Lying in a bed in Thiruvananthapuram’s Government Medical College Hospital with his neck locked in a cervical collar, Abdul Kareem Gavaskar, a driver with the Kerala police, said on Wednesday he was shocked when a superior officer’s daughter started assaulting him, causing severe injuries to his spine. Gavaskar, 37, posted with the Special Armed Force in Peroorkkada, Thiruvananthapuram, was assaulted by Snigdha Kumar, daughter of Additional Director General of Police Sudesh Kumar, on June 14.

Gavaskar alleged that Snigdha Kumar repeatedly hit the back of his neck with her mobile phone, apparently angry with him for being late to pick her up from her morning walk. After Gavaskar registered a complaint against her, Snigdha Kumar filed a counter-complaint saying he had outraged her modesty. The Pinarayi Vijayan government, meanwhile, took the incident seriously and removed Sudesh Kumar as the Special Armed Force chief.

The assault also sparked public outrage and renewed calls for abolishing the orderly system, which allows high-ranking police officials to utilise low-level personnel, called orderlies, for personal service.

Vijayan admitted to the system’s existence when he said his government was committed to ending it. “We have initiated the process to dismantle the system,” he told the Assembly on Monday. “We will not allow anyone to violate human rights.”

‘I had no option’

Gavaskar joined the Kerala police as a driver in 2004. He said he worked for five senior officials before being asked to drive Sudesh Kumar’s vehicle on May 10 this year. “I was with the Special Armed Force till I was told by a senior officer at the headquarters to drive Sudesh Kumar’s vehicle,” said Gavaskar. “I was not interested in the duty. He and his family members treat police personnel as servants. But I had no option other than to obey.”

A week after the assault, Gavaskar said he hopes he is the “last victim of the orderly system”. “It is a violation of human rights,” he said. “Senior officers can warn us for making mistakes. But how can their family members assault us? I wish the government abolishes the orderly system soon.”

The orderly system was introduced by the British in the late 19th century and continues in many Indian states. Orderlies are supposed to run errands for the officials they are assigned to, guard them, drive them around, answer their telephone calls, and such. In reality, they are treated as house help. They are made to cook and clean in their officers’ homes, and even bathe pets, take children to school and families for shopping. Apart from constables, senior police officials take camp followers – civilians who work as cooks, washers and barbers in armed reserve police camps – as orderlies.

The system has long faced criticism. The second Administrative Reforms Commission of 2005 and the Sixth Pay Commission of 2008 both recommended its abolition, asking why the Army and police continued with it when the Air Force and the Navy had got rid of the practice. In 2013, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home also asked for the system to be done away with, contending that it hurt the morale of police personnel.

Abdul Kareem Gavaskar in Government Medical College Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo by special arrangement

Starting in 1982, Kerala’s home department made several efforts to end the orderly system. First, it offered police officials additional allowances to pay for servants. It came to nought as the officials took the money, but continued to use orderlies. The department then rechristened orderlies as personal security officers, and allowed senior officials to have two of them each. This effort faltered too as the officials continued to make the personal security officers do the work of orderlies. They have been flouting the two-officer limit as well by listing their extra orderlies as performing “other duty”, government officials said.

KJ Joseph, who led the Kerala police from January 2002 to May 2003, argued that the problem was not so much with the orderly system as with senior officials “who do not know about the social consciousness of Malayalees”. “Orderlies help a police officer who has to work round the clock,” he said. “But problems started cropping up when senior officers misbehaved with them. Kerala has high social consciousness. Officers from other states should understand this.”

Malayalam TV news channels this month telecast visuals of policemen posted with the dog squad purportedly cleaning Additional Director General of Police Nitin Agarwal’s house and looking after his pet dogs.

‘It weakens the force’

Vijayan told the Assembly on Monday that the orderly system was undesirable. “A directive has been issued to examine whether constables on official duty are being engaged by senior officials for domestic and personal service,” he said.

Taking a cue from the chief minister, the Kerala police chief Loknath Behera instructed all officials to send police personnel and camp followers used for personal service back to the camps.

The Malayalam daily Malayala Manorama reported on June 17 that more than 2,000 police personnel have been deployed for the personal service of around 80 Indian Police Service officers and politicians in Kerala.

KJ Joseph said it was wrong to depute young, energetic police personnel as personal security officers. “It weakens the force that is already suffering from staff shortage,” he said.

As the police chief, KJ Joseph tried to curb the practice in 2002. He directed all personnel listed as performing “other duty” to report to their home camps. The order was met with opposition from senior officials, but Joseph stuck to his position. As a result, thousands of such personnel returned, around 600 of them to a single camp in Thiruvananthapuram. “Only tough action can abolish such practices,” he said.

MG Joseph, former vice president of the Kerala Police Officers’ Association, one of the four recognised Kerala police associations, said the orderly system can be ended by setting up a judicial commission to monitor the functioning of senior police officials. He argued that an elected government cannot end such a system without the support of senior police officers. “Only a judicial commission can handle the situation,” he maintained.

No matter how it is done, added KJ Joseph, the orderly system has be abolished, and soon. “The chief minister has aired his concerns, so it is up to the police chief to take stern action and end this practice.”