In times of crisis, you get to see the best and worst in people. The Indian Police Force, not exactly the shining light of human rights, has turned on the citizens in the name
of public health. The recent public beating of an anesthesiologist, Dr Sudhakar Rao, at the hands of the police in Vizag, is another example of an atrocious behaviour during COVID-19 pandemic. The doctor made the cardinal mistake of criticizing the state for the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) required while they treat COVID-19 patients.
For bringing up this important health hazard, he was suspended from his job. The latest police statement says the man is now mentally unstable as if that is a justification for beating him after tying him up in broad daylight.
The videos of poor migrants being hit like cattle with sticks, of young men being mercilessly beaten for violating the stay at home orders has become passé. Thank god for the information age, that the barbarism of our khaki-clad brethren can be seen in full view. The interesting part is the lack of public outcry and condemnation to change this behaviour.
The common theme on the beatings and encounters is the lower socioeconomic status of the citizens the police prey on. These poor citizens are not aware of their basic rights and revere the police as judge, jury and executioner. So who is a policeman and what exactly is his job description? I use the term man because I have yet to see a policewoman beating anyone - I am sure there are exceptions, but I digress. A policeman is just an ordinary person of society, who wears a khaki uniform. His job is to enforce the law. He is bound by a code of criminal procedure and has no right to physically hit or intimidate anyone. The only time he can use force is if you restrain arrest, and even then the force has to be justifiable.
Police officers can only arrest you without a warrant, in offences of higher-order (cognizable offences). For lower offences, the policeman needs a warrant. Once arrested, you need to be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours.
There is no section in any police manual or Indian penal code that allows police to indiscriminately assault citizens. The Indian public for a long time has condoned police excesses against perceived criminals. The police have even been publicly celebrated, during recent encounters. This is a slippery slope for society, and the only consequence to such blurred lines are police that fears no consequence, leading to anarchy. The irony is they are paid by the taxes collected from the very citizenry they abuse, something akin to your watchman beating you on a regular basis.
If policemen are a part of society, what makes them violent towards the citizens they have sworn to protect? There are studies which show police officers who are more prone to violence are divided into five groups.
Group 1 are those with personality disorders, like narcissistic and antisocial personalities and a lack of empathy towards others, which if true is akin to the inmates running the asylum.
Group 2 consists of those who have become abusive after a job-related experience or threat.
Group 3 are those with career frustrations that lead to impulsiveness.
Group 4 has those with family problems, like separation, divorce.
Group 5 those with a heavy-handed patrol style, particularly sensitive to challenge and provocation.
There are at least three studies that show a higher incidence of domestic abuse by police officers. The abuse ranges from 20 per cent to an alarming 40 per cent.
So, what’s the solution to the problem? The news media has to do a better job of educating citizens of their rights. The police officers need to know boundaries, and there has to be better counselling of the force and a strict no violence policy. The police need to have empathy towards society and this has to be reflected in their training. Now some of you may say that in a country as big as India, with a clogged judiciary, this is a quick way to dispense instant justice.
I would counter such an argument with the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law. The police always treat politicians and other high fliers with respect, no matter the heinousness of the crime. When was the last time you heard of a politician or prominent businessman ‘encountered’? Society needs to remember the saying: if you choose to dance with the devil, the devil don’t change, you do.
(The writer is an Interventional Cardiologist working in Daytona Beach, Florida. Views are personal)