Three years after riots devastated Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts of Uttar Pradesh, Kawal village sits calmly in the hinterland.

This village, off the Muzaffarnagar-Meerut highway, is where the incidents that triggered the 2013 riots took place. Following those incidents, Kawal remained peaceful while communal violence spread westward towards Shamli.

Kawal’s residents still remember the names of the three people whose murders sparked the violence in which over 50 people were eventually killed.

“Two boys on bikes had a minor accident and got into a fight,” recalled village chief Mohammed Islam Qureshi, as he sat with his group of friends, drawing on a cigarette. “One was Shahnawaz and the other was Sachin, one a Muslim and the other a Jat. They fought and the Jat boys from Malikpura village came back and killed Shahnawaz. A mob gathered in Kawal and caught the two Jat boys Gaurav and Sachin and beat them to death. That’s it. The violence spread quickly.”

Qureshi’s version of the incident is retold with several modifications by Jats, with Shahnawaz emerging as a molester who was killed in righteous anger.

But both Muslims and Jats agree on one point – that the police failed abysmally to stop the spread of violence.

“Had the police been fair and quick, the riots would have never occurred,” said Qureshi, while KP Singh, a Jat nodded along in agreement.

Police politics

As western Uttar Pradesh gets set to vote on February 11 in the first phase of the seven-phase Assembly elections, law and order is a political issue as it has been here for decades.

In radio jingles, the BJP cites the Muzzaffarnagar riots as an example of the state’s deteriorating crime graph. The jingle mocks the ruling Samajwadi Party, claiming that while Muzaffarnagar burned in 2013, there were dance performances in Saifai, the village of party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in Etawah district.

The ruling party tends to dismiss this sort of criticism by citing National Crime Records Bureau statistics whose 2015 data shows that the crime rate in Uttar Pradesh was one of the lowest in the country – at 112 per 100,000 population – for offences registered under the Indian Penal Code. However, when cases under other special and local laws are counted too, the state rises to the top of the crime list.

In the past, the state police has been criticised for shoddy investigations, political interference, bias and endemic corruption. Its police officers admit that transfers and postings have been politicised under the Samajwadi Party for years.

“Every time the SP [Samajwadi Party] has taken charge in Lucknow, policing standards have gone down,” said a senior Indian Police Service officer, who requested anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media.

This officer received an adverse posting when Mayawati was chief minister. However, he rates the Bahujan Samaj Party leader as a far better administrator than those in the Samajwadi Party – a refrain among other residents of the state too.

“We have seen that at the local police station level, every posting is decided by the local SP leaders,” recollected the police officer. “This completely undermined senior police officers, with local inspectors having more clout than senior officers. We never saw this under Mayawati.”

He added: “But things have begun to change under Akhilesh Yadav, and his distance from his father and uncle should work.”

The game changer

In November, Akhilesh Yadav launched the UP-100 service, an integrated emergency response service for the entire state fashioned along the lines of the one that operates in Delhi. It was initially rolled out in 11 districts but rollout was completed in all 75 districts by January 7.

Under this system, distress calls made to the police from across the state will be received at a centralised control room in state capital Lucknow from where they will be forwarded for further action. The system, which has 3,200 police vehicles at its disposal, is expected to bring about more accountability in the police force.

The gang rape of two women in Bulandshahr in July, and the death of three people in violence in Bijnor in September, had exposed the poor condition of the state’s police emergency response system. These incidents seem to have spurred the state government to implement the system – first mooted in November 2014 – a few months later.

In the Bulandshahr incident, the police control room did not pick up the family’s frantic calls to the police assistance number, 100, for about 15 minutes, while in Bijnore, the victims’ relatives could not reach the police despite dialling the emergency number several times.

“At the core of UP-100’s philosophy was to place the decision to respond to a crime in the hands of a neutral party,” said state additional director general of police Anil Agarwal in a telephonic interview. “Local biases and other factors had rendered local police stations largely ineffective. UP-100 addresses that by making all calls to the police being centralised to Lucknow.”

He added: “Today, we are processing over 50,000 calls every day across the state and we are responding to them in under 15 minutes in the cities and just over 20 minutes in the rural areas.”

The service has been allocated a budget of Rs 2,325 crores over five years.

‘Quick response’

Since its launch, several villagers in western Uttar Pradesh have seen the emergency police response vehicles – shiny black SUVs with the bright yellow Dial 100 emblazoned on them.

In villages like Kawal and Sohram, both in Muzzaffarnagar district, a few women praised the service.

“The police arrive quickly and they are helpful,” said a group of women in unison. “Dial 100 and 108, the ambulance service, are very good.”

Agarwal said that the police personnel deployed with this emergency response system are not drawn out for VIP duties.

“This has freed up the men and women to exclusively work on responding to crime and given the Superintendents of Police more time for investigations,” said Agarwal.

In Muzaffarnagar, constable Sarvesh Kumar, standing next to his Dial 100 vehicle, proudly showed off the GPS-enabled tablet that the police uses to swiftly locate the complainant.

“We have been given training on how to deal with people and we get a lot of praise,” said Kumar. “I deal with nearly seven to eight calls daily.”

But will this new service change old perceptions about the Uttar Pradesh police, and help boost Akhilesh Yadav’s prospects in an election that has everyone guessing? The answer will be clear on March 11.