in Nashik in Maharashtra after spending 25 years behind bars. Judge SC Khati said the police violated the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act guidelines, a draconian law in force between 1985-95.

Citizens, eager to see a reduction in higher incidence of crime, put their trust in the police. People, in general, don’t care for the procedures and the principles surrounding the rule of law as far as inquiry into guilt and punishment are concerned — a tendency glorified by the entertainment industry and mass media in India. The wrath of such an attitude is borne by the most vulnerable communities — Muslims, Dalits, and Tribals — who are over-represented in jails (55 per cent) compared to their actual population (39 per cent) and consist of the bulk of India’s undertrials.

The writer is an Associate Researcher at Lokniti, Centre for the Studies of Developing Societies. This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania