Flying Donkey

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Where the Mind is Without Fear...

Many moons ago, the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore captured in verse his vision of India. He wrote...

Where the mind is without fear,
and the head is held high...


Today, at the dawn of a new century, India is well on its way to realizing its true potential. But, this vision of Tagore is far from being realized. We have secured our freedom, and have embarked on a path to prosperity. But our heads are still not held high and our minds are still not without fear. India continues to be plagued by violence against women and general lawlessnes.

India, especially the north, has shown an unfortunate disregard for women. Delhi was recently dubbed the rape capital (The Hindu) and recent reports have suggested the hundreds of thousands of unborn females have been aborted in India over the years. As an ex-Delhiite, I have been a first hand witness to the widescale public harassment (euphemistically termed eve teasing) that women have to endure. Not many women would hasten to venture out alone at night, and am sure many a professional woman has looked apprehensively at the clock when she is working late at work.

If an economist were to calculate the economic costs of this pervasive culture of intimidation, I'm sure the costs of lost (wo)manhours, and decreased productivity would be significant. Perhaps more damaging than the economic cost are the deep-seated psycholigical scars that women develop as a result of this culture.

One of the biggest yardstick of a great civilization is the security and freedoms that it provides to its citizens. India, I'm afraid, lags woefully behind in this regard. From the plains of Bihar to the mountains of Kashmir, non-state actors continue to negatively impact the life of the common man. One can argue that foreign elements are involved in Kashmir, but that still does not account for the lawlessness in some of the other states.

In modern geo-politics, the reality is that nations always try to influence the domestic affairs of each other in the hope of affecting a favorable result...be it weakning a stronger country or supporting a more friendly government. It is upto each individual nation to create a system of transparent and enforceable law & order so that the domestic grievances, fringe elements and the rest are duly kept in check.

In India, be it the case of widespread harrassment of women or the lawlessness resulting from the actions of non-state actors, the bottomline is that the police is not effective. If one searches the horizon for stable countries - US, UK, Sweden, Norway etc. a couple of things jump out:

  1. Laws are fairly transparent and equitable.
  2. Law enforcement is fairly transparent and non-discriminatory. (Although, things have changed a little bit since 9/11 in UK and US)
  3. Citizens have faith in the law enforcement agencies.
  4. Lawmakers represent the interest of their constituents.
  5. There is a legal recourse available to citizens which is fair and balanced.

This obviously is a very simplified list, but it captures the essential elements. Also, no country in the world will score a perfect 10 in either of these items, but stable countries score better than the others.

The common thread that runs through this list is the need of an effective and potent police force. If I were to grade our police forces, I would give them a "C"...not quite a failure, but need significant improvement.

We are a nation of laws, but the enforcement of the laws is sporadic and haphazard. There is substantial political interference in policework and even beyond that, a sub-culture of vice, indiscipline and influence-peddling exists amongst the police ranks, resulting in a general loss of morale and performance.

We look with pride at our Armed Forces, and justifiably so. They are a model of discipline and professionalism. Till recently, their pay-structure was not too different from the police, and the population from which the recruits came was also essentially the same as the police. Than why is it that there is such a glaring qualitative difference between the two forces? I would like to submit my own hypothesis for the reasons behind this difference:

  1. Army is apolitical. Police being under state control has much more interference from local politicians.
  2. Army is a cloistered force unlike the police. By and large it is confined to barracks where the daily interaction with civilians is not as much. This is one thing the police have no control over.
  3. Army places a much higher premium on training and discipline than the police.
  4. Army personnel are evaluated frequently and on a much more objective and quantifiable performance metrics. Consequences of failure/indscipline for soldiers are immediate and severe.
  5. There is a culture of pride in one's battalion and regiment in the army. Police forces are not as tightly bundled with an identifiable structure.
  6. The police mostly deal with the seedy elements of the citizenry and are therefore hardened by the ugly side of human nature.

It is absolutely imperative that India move swiftly to reform its police forces. The last decade of growth has put India in an enviable position where it is already being projected as a future superpower. The increasing visibility and prominence also brings with it increasing responsibility. Now, we not only have to be responsible for our own citizens but also for the safety of foreign visitors who are coming in increasing numbers.

The increasing prominence also brings with it the unwanted attention of foreign miscreants. In order to foil their activities, we need a more effective police force that realizes the importance of community relations and intelligence gathering. Community relations will only improve if the common man has confidence in the neighborhood thana.

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