Do we need moral policing?

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This year saw many cases of the police force indulging in ‘moral policing’. Former Director-General of Police Julio Ribeiro decries this tendency and blames the political leaders for the sorry state of affairs. He also highlights the need to appoint honest police leaders, who can carry out the much-needed police reforms.

When I was a young IPS (Indian Police Service) officer serving in the districts, farmers used to wear dhotis and young girls ghagra-cholis. Today, you see very few dhotis being worn in the villages of Maharashtra, and the young girls have shifted to salwar-kameez in a major shuffle of dress codes! In urban centres, especially the metropolis of Mumbai, young men and women are attired differently from what they used to wear even 30 years ago. The Mumbaikar is accustomed to such changes. It does not affect his or her sensibilities. The police, like the people, should accept change as a normal development.

The ugly head of moral policing
It is surprising then that moral policing should have raised its ugly head in such a noticeable way as to attract media attention, and consequently, the attention of the people. It is not only how women dress that irritates these protectors of morality, but also how they choose to spend their leisure hours. Right wing outfits are prominent in such campaigns. But what should trouble liberal-minded gentry is the tendency of the police to join in such misconceived campaigns either on orders from their political masters, or because their own views on morals are narrow!

By mandate, the police have a deprivational role to play in any scheme of governance, and hence it can never become popular. But despite this inherent disability, it is possible for policemen and police forces to be respected if they do not throw their weight around, and yet succeed in upholding the law.

Three instances that occurred recently in and around Mumbai should highlight the premise that the police can make themselves more acceptable to the general public even while doing a thankless job. A local politician and some residents of Madh Island complained to the Zonal DCP (Deputy Commissioner of Police) about the fact that young couples were frequenting the lodges and “love hotels” that had sprouted in the area, and that this activity was disturbing their peace of mind. The special squad attached to the DCP’s office then raided the hotels and rounded up the guests, which included a number of young couples. They were fined and also threatened with being reported to their parents for their amorous activities.

It is nowhere in the mandate of the police force to regulate the morality of the citizens. Even if the women concerned were prostitutes, there is nothing in the law which prohibits them from entertaining customers in private as the offence of ‘living on the earnings of prostitution’ is used only against pimps and brothel keepers, but not against the girls. It is true that many of these hotels double up as love nests. This happens all across the globe and laws do not prohibit it unless there is forcible abduction and other crime involved, for example, if the girl is under the age of 18, where her consent is of no consequence. The action of the police in Madh Island was construed as high-handed and illegal. Though local citizens had initiated the action, it was incumbent on the police to explain to the complainants that the law did not permit intrusion into the private lives of citizens.

The second incident in which a young girl was beaten up by women police constables doing bandobast duty at the Lalbaugcha Raja Ganapati pandal also brought an unnecessary bad name to the force. The television images of the girl being assaulted by police women aroused public anger much more than the images of the same girl kicking the police barricades and violently venting her frustration. To my mind, there were mitigating circumstances in this case because the women police on duty had been given a mandate by their superiors, which they were carrying out. Of course, use of force was not necessary to subdue a frustrated young woman using violence against an immovable object like a police barricade. There was no doubt at all that she had to be subdued, but that could have been done without assaulting her.

The third case was reported from Lonavala. A group of 45 law students, 25 male and 20 women, were rounded up from a private residence which they had hired for a party. Some students had consumed liquor without the necessary permits and loud music was disturbing the neighbourhood. Technically, the youth had contravened the prohibition law. But would the police have barged into private residences if the party was hosted by corporate giants, or even middle-class householders? I doubt if they would have done so. At least I have not heard of any such reported case. So why target some young people attempting to let their hair down?

These are three instances which caught public attention. TV brings these instances into our drawing rooms almost instantaneously. It solidifies our image of a brutal police force, which only knows to use force and display its authority. But the public must know that a lot of training has been given to police officers of different ranks, both during the recruitment stage and in service to sensitise them to changing mores. Unfortunately, the culture of the force has been pre-ordained by the political culture which thrives on corruption and patronage.

The need for police reforms
The ideal solution would be to appoint men of honour, of competence and of integrity as police leaders, and then leave it to them to transform the force. Unfortunately, the prevalent political culture is to appoint leaders on the basis of religion or caste or of patronage, without bothering about competence or integrity. The tendency of politicians to play around with appointments and transfers for monetary or political considerations is causing havoc with the ethos of the force, and forcing the public to accept substandard service.

The people are entitled to a clean administration where the rule of law is upheld and justice is done at the very primary level of investigation of crime. That this is not happening is a sad commentary on the political climate in which politicians and policemen are in cahoots with each other to assert their own importance and power.

The entire gamut of police reforms rests mainly on this one concept. The man at the top and those at senior cutting edge levels must be people of integrity and competence, who should then be given operational freedom to manage their own men and resources. The political dispensation should monitor the performance of these leaders by keeping their own eyes and ears to the ground. They are the representatives of the people, elected by them, and it is their obligation to ensure that the people get good service. But it is not the job of the politicians to run the force. By doing so, they are only distorting the performance levels and encouraging corruption which has now reached mammoth proportions. In particular, transfers of subordinate ranks should never be in the hands of politicians. By usurping these powers from police leaders, they have caused all the problems that the people face on the streets today!


Dec-JF-Rebelio

Julio Ribeiro

The writer is former Commissioner of Police, Mumbai.

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