Anything that moves

Why police in India focus on maintaining order and not upholding the law

The Mumbai Police raid on Madh Island hotels charging the occupants with public indecency was part of a coherent and persistent pattern rather than an anomaly.

I began my column last week by describing the opening scene of Masaan, in which police barge in on young lovers in a rent-by-the-hour hotel. A couple of days after the piece was published, an eerily similar incident took place in my home town, supposedly the subcontinent’s most liberal city. Nothing can undo the damage wrought by policemen invading private spaces and charging the occupants with public indecency, but the apology from Deven Bharti, Joint Commissioner of Police (Law and Order), has dampened the shock slightly. Authorities in India are so adamant in defending the indefensible, that even this small chink in the armour is worth treasuring.

Law and order

The question is, why did the police act so foolishly in the first place? In my view, there was a method to their madness, one which can be understood by analysing the phrase "law and order". The two words, "law" and "order" are conjoined so frequently – in designations of Joint Commissioners, in the titles of American television serials, and in common phrases like, "maintaining law and order" – that it is easy to think of them as natural allies, even synonyms. Yet, the two words refer to very different things. Law pertains mainly, though not exclusively, to individuals. It concerns rights we have as citizens that are set out in the constitution, which public officials, police included, swear to protect. Order is concerned with groups rather than individuals. A crowd, as Elias Canetti wrote in his classic Crowds and Power, can at any moment turn into a mob, overturning order and replacing it with chaos. India’s police have never had the manpower, resources or training to handle mobs adequately. To keep order, they continually negotiate with communities, to prevent their members from turning out in public as a crowd and transmogrifying into a mob.

Negotiating with groups means negotiating with their leaders, for it is these leaders who guarantee the peace. Politicians, social workers, and activists are involved in the complex and constant process of negotiation along with the police, and it works remarkably well. Given the fractures in India’s society, the stratification of wealth and access visible in cities and villages, the nation as a whole is extraordinarily orderly, though it may not seem that way looking out at the craziness of the streets. A glance back at 1947 or across at Iraq and Syria hints at how bad things could get, and undercuts any complacence.

The conventional way of enforcing order is through authoritarianism. China has used that method best, its philosophy exemplified by Zhang Yimou’s blockbuster, Hero, in which an assassin played by Jet Li gives up on revenge once he understands that the horrors visited upon his kin by the emperor’s troops were a necessary stepping stone in the creation of a unified, orderly nation. The option is the breaking up of empires into warring states, or the collapse of nations into battle zones. India has somehow negotiated the narrow strait between authoritarianism and anarchy. That, in the week of the anniversary of our independence, can be viewed as one of our greatest achievements. But it has come at a cost.

That cost includes official backing given to conservative community leaders, and a tolerance for groups that break the law, stopping trains and blocking roads in protest, for instance. This tolerance nudges groups that might have preferred less intrusive forms of demonstration toward civil disobedience, for only the threat of the mob gains the attention and respect of the authorities.

Order over law 

What the group or community fears as much as any external threat is the individual who contravenes its regulations. That is what lovers do. Desire has always been fundamentally anarchic. A couple of adults going to a hotel voluntarily are protected by law, but they are not protected from the law’s supposed protectors. For the police, as anybody who has stepped into an Indian police station will know, have no real interest in the law. When the demands of group and individual, of order and law, are in conflict, the police always choose order at the expense of law. Couples who elope are invariably tracked down and brought home to face parents, no matter how forcefully they wave their birth and marriage certificates. The big city allows a degree of individual autonomy, but even here conservatives are offended by the sight of lovers meeting of their own volition. And even here conservatives have enough of a hold on police, born of their role as guarantors of order, to spur them to foolish errands.

There are, of course, deleterious consequences that result from the choice of order over law. First, the police’s disregard for the law leaves them ill-equipped to pursue cases in court, where considerations of law predominate. They respond not by reforming themselves and improving their investigatory capacity, but by questioning the laws themselves, and demanding more stringent ones. Second, being habituated to negotiating outside the law’s purview, they grow increasingly corrupt, and thus less efficient, and less successful in investigations, in a vicious circle. Third, when dominant communities do come out as mobs intent on violence, the police are unable to take them on, exacerbating the cost to victims. This happened most notoriously in 1984 in Delhi, in 1993 in Bombay, and in 2002 in Gujarat, but has been a feature of many less publicised riots.

