Police in Udaipur detain activists protesting against the Rajsamand video in which a Muslim labourer is hacked to death
File photo of police in Udaipur detaining activists protesting against the Rajsamand video in which a Muslim labourer was hacked to death | PTI
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Both the Delhi Police’s action and inaction during the anti-CAA protests have come under severe criticism. We saw videos of many innocent people being insulted and assaulted by those who are supposed to protect them from such brutality. Allegations of arbitrariness, over-enthusiasm and absolute tardiness were made in the complaints, in both Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

The negative perception of the police has now received a new lease of life in the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests under democratically-elected governments, both at the Centre and in some states. These governments expect police officers to see criminals through a political rather than legal prism. But the mere act of registering or not registering a first information report (FIR) does not always give the correct picture.

It is against this background that understanding the dynamics involved in presentation of India’s official crime statistics becomes imperative.

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Misleading crime data

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recently released its annual report ‘Crime in India-2018’, showing a 1.3 per cent increase in recorded crimes during the year. But crime rate per lakh population was down to 383.5 in 2018 from 388.6 in 2017. Does the NCRB data accurately depict the state of crimes in India? The simple answer is no.

First, the NCRB merely collects data received from the state police force; second, some states do not even send data on time. Most importantly, there are questions about the reliability of the data.

These official figures are exceedingly misleading, simply because victims or complainants are discouraged from registering their case. Under-reporting or non-reporting of crimes has been a major problem in all Indian states, and this does not allow us to comprehend the crime scenario.

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A Rajasthan initiative

The Ashok Gehlot-led Rajasthan government’s initiative last year of mandatory registration of complaints is indeed commendable.

A cursory look at the crime statistics released by Rajasthan Police chief Bhupendra Singh last month would suggest an unprecedented surge in criminal activities in the state. The crime graph has witnessed a rise of over 31 per cent for cases registered under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 2019 as compared to the previous year. There has been more than 50 per cent increase in crimes in some categories; for instance, a total of 8,802 FIRs of molestation were registered, which is 65 percent more than the number of FIRs registered in 2018.

Despite an increase in registration of cases, there was a huge decline in incidents of communal violence, with less than 10 cases filed in 2019 as compared to more than 300 in 2018.

Nobel laureates and MIT professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo had collaborated with a senior IPS officer of Rajasthan cadre, Nina Singh, a few years ago, in a research project on police reforms and evidence-based policing in Rajasthan. Their experiment had tested four interventions for police reforms: limitations of arbitrary transfers, rotation of duties and day-off, greater community involvement, and on-the-job training. Fifth intervention, in the form of ‘decoy’ visits – police officials posing as victims seeking to register cases – also proved effective because they made police constables behave more professionally.

The philosophy behind the Gehlot government’s initiative of mandatory registration of FIRs is simple: It is impossible to address 21st-century challenges of a globalising and democratising society with a 19th-century policing structure. The biggest reason behind the poor public image that the police suffers from pertains to the registration, or rather non-registration, of complaints.

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Troubles registering an FIR

The non-registration of an FIR is a manifestation of the institutional malaise in the police force. All police stations or thanas are legally bound to register a complaint. But a codified law alone cannot lead to the transformation of the police force without any meaningful change in the entrenched police culture.

The police officials responsible for registering FIRs are quite aware that their overall performance will be judged on the basis of the number of cases lodged in the police station, so they have devised several tricks to not register a complaint. Because of this regrettable mentality, the correct crimes figures are never revealed to the public. It also gives rise to arbitrariness, corruption, and obstruction of justice. Many times, cases of police high-handedness point to the junior ranks acting on their own, without the knowledge or approval of their seniors. It has been observed that those among the ‘hardened’ subordinates, who have been in the system for years, can easily manipulate their seniors due to their in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of the police ‘system’.

Marginalised groups such as women and minorities have to run from pillar to post to register the crimes against them. Due to the ‘fear factor’, common citizens often don’t lodge complaints. Another reason for under-reporting of crimes is the apprehension of not being believed and landing in more trouble, particularly in case of sexual violence, including rapes. It is also a well-known fact that people in rural areas find it more difficult to lodge complaints than their counterparts in urban India.

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Need to bring accountability

In such a bleak scenario, where it is politically expedient to record fewer crimes, the inconsistency between the NCRB’s annual crime statistics and the one released by Rajasthan Police becomes too obvious to ignore.

History of governance reforms tells us that bringing about accountability and transparency in an institution is much more than just putting down rules in writing. It is about the actors in the institution internalising the values of accountability and transparency. In this backdrop, the Gehlot government’s move to implement the mandatory filing of complaints can be considered truly transformative.

However, there are several challenges in its implementation. The mindset of the police officers will not change overnight; recently, a cabinet minister had to publicly appeal for registration of an FIR. The police leadership swiftly swung into action, even as the SHO was suspended.

The state government may have attempted to bridge the trust deficit between citizens and the police, but false cases have also shown an increase. For instance, Rajasthan Police has noted that the percentage of fake cases under the SC/ST Act has substantially increased, and almost half of these were found to be fake during an investigation.

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Qualified investigators

Lack of qualified investigative officers will add to the challenges. At present, there is a very weak communication link between investigating officers and victims of the crime; there is also a need to devise institutionalised procedures that make it obligatory for investigators to appraise the victims of the progress of their case.

The well-intentioned initiative to change the notorious ‘thana culture’ needs to be combined with efforts to improve the working environment for the police personnel; the Status of Policing in India Report-2019, prepared by the Common Cause and Lokniti programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), has accurately depicted the tough and stressful conditions under which the police personnel function.

If Gehlot’s measure is sustained in Rajasthan and subsequently adopted by other states, the move could well prove to be a milestone in reforming the policing system in India and improve the police’s image.

Amithy Jasrotia and Ladhu Ram Choudhary are assistant professors at the University of Rajasthan, Jaipur; and Vinay Kaura is assistant professor, Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, Jaipur.

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