The news item, “Cops held captive as punishment”, in The Statesman dated 2 October  evokes anger and disgust. Anger because of the insensitivity and boorishness of a senior police officer and disgust because such incidents  are often  reported from different parts of the country. Many senior officers are experienced leaders who command respect and loyalty of the force but there are a few  who do treat their men shabbily and in turn forfeit their loyalty. Newspaper reports of a police officer being carried by a constable on his shoulder through a waterlogged street or the son of a DIG using a constable as a caddy in the golf course betray insensitivity and gracelessness of some “leaders” and convey a wrong message to the public.

I still recollect vividly an incident when I was undergoing training as an Assistant Superintendent of  Police in a rural police station in Odisha. A constable injured in a road accident required immediate blood transfusion. The Range DIG of police, who was touring the area, immediately rushed to donate his blood as his blood grouping matched that of the constable. His prompt and humane response saved the life of the constable. The entire district police force remembered with gratitude his inspiring gesture. During my tenure in the Border Security Force, I heard tales of inspiring man-management of charismatic leaders, notably Rustamji, Ashwini Kumar and a few others and their unwavering concern for the welfare of their men. In turn, the loyalty of their subordinates was unstinted.  The leader must be loyal to the force to gain loyalty. 

Senior police officers must  read and re-read the  immortal lines of Field Marshal Chetwode inscribed on the walls of the Indian Military Academy – “The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time, the honour, welfare and comfort of men under your command come next, your own safety, ease, come last, always and every time”.

The  abuse of the orderly system in the police  cannot be denied. Hence the complaints of gross misuse and misbehaviour. Police manuals of different states provide for orderlies for senior officers for their security and assistance in official duties performed in their residence. They are normally treated as personal staff and properly looked after. They also develop a lifelong loyalty for the officers whom they serve. However, there are instances of some officers, and particularly their wives, treating them shabbily and failing to give them the human dignity they deserve. I have heard many complaints of shocking forms of harassment during my long tenure in the state police. Disgruntled men in their turn send anonymous petitions highlighting omissions and commissions of these poor specimens of officers.

The truth of the matter is that there has been a failure of police leadership in the country to empower the constabulary and give them the dignity, which money cannot buy. Constables comprise nearly 70 pe rcent of the police force in most of the states and represent the face of the police before the public. They are poorly educated and ill-trained and largely function as errand-boys. They constitute the cutting edge of the police but have become as a foreign expert put it “it&’s the Achilles’ heel". The Police Commission of 1902, concluded that the constables should perform only mechanical duties and not given work requiring exercise of imagination and discretion. But the situation has changed and today the constable has to deal with the public in a variety of situations where he has to exercise his judgment, powers of persuasion, and enforce the law with public cooperation and understanding. No lasting improvement of the police is possible unless this  base of the system is rendered healthy and efficient.

From the experience of my long innings in the police I strongly feel that constables can be a source of strength and support if they are treated and used properly. I vividly recollect an incident during the police agitation that gripped the country in the 1970s. I was then posted as the Range DIG Rourkela. Irked by the brazen misbehaviour of a Commandant, who roughed up a sepoy in the parade ground, the sepoys of the Orissa Military Police Battalion organised a huge demonstration demanding remedial action. My efforts and that of the Superintendent of Police to pacify the force and send the men back to the barracks were not very successful. A constable of the district police rose up to admonish them for their indisciplined conduct which dented the police image before the public. Sharp reproof from a colleague had a chastening impact and helped me to ride out the storm. The sepoys went back to their barracks. Their grievances could be discussed and later on redressed in the Alochana Sabha.

Many other instances of courage, ingenuity, and presence of mind on the part of the subordinate ranks can be cited. It is a pity that we have failed to empower them and treat them with the dignity that they deserve. At present a large number of qualified and educated men with university degrees are joining the subordinate ranks of the police. Their scope of promotion is limited. The work of the police has also become very complex and challenging and require skill and sensitivity on the part of the law-enforcers. This was not required in the past. A police force which is used to rough-and-ready methods will have to change its style and handle many situations brought about by new forms of crimes and law and order problems that need to be addressed with tact and finesse.

The National Police Commission and Second Administrative Reforms Commission have made insightful recommendations on empowering the constabulary and making it a more effective tool for efficient and proactive policing. But the most important qualitative change is to respect their dignity and not subject them to insulting and abusive behaviour. Napoleon perceptively observed that “men forget injuries but not insults”.

The truth of the matter is that absence of a human rights culture permeates the police and is often reflected in the misbehaviour towards common people and sterile authoritarianism within the organisation. It is true that winds of change are blowing, but more determined efforts by police leaders are called for to break away from this unsavoury legacy.