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November 28, 2002
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Sucheta Dalal

The decline of the Mumbai police

For me, the reputation of the Maharashtra police touched its nadir last week when I heard a radio jockey on an FM channel make some cracks about the ability of the police to nab any criminals and hoot with derisive laughter.

He said something to the effect that they are more skilled at arresting couples in love.

But what can one expect? This once proud force that boasted highly respected top cops has been making news because its senior-most officers are engaged in dirty lobbying and bidding for the police commissioner's job.

Former police chiefs have openly acknowledged that the top post is now for sale while lamenting the degeneration and demoralisation of the force.

But we witness this degeneration almost everyday, don't we? The media has reported innumerable instances of bungled investigations, misuse of authority, harassment of people and the growing incidents of unchecked crime and extortion in the relatively safe metropolis of Mumbai.

Simultaneously, honest police officers are unceremoniously booted out for going after scamsters and criminals.

Let us look at what the police were up to in the last couple of weeks:

  • On Tuesday, November 26, The Indian Express reported a shocking episode where 13 gangsters under police custody at the Arthur Road jail were mysteriously transferred to the Nashik jail. In the jail, the gang strangled to death O P Singh, another hoodlum who had broken away from the dreaded Chhota Rajan gang. If that weren't bad enough, the police tried to cover up the murder as a heart attack, which only pointed to their complicity in the murder.
  • The son of one of the senior cops in the race for the commissioner's job has scammed hundreds of people by collecting Rs 500,000 each for setting up a supermarket franchise that has now collapsed. Dad says his son is being falsely maligned when in fact it is the opposite -- many franchisees that gave money to the son are scared of the powerful father. I personally know a couple of cases (with evidence) where the cop's son has either refused to return Rs 500,000 collected from the franchisee or returned only a part of it.

A macabre joke these days is that the only way that the police seem to be able to nail criminals is by killing them in staged encounters. Those who are arrested are invariably allowed to walk away because of shoddy investigation or political machinations.

Yet, the same police who have a dubious record of solving crime have the time and energy to go after innocent lovebirds.

The Bandra police arrested 30 couples last week for 'alleged obscenity,' humiliated them and fined them Rs 1,250 individually before letting them go. But not before they had noted down their names and addresses, and checked on their relationship.

As it turned out, many were married or engaged. The police righteously defended their action. To add insult to injury, they argue that the action is, in fact, meant to protect the couples from robbers and pickpockets who frequent the Bandstand promenade.

Let me ask readers from Mumbai a simple question? Police Commissioner M N Singh has his picture in the newspapers approximately once every two days, probably more. In what context have you seen his pictures or read about him the last 20 times?

As far as I saw, it is rarely in connection with police work. They appeared on Page 3 of various city supplements of newspapers, attending one society bash or the other.

Each of those parties probably has at least two or three women in such skimpy clothes that they would qualify to be arrested for 'alleged obscenity' than the middle-class women and girls who were rounded up by the overzealous Bandra police.

Most of Mumbai, barring a few cantankerous types are outraged at the police action. This is itself an interesting emotion. It suggests that those who are outraged believe that the harassment of ordinary citizens is an aberration, and that public anger will force the police to desist.

In fact, nothing in the police reaction suggests regret or contrition; or recognition of the irony that they are turning on ordinary folks when they find it increasingly difficult to catch thugs, rapists, pickpockets, extortionists and criminals.

But the more disquieting reaction is from the cynics (and there are plenty of those too). For instance, a senior citizen asked me: "Why is the media focussed on who is bidding for the commissioner's job; isn't it more pertinent to discuss who will make the appointment and collect the moolah?"

Another cynic believes there is a purpose to raiding expensive dance bars and the couples at Bandstand. Both segments yield a rich haul of people who ought not be where they are found, or with partners that they ought not to be with; and are willing to pay a price to keep the information away from their husbands/wives or parents.

Why else, they say, there are more raids on dance bars than on well known red-light areas? And why is the sight of smooching couples at Bandstand obscene, while the public massages at Chowpatty beach are not?

Then there is the investment banker who, with even more deadly cynicism, links many of our problems with the bankrupt Maharashtra state government. It is part of a pattern, he says. The state has no money to pay salaries and routinely delays salaries/allowances to the police or to teachers.

That is because the state 'knows' that just as teachers can always earn money through private tuitions and the police earn money by collecting haftas -- which is why these two categories suffer the most.

A government that denies the police basic amenities such as decent accommodation and sensible working hours while in service, which kills their morale by forcing them to provide protection to an assortment of criminals, political thugs and brash film stars has no choice but to turn a blind eye to their less savoury activities.

And when the hafta goes all the way to the top, why be surprised that it is the innocents who are the victims?

Sucheta Dalal

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