Delhi Police

I was speaking with an Indian friend recently about the respect that police officers get – or don’t get – in this society. In my mind, the lack of it is a big problem. I’ll give a quick example.

A couple days ago, I was driving my car through a South Delhi neighborhood down a relatively quiet street. Just ahead of me was a police checkpoint, something that I’ve become accustomed to in Delhi. Police officers routinely set up barricades on the street to slow down vehicles and have a closer look at those operating them. I’ve often seen them pulling over motorcyclists, because they are apparently the most frequent offenders for not holding valid Drivers Licenses. They’ve checked my license on a couple occasions. Once, I was given a warning for not wearing my seatbelt (oops). Most of the time, however, I just smile and drive through. That’s what I was doing this time until I saw something quite shocking. Just ahead of my car, there was, as usual, several motorcycles flowing past the barricades, and not surprisingly one of the officers singled out a motorcycle with two riders on it, beckoning them to stop at the side of the road. That day, the checkpoint was manned by three police officers, all in uniform and one holding a semi-automatic rifle. The motorcycle started to pull over and an officer began to approach them just as I was passing by. But then, all of the sudden, the motorcycle accelerated and took off, leaving the officer up in arms. As I looked back in my rearview mirror, I saw the other officer reach for his rifle and ready himself for a shot at the fleeing culprits. The two young men on the motorcycle looked back over their shoulders and I could see the mocking smiles on their faces. For a split second, I thought that I might hear gunfire and see the motorcyclists crumple in a heap before my eyes. But then I realized what everyone else in this scene already knew – that Delhi police don’t have that kind of authority. The uniforms, even the rifles, don’t mean much here. But I still watched in amazement as the motorcycle rounded the corner and sped away. Behind us, the three police officers shrugged their shoulders and returned to their post.

Why this disrespect? Why this dysfunctional lack of authority?

For many foreigners like me, it seems absurd. Why have a police force if they don’t have functional authority? Where I’m from, a police officer carries heavy authority and, under normal conditions, their command is obeyed immediately or else a stiff penalty is given. People rarely take the kind of risks that I saw those motorcyclists take. Where I’m from, in general, laws are observed because laws are enforced. Sure, in part, it’s about education and about a sense of corporate responsibility. But people are quite aware of the penalty as well. For instance, if they get caught littering they will be fined $2000. It helps that garbage cans are frequent, but it’s not just about convenience and conscience; it’s also about avoiding the hefty penalty.

In Delhi, it’s more complicated. Apparently, the police force is grossly underpaid and not adequately resourced. That rifle at the checkpoint may not have even been loaded with bullets. Obviously, that lack affects morale and a sense of power and authority. Many people also feel that it feeds another big factor, which is corruption. Whatever the reasons for it, almost everyone is aware of the widespread corruption in the Delhi police force. Those two young men who fled on their motorcycle were perhaps more concerned about not paying a bribe than paying a fine. Apparently, bribes are more common and they provide the police an opportunity to supplement their meager income.

When it comes to corrupt police officers, my knowledge is based purely on hearsay and not personal experience. I’ve had limited interaction with the Delhi police over the past six years, thankfully. But it does amount to a few roadside incidents, a few trips to the police station and a few visits from the police to my home. In fact, in all it’s probably more direct experience than I’ve ever had with the police in Canada. But I must say that all of my interaction with the Delhi police has been quite positive. There were a couple pauses here and there in conversations when I wondered if someone was hoping for a bribe. But I never offered, and I was never asked directly. Maybe that’s one advantage to being a foreigner.

I certainly don’t believe that every Delhi police officer is crooked, but their bad reputation, in general, certainly feeds the disrespect in public opinion. It’s all part of one of those vicious circles; one problem leads to another. And in the end, it’s a big problem that won’t be solved quickly. But it would seem that higher wages and better resources for the police could contribute to better morale and a stronger sense of authority and responsibility. At the same time, the corruption needs to stop. Lasting change will not come without a much higher level of integrity and stability within police force.

The scene I described above is a small example of a great need. For the people of Delhi, police officers included, I sincerely hope and pray that these changes will begin to come soon. Inevitably, a problem like this is connected to other problems within the society, and specifically within the government. But India is no stranger to transformation. Change is possible.

Like A Pearl

if my heaven be, like
a pearl found by me
nothing more to own
everything to sell
to buy my treasure
and forfeit my hell

Understanding India, Part #2417

God forbid that I would ever utter the words, “I understand India.”

Because I don’t, and I never will. India is far too vast and wonderful, and I am far too small and limited.

I’ve heard people – other foreigners – talk about India like they understand it. They’ve been here for a couple weeks and they’ve suddenly become experts on Indian culture, traditions and religion. I cringe. These people say things about Indians in sweeping generalizations. It makes me laugh, or it turns my stomach. Of course, I’ve probably made similar mistakes in the not so distant past, so I can’t be too hard on their arrogance.

I will simply say that I love India in all its grit and glory. And I have loved it ever since I first visited here almost twenty years ago. There’s a lot to love. Of course, it’s impossible to define India, and it’s hard to describe it, let alone understand its complexity. If anything is typical in India, it’s the diversity. But India’s brilliance is more than that too, it’s the chaos, the craziness, and the unexpected twists and turns that make most days here an adventure.

