governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

The death of “rutba”

police colonial

Rutba, an urdu word, means status or honour. In sarkari parlance it equates to the “shock and awe” evoked by a single determined officer. Some of this is larger than life, the stuff that legends are made of- like a single Sikh soldier equaling 1.25 lakh opponents in battle or a Gurkha mowing down dozens with a flashing Khukri.

The Americans are more practical about such things. For them shock and awe is unleashed via devastating fire power from the sky and thousands of armed boots on the ground. In India belief in the rutba of a single District Officer or Superintendent of Police to quell a local disturbance, still lingers.

Clearly, rutba, either of the Indian or the American kind, was lacking in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, last week, when an armed mob of land grabbers, operating under the guise of social do-gooders and political anarchists, murdered two senior police officers and injured many more. Twenty-two squatters are reported to have died in the retaliatory police firing.

The occasion for the ruckus was a High Court order for their eviction from a public park they had illegally occupied since 2014, adjacent to the local police headquarters. It is not easy to preserve rutba if a police force has to be on good neighbourly terms with criminals camping unauthorisedly, on public land, right under their nose.

No dearth of Police martyrs

martyrs

photo credit: rediff.com

Search the net and there are dozens of police martyrs you will unearth- in the North East, Bihar, Kashmir, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Mumbai, battling ideological or religious terror mixed up with mafiosi making a quick buck from fractured politics and instability. All police officers are trained to lay down their lives in public interest. But this ultimate sacrifice should be a last resort not a prime mechanism to evoke public or a substitute for full institutional support.Getting killed is not a good way to serve the nation. The idea should be to kill the sob across the line of fire – to paraphrase US General Patton. This is not easy in situations of domestic violence. The enemy is elusive, as are the support systems for an honest police officer.

Institutional collapse in the police

Rutba overrode such political economy obstacles in the past. But no longer. Rutba derives its salience from inherited institutional prestige and power. The only Indian institutions, which continue to demonstrate rutba are the Supreme Court of India and the army. A soldier, in uniform, still creates a stir and evokes awe. Similarly, the Supreme Court has retained its reputation for independence and fair play.

Under colonial rule, the police and the army were co-joined. Even today, in Uttar Pradesh, the Superintendent of Police is called kaptan sahib. Captains of the British Indian army, who had to be cashiered out because of injury, were appointed to the police, which was considered a “softer” job.

But the two institutions have been purposefully made to diverge, possibly to check mate each other and thus ensure the supremacy of civilian control over both. The army continues to be viewed favourably, as the one which does all the grunt work. The police are perceived to just hang about wielding a baton or a lathi, harassing people and pocketing bribes. In a 2002 Transparency International survey of citizen perceptions, the police were ranked as the most corrupt.

Bollywood, has for long, either reviled the policeman as a bumbling Inspector Clouseau- of the Pink Panther fame – or played up the image of the good, fearless cop- Amitabh Bachchan in Zanzeer; Om Puri in Ardh Satya and Ajay Devgun in Gangajal-  who take on criminals and vanquishe all. Neither over-the-top-image is helpful.

The hapless police officer

hapless policeman

Being a policeman is an unenviable task. The police work best, in a regulatory environment where the dos and don’ts are clear and align with the law. Today, there is nothing muddier than when and how, a police officer should wield the powers legitimately vested in her. Whom to challan or ignore for a traffic violation; how forcefully to quell unruly behavior on the streets –  each petty incident, requires the police officer to first think through the political consequences. Decisive, timely, preventive action consequently suffers. Events snowball, as the local police wait for directions from higher levels, who ignore such events, till they explode and become “above the radar” on centralized flash point monitors. By them it is too late to save lives.

The colonial mindset- all are unequal

But are we all blameless? Indians, view the rule of law, not as a framework within which to mould our behavior, but as a hurdle, crossing which, is a metric of our prowess and power. District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police are required to be adept at this game of privileging and stratifying people – just as their colonial predecessors did.

poor

photo credit: revleff.com

Your social status is reflected in the manner you are received by these worthies. The poorest, unorganized litigants are stopped outside the gate by police guards. Their only chance to get the big man’s attention is to hope his car will stop, as it moves through the gate, its window wound down, through which a written petition is allowed to be stuffed and heart rending pleas babbled.

For the middle class- petty businessmen, small farmers and the poor who come via intermediaries – lawyers, village and block level politicians or non-state actors – a darshan (face to face meeting) is usually arranged by the peon in tacit recognition of their collective power. The aggrieved persons stand before the big man and only the leader is offered a chair to sit, whilst the issue is briefly discussed and assurances given to get it “looked into”.

darbar

Photo credit: tribuneindia.com

MPs, MLAs, rich landlords, big business people and senior government officers are ushered into an “inner office” where the atmosphere is more relaxed and tea may be served or at least offered. When ministers visit and want to meet the DM/SP, who will “call on” (visit) whom, depends on the relative political weight -“closeness” – of the two to the Chief Minister.

Unreal laws

Under colonial rule, the rule of law primarily protected the interests of Europeans. Post-independence laws are aggressively egalitarian on paper but quite toothless on the ground. In Kenya, another previous British colony, till 2006 or so, a large land owner – usually European – could shoot to kill a trespasser, without application of the “quantum of force used” rule. In India this principle regulates the use of force for self-protection. The Kenyan rule, whilst unjust, was honest and aligned with political reality. It worked well to preserve property rights.

Our laws are hopelessly idealistic and un-enforceable. We have the right to private property but it can be taken away, quite casually, for ill defined “public purposes”. Purposefully poor oversight of public property and abetment drive encroachments. But the reason why we all view encroachment so benignly is that, the concept of property rights is very lightly embedded in our political and social consciousness.

The High Court was legally correct to order eviction. But the political circumstances which allowed the encroachment to happen, in the first place, made the order unenforceable. The cost of such hypocrisy is two dozen people dead, many more injured and a further nail in the coffin of the rule of law. We ignore the political economy, within which laws operate, only at our peril.

Adapted from the author’s article in Asian Age, June 11. 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/mathura-failure-grassroots-governance-382

 

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