There is a scene in the film Kathal that frames the significance of individuals who stand at the intersection of marginalised identities in occupying positions of power. Inspector Mahima Basor, an officer in a district in Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, is questioning – quite politely – an upper-caste man about the whereabouts of a missing girl.

He confidently claims that “these people” of the lower castes are all thieves. When Basor reveals her name – and so, her caste – and informs him that she does not steal but catches thieves, he is contrite, even obsequious. The power of the state and the symbol of the police uniform can stand tall against centuries of caste and gender prejudice.

Kathal is a clever social satire that explores several issues at the intersection of caste and gender, within the institution of the police. Basor is a Dalit woman occupying a fairly powerful post and leads her own team on important investigations. The police hero of Kathal is no cliché of aggressive physical strength and brazen machismo: Basor is humble, humorous and intelligent. But above all, wears her compassion and moral compass as prominently as the badge on her sleeve.

But are there enough Mahima Basores in India’s police forces?

The India Justice Report, 2022, found that the share of police personnel at the higher ranks, or officer levels, is 15% in the case of Scheduled Castes, 10% for Scheduled Tribes and 27% for Other Backward Class – far lower proportions than at the constabulary level. The India Justice Report is compiled using data from the Bureau of Police Research and Development.

All states, apart from Karnataka, have failed to fill their mandated quotas for reserved categories among the police. Women account for only 12% of the police force and only 8% at the officer level. Religious minorities, like Muslims, make up only 3%-4% of the entire force. There are no exact figures available on the number of Dalit women officers in the police, it is easy to extrapolate that it is a minuscule number.

Finding a real-life Mahima Basor, then, is quite the task.

The matter of representation in the police force is not one of mere symbolism or tokenism. Adequate representation of “backward classes” in public institutions is a part of the bedrock of the equality code of the Constitution. People from marginalised communities donning uniforms symbolic of state power is a form of upward social mobility and can even help enable social change.

Further, for most of the population, the police is the most visible facet of the state, often the first port of call at a time of distress. If the frontlines of the force lack diversity and carry the feudal prejudices of privileged and powerful communities to the police station, they become less approachable for marginalised castes and communities.

The Status of Policing Report, 2023, (by Common Cause and Lokniti-Centre for Study of Developing Societies) finds that faith in the police is the lowest amongst Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims and the poor, who are often the targets of arbitrary policing. At the same time, an earlier report from 2019 found that large sections of the police believed that certain communities such as Dalits and Muslims were “naturally prone towards committing crime”.

Such beliefs are not surprising as the police, as an institution, is a reflection of the prejudices held by the majority of those who constitute it. These lopsided realities, unfortunately, contribute towards the disproportionate rates of wrongful arrests and incarceration amongst Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims and even custodial violence against members of such groups.

Similarly, the low representation of women is associated with an apprehension in reporting gendered crime, as they fear that their cases will not be handled with the required levels of sensitivity.

None of this is to level a sweeping allegation that the police on a whole wield casteist and/or gendered prejudices or that the police never protect the interests of minority communities. But there is no doubt that an increase in representation, especially at higher ranks, could play an important role in challenging ingrained notions of gender, case and communal prejudice within the police institution.

More Mahima Basores – Dalit, women officers – could make the wonderful fiction of Kathal a reality.

The writer is an advocate practicing at the Supreme Court of India.