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."

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