Human rights and policemen

Debates on human rights invariably pit human rights defenders against the police. This is unfortunate, and a result of many misconceptions. The police have even been termed, by a high court no less, as ‘criminals in uniform’. However, it is more accurate to term the police as ‘human rights defenders in uniform’ and the human rights activists as the civilian human rights defenders. They both share a common interest in the rule of law.

Every day we send out thousands of policemen to defend and protect our human rights, armed only with the law and a body armour of their thin khaki uniform. The point of departure is when some police—a minor fraction of the force—break the law on purpose, and the human rights defenders point it out. The police close ranks and try to defend the indefensible—‘he is one of us’. The common arguments are loss of morale, and the trying conditions of work. However, all Indians are ‘one of us’. Because we have inherited a colonial state, the state functionaries try to protect the state from the nation—the people. The objective of gaining independence was to ensure that the state would protect our rights, and not the interests of the British. It has taken a while for this realisation to dawn on the state. However, it is important to recognise the important function that the police play, and the role of human rights defenders in society.
The primary purpose of the state is to protect, promote and preserve the human rights of all its citizens. This primary duty, and the position of the state as the primary duty bearer is recognised in all human rights instruments and in international human rights law. Even if we narrow down ‘human rights’ to just civil and political rights, rather than the economic social and cultural rights such as the right to food and education, the primacy of the state has been established beyond debate.

Given this context, the police are among the most important defenders of human rights. The paramilitary are, or should be, called out only on occasion. The police are the sole agency of the state empowered to use force on a daily basis. This speaks volumes about the trust we repose on them, and the great responsibility they have to use it with discretion. Since the police are drawn from society, unfortunately, just as we have ‘bad apples’ in society, there are ‘bad apples’ in the police too. Throughout history, it is the lower middle-class that has provided the bulk of the constabulary. They are poorly educated, and seldom have a liberal outlook. Given that they are seldom trained in the philosophy of law, latest trends in criminology, crime and punishment—let alone given the tools for modern enforcement—they are doing a wonderful job of defending human rights.

Dealing with criminals, they treat everyone as criminals—like a nursery school teacher getting so used to talking slowly to the students that she talks even to parents in a similar way. Even armies rotate soldiers during war. The police are so understaffed that they are virtually on call right through the day. This is clearly unacceptable. They deal with criminals too much of the time, and then are asked to turn around and be the smiling, humane, friendly neighbourhood uncle in a second.

The pressures on the police sometimes make them take short-cuts—such as extra-judicial killings. This goes against the basic tenets of the rule of law. The law keeps the victim, the accused, the investigative agency [the police] and the judiciary separate so that the accused is treated fairly. The victim or relatives cannot be the judge. The police in investigation cannot be the judge either, since they also become emotionally attached to one side or the other. Therefore an independent judge is appointed. The police feel that the accused are let off too often and therefore kill people in lock-ups and in ‘encounters’. Taking the law into their own hands is bad for the police, as it is for all citizens. The answer is to reform the law, and to give the police better tools and better working conditions.

Of all sections of society, it is the human rights activists who call for a stronger state, with more accountability and transparency to the citizens it is supposed to protect. It is the human rights activists who are strenuous in their demand for the application of the spirit and letter of the law in all circumstances—because they realise, just as the police do—that the law is meant to protect. It is often the only protection that the weak have. Despite the frustration of the police—and the misuse of the judiciary by organised crime—human rights defenders would uphold the law while working for political, legal and judicial reform.

Human rights defenders often talk about the human rights violations of the police themselves—the long hours of duty, ‘punishment transfers’ for upholding the law in the face of political interference, hierarchy of respect, and downright corruption due to political compulsions. This discourse never gets into the public eye due to the seemingly hostile public positions of the two sides. It is a serious misunderstanding of roles that have, for too long, pitted the police and human rights defenders against each other. It is important to recognise and build on the synergies of the police and the human rights defenders, so that there can be a recognition of human rights defenders in and out of uniform in place of the criminals in and out of uniform as a high court has commented. A ‘culture of human rights’ that ‘respects, promotes and protects’ the human rights of all at all times needs such a partnership.