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.