Mumbai Police must confront its biases

For a long time, biases, misplaced zeal, and a predilection for being seen as “tough” on crime and what they think is “immoral” and “indecent” activities — have characterised far too many actions of the Mumbai police. For this, they are once again at the receiving end of public ire. The supposedly bungled raid in hotels around Aksa Beach, and what subsequently transpired at Malwani Police Station, is the latest example of citizens having to bear the brunt of what has now become a pernicious police practice. This time, armed with a larger dose of virtuous righteousness than commonsense, the police’s “overzealous” actions have rightly placed them at the receiving end of public ire.

The tidal wave of public indignation notwithstanding, it would be limiting to view the issue solely through the prism of outrage and indignation at “moral policing”. Especially because there has been the application of Section 110 of the Bombay Police Act which allows penal action against “indecency in public”. It is impossible to arrive at a comprehensive definition of “indecency” without sliding down the slippery slope of prudery and self-righteousness. Nevertheless all police actions must always to be grounded in reason and carried out within the limits of the law, not subjecting citizens to arbitrary force and rank intimidation.

Even as Joint Commissioner Bharati has admitted that the police has erred and ordered an inquiry, the zonal police defend their actions on the ground that they acted not on their own whims and caprices, but on the basis of persistent complaints of residents and the local MLA that hotels around the beach are regular haunts for organized, illegal prostitution that might even involve minors. But the manner of carrying out the raids without prior investigation and good intelligence indicates hasty high handedness, by which humiliation and violence was inflicted upon ordinary adults going about their business: privacy has been invaded, reputations have been lost and families put in conflict. In other jurisdictions there would be good cause for civil damages against the police for wrongful detention and much more.

Tales of the police’s abuse of Section 110 are legion, and in almost all cases, personal notions and perceptions of morality and vice have trumped the constitutional imperative of legality. Section 110 is mandated against actions like drunken and abusive behavior in public, street sexual harassment and allied violent acts which disturb peace and endanger citizens. It is not supposed to be invoked against expressions of intimacy, or against couples enjoying moments of privacy behind closed doors. Police personnel, especially those in the lower ranks — ASI, API, and constables — those who usually carry out such raids, must be given clear and binding directions in this regard. Without the benefit of updated knowledge or frequent supervision it is not surprising that the police are guided by existing standards of morality rather than the legal mandates they are sworn to uphold. Deep-seated prejudices are left unexamined and unaddressed during induction, training and while in office. They are then trotted out as high ethical values to justify actions that are popular with the public but have little or no sanction at law.

The police of course have their own duties and constraints. There are places rife with crimes such as illegal prostitution, especially involving minors, and it is the police’s duty to deal firmly with those involved. Often, the owners and management of guest-houses are complicit in those crimes, and they have to be tackled through proper surveillance and good investigation. But in no way should ordinary citizens be dragooned into wholesale, ham-handed searches, or as it happened here, women be abused and slapped for failing to come up with unimpeachable evidence of not being sex-workers illegally plying their trade. It is nobody’s case that the police should be prevented from carrying out a proper verification as required by law, or that there are instances when people obstinately refuse to cooperate with the police. But by no stretch of imagination can the police afford to condone, or worse, justify college students being forced to call up their parents, or of women being traumatized by incandescent women police personnel.

In 2006, the Supreme Court had laid out a blueprint for police reforms, which should have been used to build the foundations of good policing. Till date, the Maharashtra government has strenuously resisted following any of the apex court’s guidelines, and now the public is confronted again with yet another instance of police malpractice. This is the wake-up call for Mumbai Police. Either its top bosses take concerted measures, or Mumbai keeps lurching from one outrageous raid to the next, at irreparable cost to both citizen’s rights and police accountability.

Maja Daruwala is Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), which works towards good policing. Saurav Datta is an associate at CHRI.

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