On May 2, a policeman murdered his superior, wounded another and then shot himself — all this over being disciplined for taking leave.
This is not just a tragedy for the families, but yet another moment for the police to take a sober look at why seemingly trivial incidents trigger much bigger tragedies.
Even to the most insensitive, the double deaths beg larger questions. What kind of management-employee relationships lead to such extreme responses? What are the working conditions that make cops commit such acts? What are the licensing and retention protocols that permit an unstable officer to carry a weapon?
We know some answers; they’re not comforting. We know the relationship between superiors and the rank and file to be feudal-hierarchical. They are not based on contractual respect for job capacity, but on a master-servant arrangement. Perpetuated in the name of ‘discipline’, in reality this breeds abuse of power towards those beneath and scorn and deception for those above. It reduces individuals to toadies in service of authority, rather than innovative individuals proud to uphold the law against all.
In a sub-culture that demands subservience and tolerates brutality, abysmal working conditions create easy flash points for mounting resentment. The cumulative conclusion of every commission, inquiry, and analysis on policing from Independence till the present day has said that working conditions in a tense and dangerous job need to change and more and better trained manpower is needed.
Yet, by and large, training remains as it always has been, with a bit of technology patched on to what is essentially a curriculum unsuited to developing manpower for a modern police service.
Worse still, it remains separated foot soldier from officer in the elitist tradition of colonial times. No ethos of equality encourages the relationship between constable and commissioner.
In Maharashtra, there is one police officer for nearly 566 people, while in Delhi there is one for 250 people. There is a shortfall of nearly 12,115 policemen. Even this number tells only half the story. Unfair rural-urban ratios, the unreasonable numbers deployed in service of VIPs, and the use of taxpayer-supported manpower as orderlies, drivers, guards and general saluting puppets by senior officers casts the burden of a great many core policing tasks onto the shoulders of just a very few.
Time off from duty depends on the arbitrary pleasure of seniors, who have their own pressures to deal with. Families get neglected, absent fathers and sons have to live with accusations and guilt, and a sense of inadequacy and helplessness morphs into a constant sense of inadequacy and perennial suppressed anger.
These very hands hold lethal weapons: pistols, revolvers, SLRs, AK-47s. There is no special licence required for an Indian police officer to carry a weapon. Formal weapons training is given as part of initial training. Thereafter, ordinarily there should be periodic refreshers at the weapons range. Since neither promotions nor annual confidential reports are affected by the need to show weapons capability, it is uncertain how sincerely refresher logs are kept. Neither at induction, nor in the years after is there any psychological assessment of the individual’s suitability to carry and use a weapon responsibly.
None of this excuses murder, endemic violence, abuse of power, criminal wrongdoing or consistent poor performance in policing, but it does explain why it happens.
The murder-suicide in Vakola is not by any means the first such incident. A few months ago, in Tikamgarh, MP, a DSP and inspector both in their 50s killed each other with their service revolvers after an altercation. There are many such cases. But nothing has led to in-depth examination or policy changes.
The tragedy of double deaths will be compounded if the supervisory categories treat it as a passing incident and do not take up the cudgels for more manpower, better training, easier working hours and strict performance criteria.
Seniors, too, need to discipline themselves to do better and dismantle the internal system of servitude and blind disobedience and replace it with transparent assessments of performance coupled with accountability for all. Till then the public and now it would seem even the police establishment will have to suffer the consequences of unreformed policing.
Maja Daruwala is Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative