Who will police the cops?

Published: 09 November, 2011 07:33 IST | Ranjona Banerji |

The murders of Keenan Santos and Rueben Fernandes in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri last month has brought into focus a subject which is become increasingly worrying in our urban areas: crime

The murders of Keenan Santos and Rueben Fernandes in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri last month has brought into focus a subject which is become increasingly worrying in our urban areas: crime.

Santos and Fernandes died defending their female friends against what is bizarrely known as "eve-teasing" in India. As we all know, this is an archaic euphemism for molestation or sexual assault. The case has now gone national, thanks mainly to television, and for many is being seen as symbolic of similar instances across the nation. The fact that two men could be brutally beaten up and stabbed to death in a well-lit and populated area just because they tried to save women in their group from being molested is shocking in itself and all the more so, because this is Mumbai.

Victims of apathy: Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes were
stabbed repeatedly, even as people watched

This is a city which takes pride in the fact that women are safer here than anywhere else. Not, perhaps, any more. I have lived and felt safe in Mumbai for most of my life and lately the fear on the streets has become palpable. Rising crime rates and increasing incidences of misdemeanours from chain-snatching to murder have meant that you need caution where earlier you could be bindaas.

The reasons and theories are many -- economic disparity, haphazard development, rising aspirations, greed, an increasing tendency to go for the short cut, a churning of class barriers. All these may be true in some ways, but at the bottom of it all is one stark fact -- shoddy policing.

The November 26, 2008 terrorist attacks demonstrated so frighteningly to the world just how miserably unprepared the Mumbai police was. Had it not been for a few brave policemen -- some who lost their lives that night because of bad infrastructure and procurement policies -- we would not even managed to capture Ajmal Qasab.

We all know the reasons for the collapse of the police in India -- political interference and lack of reforms. Endless commission reports and Supreme Court directives lie dusty, unread and untouched. The nexus between politicians, bureaucrats, the police and various money interests runs so insidiously through the system that you fear that if you attack too many tendrils of inefficiency and corruption, the whole pack of cards will collapse on top of us.

And yet, perhaps, that is the only answer. The enormous public reaction to these murders is not just one more hysterical internet reaction: like the response to corruption, it is a sign of despair. It is where the many Indias are meeting either in conflict or in agreement. Unfortunately, like the anti-corruption movement, this one can also either peter out or get lost in internal conflict.

Instead, as much public pressure has to be put on our political classes and government officials so that they realise that the anger is real. The media can play a role up to a point. But the need for participatory democracy is becoming stronger and stronger everyday in India.

For too long, politicians and the police in Mumbai -- and the rest of the country -- have come up with what are frankly idiotic moral policing solutions when they cannot do their jobs. For instance, if you lock women up at home, you can immediately cut crimes against them, except of course incest, dowry deaths and so on. These are unpalatable explanations.

So too are those about VIP security and other bandobasts. We all understand how much money is being made when the Maharashtra government cannot get bullet proof vests for its police force three years after a horrific terrorist attack. Surely we've had enough of being fooled all the time?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist

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