Would India stay stable if our security forces saw upholding the law rather than maintenance of order as their primary task? As a liberal, I very much hope so, but I cannot be certain. In any event, my purpose was to show the police raid on Madh Island hotels as part of a coherent and persistent pattern rather than an anomaly. One of the officers in the raid could have channeled a Zhang Yimou character and whispered to one of the humiliated couples, “This might seem like a violation, but please understand it’s either this or Kobane."

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

The ordeal of choosing the right data pack for your connectivity needs

"Your data has been activated." <10 seconds later> "You have crossed your data limit."

The internet is an amazing space where you can watch a donkey playing football while simultaneously looking up whether the mole on your elbow is a symptom of a terminal diseases. It’s as busy as it’s big with at least 2.96 billion pages in the indexed web and over 40,000 Google search queries processed every second. If you have access to this vast expanse of information through your mobile, then you’re probably on something known as a data plan.

However, data plans or data packs are a lot like prescription pills. You need to go through a barrage of perplexing words to understand what they really do. Not to mention the call from the telecom company rattling on at 400 words per minute about a life-changing data pack which is as undecipherable as reading a doctor’s handwriting on the prescription. On top of it all, most data packs expect you to solve complex algorithms on permutations to figure out which one is the right one.


Even the most sophisticated and evolved beings of the digital era would agree that choosing a data pack is a lot like getting stuck on a seesaw, struggling to find the right balance between getting the most out of your data and not paying for more than you need. Running out of data is frustrating, but losing the data that you paid for but couldn’t use during a busy month is outright infuriating. Shouldn’t your unused data be rolled over to the next month?

You peruse the advice available online on how to go about choosing the right data pack, most of which talks about understanding your own data usage. Armed with wisdom, you escape to your mind palace, Sherlock style, and review your access to Wifi zones, the size of the websites you regularly visit, the number of emails you send and receive, even the number of cat videos you watch. You somehow manage to figure out your daily usage which you multiply by 30 and there it is. All you need to do now is find the appropriate data pack.

Promptly ignoring the above calculations, you fall for unlimited data plans with an “all you can eat” buffet style data offering. You immediately text a code to the telecom company to activate this portal to unlimited video calls, selfies, instastories, snapchats – sky is the limit. You tell all your friends and colleagues about the genius new plan you have and how you’ve been watching funny sloth videos on YouTube all day, well, because you CAN!


Alas, after a day of reign, you realise that your phone has run out of data. Anyone who has suffered the terms and conditions of unlimited data packs knows the importance of reading the fine print before committing yourself to one. Some plans place limits on video quality to 480p on mobile phones, some limit the speed after reaching a mark mentioned in the fine print. Is it too much to ask for a plan that lets us binge on our favourite shows on Amazon Prime, unconditionally?

You find yourself stuck in an endless loop of estimating your data usage, figuring out how you crossed your data limit and arguing with customer care about your sky-high phone bill. Exasperated, you somehow muster up the strength to do it all over again and decide to browse for more data packs. Regrettably, the website wont load on your mobile because of expired data.


Getting the right data plan shouldn’t be this complicated a decision. Instead of getting confused by the numerous offers, focus on your usage and guide yourself out of the maze by having a clear idea of what you want. And if all you want is to enjoy unlimited calls with friends and uninterrupted Snapchat, then you know exactly what to look for in a plan.


The Airtel Postpaid at Rs. 499 comes closest to a plan that is up front with its offerings, making it easy to choose exactly what you need. One of the best-selling Airtel Postpaid plans, the Rs. 499 pack offers 40 GB 3G/4G data that you can carry forward to the next bill cycle if unused. The pack also offers a one year subscription to Amazon Prime on the Airtel TV app.

So, next time, don’t let your frustration get the better of you. Click here to find a plan that’s right for you.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Airtel and not by the Scroll editorial team.