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Changing a collective consciousness: Why the Indian Police Force needs systemic change.

20 February , 2013

Changing a collective consciousness can never be underestimated, especially when consciousness belongs to a national force designated to maintain law and order, which considers itself to be above the authority imposed by law and order. Such may be the prevailing ethos of any army, police or public office anywhere in the world.

 The role of tragedy and public outcry

Usually, a general sense of public disgruntlement is not enough to force change upon such institutions, used to throwing around their weight and moulding a system to suit its own uses or ends. It takes a tragedy which brings about the public outcry that demands a government take action to control the excesses of the institution. In Britain, that tragedy was the 1993 murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, in which five white suspects were arrested but not convicted in circumstances leading the police to be highly criticised on racial grounds. The systemic failures within the police force led to the so-called MacPherson Inquiry that coined the term “institutional racism”, seeking systemic change to boot such gnarled and rancid prejudice out of the British police forces. In Los Angeles, the 1991 Rodney King affair is seen as responsible for widespread changes to policing practices, including more community policing, monitoring and changes to recruitment In India, it has taken a brutal gang rape in the  wealthy heart of the country’s capital to force politicians to stand up and take notice.

Verma Commission

Such was the public outrage that the government immediately formed the Verma Commission, led by two retired justices and a senior advocate, to report back within surprisingly narrow terms of reference and within the astonishingly short period of thirty days, no doubt to assuage the public demand that ‘something must be done’. The Commission, to its considerable credit, broadened out the terms of reference and did a remarkably good job of considering the legal framework in which sexual offences legislative policy lies. It recommended, for example, that marital rape become a criminal offence, and sought to accommodate a wider, more modern legal framework considering the problems posed in modern day society rather than those left by the British on the old penal statute books.

 Why the law is just not enough

But societal change, institutional change cannot be led by legislative measure alone. Whilst the power of anti-discrimination law on both social dialogue and acceptability ought not to be underestimated, the law means nothing without effective implementation. And whilst the Verma Commission sought to address implementation in terms of efficiency and due process, it failed to address the underlying malaise within the Indian police institution that allows sexual assault crimes against women in India to go effectively unheard and unpunished.

 Macpherson and institutional racism in Britain

British policing remains far from perfect, particularly in relation to both stop and search procedures and in its retention and recruitment of ethnic minority police officers, critical to restoring and maintaining confidence within all sections of the British public. But, some fourteen years aftet the publication of the Macpherson report, the national dialogue has changed. Seventy major recommendations of the Report aimed critically (although not wholly) at police accountability, including measures to monitor and assess police forces nationally, including crucially new powers of appointment of police chief officers. Fundamental changes have been brought by the applicability of the “full force” of race relations legislation at police officers through a process of vicarious liability directed  at their superior officers. Codes of practice were developed to properly report and record all racist incidents including the training  of local liaison officers to underpin an anti-discriminatory culture within the police.

Change on the inside brings change on the outside

Neither the British nor the Los Angeles police are likely to stand up and say they have eliminated prejudice and discrimination within their forces. But the changes forced upon them by tragic circumstances have led to systemic changes in police forces whose coffee-break cultures were institutionally racist. India faces similar hurdles. The prejudice against women or families claiming sexual assault is so ingrained, the culture of destroying the woman if she continues to press charges so inherent in the system that only massive institutional changes within the Indian police force will begin to curb, change and improve the situation of women facing violence routinely. Only once the dialogue begins to change against women and police officers are held routinely accountable for their actions, or omissions as is often the case, will there be major change in India. The Verma Commission has rightly started to modernise the debate, even notwithstanding the failures in the government’s response in its recent Ordnance, but change in Indian society and attitudes will only come when the enforcement mechanisms are forced to become accountable themselves.

New Delhi

20th February 2013

  1. An excellent write up, but the only worry is that like several other commissions set up for various other atrocities in India, there is a big danger that Verma Commission will phase out too without having achieved any substantial results. The key to change is to maintain continuous pressure by the people of India and media

    • SKJ permalink

      Whilst that is true, the Verma Commission’s job is now done. The question remains whether the Government will pick up its recommendations more fully than it has done in its recent Ordnance, in particular with regard to the marital rape provisions, and whether any other Inquiry, such as the Delhi-based Inquiry that is currently taking place and which appears to be more wide-ranging, can effect change upon and within the police. It will be a very long process. Even some 20 years after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and some 14 years after Macpherson made his recommendations, the Metropolitan police still have a long way to go. India’s police journey must begin somewhere but at present there is little appetite to challenge this in India at source.

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