I just returned to our home in Delhi from a short trip to Varanasi and Patna, and I was reminded in a couple specific ways about the wonder of India. I flew roundtrip to Varanasi and then took the train roundtrip to Patna from there. In Varanasi, I had some business with a couple of the carpet suppliers that I work with, and in Patna I had the privilege to attend the wedding of a young friend of mine who lives in Delhi but comes from state of Bihar, of which Patna is the capital.

For those reading this who are maybe thinking about trying to live in India, here is perhaps a little taste of what you can expect.

On my first day in Varanasi, I spent the day with a carpet supplier that I had met in Delhi a few years ago. I had never really had the chance to work with him previously and so I did not really know him personally. But I really enjoyed our time together on this trip. He’s much more than a businessman and I found him to be a very likeable and interesting person. He picked me up from the airport and then drove me to his office and production facilities in Mirzapur. We drove a lot that day, but the conversation was always rich, so I didn’t mind. At one point, we were talking about India and he was sharing some of his perspective on areas in need of improvement, such as basic infrastructure and development especially for rural areas. As he was talking, we came to the Grand Trunk Road, a famous road in India that serves as an interstate highway across North India. In most places now it is a grand four-lane highway with a median dividing the two sides. At this particular junction, it looked impressive, especially in relation to the bumpy side road that we had just been driving on. However, there was no intersection at the junction, and so the median was preventing us from making a right turn, the direction we needed to go. But instead of going left with the flow of traffic and finding the first turnaround, my associate turned right without hesitation and proceeded down the Grand Trunk Road going the wrong way. He did so boldly, not along the side of the road but hugging the median and subsequently pushing all the oncoming traffic to the side, including big cargo trucks ten times the size of the little car we were in. He also barely missed a beat in our conversation and was explaining how big roads like this really needed lamps to light the way. I agreed that the lamps would make the road safer at night as I cringed at the sight of another cargo truck bearing down on us with flashing headlights and horn honking. It was exhilarating, but really not that surprising. It wasn’t long before we found an opening in the median that allowed us to cross over to the right side and join the traffic that was (mostly) going the same direction as us.

The beauty of that experience is hard to describe. I appreciate my associate’s hunger for certain types of progress in India, but I also love the fact that he is not bound by rules and not only breaks them for convenience sake but readily expects others also to understand what he’s doing. I could be critical of the apparent disconnect in his thinking, but instead I chose to enjoy it and to appreciate a mental synthesis that is perhaps not as easy for me to achieve. It’s all part of the cross-cultural experience.

As I took the train to Patna the very next day, I wondered what to expect for the wedding ceremony of my friend. This was just one event in the week-long affair, but I was happy to be able to attend this much. I already knew that this particular part of the Indian wedding happens at night, and Amy, my wife, had reminded me that I should be prepared to be up until 2 or 3 in the morning. Well, I showed up for the ceremony at about 10 pm and it was just getting started. This time, it wasn’t over until after 4 am and I only got to bed by about 5 am. Crazy? Absolutely. I’ve got photos of people crashed on the floor less than ten feet away from where the ceremony was taking place. I saw the father of the groom totally kicked back in his chair at one point snoring loudly with his mouth wide open. Even the groom was yawning and rolling his eyes.

The next day, my train, boldly bearing the name, the Rajendra Nagar Superfast Express, was three hours late out of Patna. I rolled with it, and caught some extra sleep while I waited. To get bent out of shape with this kind of thing is just not worth it. In India, you have to get used to it. I called the carpet supplier in Varanasi who was waiting for me and we adjusted our plans accordingly. He understood completely. One of the things I love about Indians is their flexibility, especially when it comes to scheduling.

Another thing I love about Indians – if I can make some sweeping generalizations – is that, in addition to being flexible, and they’re really good at laughing.

One good laugh that I had with some new friends at about 3 am during the wedding ceremony was about a saying that was emblazoned on the back of the photographer’s shirt. It read: “Love is the game… Do can play and bought win.” Yes, read it slowly. This is classic. If you still can’t understand it, then try it with an Indian accent. Eventually, it comes out as, “two can play and both can win.” It’s beautiful, especially at a wedding.

So, after almost six years of calling India home, I think we’ve learned a few things and come to understand at least some of what India is about. I know I’m better for it. Generally, I think I’m better at cross-cultural interaction. I’ve also learned to be more flexible and to laugh more. Hopefully, I’m also a little less arrogant.

I See A Cloud

To the king, the prophet said,

“Take rest, for I hear the sound of much rain.”

The king took rest, while the prophet prayed,

his face between his knees.

To the servant, the prophet said,

“Look toward the sea.”

The servant said, “There is nothing.”

And seven more times, “Look again.”

On the seventh time, “I see a cloud

as small as a man’s hand rising from the sea.”

To the servant, the prophet said,

“Tell the king to prepare for war and beware of rain.”

How soon the sky turned black

with clouds and wind and much rain.

So the king went, but the prophet ran ahead

the hand of God upon him and his clothing up under his belt.

(Based on the biblical story of Elijah and Ahab in 1 Kings 18:41-46.)