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Cover Story

Fear remains the key

Although 70 per cent of respondents in a recent survey had “high” or “somewhat” trust in police, a miniscule portion (14 per cent) interacted with it. The poor, lower castes, women and children, and religious minorities continue to be exploited, discriminated, and falsified in criminal cases. Even the conviction rates are extremely low in cases against the destitute and marginalised communities


THE police is the most visible face of the state. The level of how civilised a country is can be roughly gauged by how the police treats its citizens. Policing is one of the most important parts of governance. A sovereign state cannot implement its programmes and policies in the absence of an effective control over the the police and law enforcement agencies. Philosophically speaking, no citizen is allowed to indulge in violence, take law in her own hands, or hurt others, but the state has the monopoly over the officially-sanctioned violence and, in extreme cases, it can even take lives if so necessitated and sanctioned by the law of the land.

Good governance demands a balance between fair and effective enactment of the rule of law. A society cannot hope to become just or democratic if the police is not responsive to the needs of the community, particularly its weaker and vulnerable sections. The obligation of the police, therefore, is not only to control crime but to do so in an unbiased way, while treating people with dignity and respect.

Policing is too important a subject to be left to the police department alone. It demands the involvement of citizens, academia, civil society and judiciary. But to provide effective inputs, the multiple actors need to be aware of what is wrong, and where and what is the extent of the rot. This is where good and verifiable research comes in handy. To measure is to know, and treatment cannot precede diagnosis. One can improve things not by intentions alone, but by accurate diagnosis of the ailment. This is why research becomes an integral part of policy-making.

In many parts of the world, the principles of game theory and Nash Equilibrium are being applied to policing. Societies are trying to find out the risks and benefits of certain actions of the state involving the police. With the availability of big data in the digital world, it is possible to plot numbers over long periods, and in selected geographies.

Globally, data analysis and surveys are seen as methods of monitoring as well as providing snapshots of police-citizen relations, levels of impartiality, and responsiveness to distress and crime. Surveys on citizens’ satisfaction with the police were carried out in the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, among other countries by reputed academic institutes such as the Vera Institute of Justice and the Pew Research Centre.

The Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures the level of public faith and trust in public institutions, indicates that the trust of Indians in their government declined by five percentage points in 2018. While few macro-level studies on policing in India are available, many researches point to immense distrust in the police (Human Rights Watch, 2009; Joshi, 2013).

A society cannot hope to become just or democratic if the police is not responsive to the needs of the community. The obligation of the police, therefore, is not only to control crime but to do so in an unbiased  way, while treating people with dignity and respect

It is in this context that the “Status of Policing in India Report (SPIR) 2018 – A Study of Performance and Perceptions” was conceived. Conducted by Common Cause and the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), it is one of the first efforts to capture the larger perceptions and attitudes of the public about the police, and policing conditions in India through a robust and representative sample. The findings were juxtaposed against state-wise police performance evaluation through analysis of official data across different parameters.

The study looked at two aspects of policing – how the police in the different states fared in terms of statistical data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D), and how they fared in terms of the perceptions and attitudes of the public towards the institution. It also analysed the performance audit of police forces in different states, conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).

Contact and Confidence: Experiences with the Police

Despite being the most visible institution of social control in a country with high rates of violent crime, the study reveals that Indians have a low-level of interaction with the police, with only about 14 per cent reporting any kind of interaction in the recent past. The homicide rate in India is one of the highest in the world, yet the level of public-police interaction is much lower than many countries for which similar data is available, such as the USA (26 per cent) and England (31 per cent). Much of this may be rooted in the high levels of vacancy in police forces across the country, with registered vacancies of about 22 per cent at the all-India level, and a high 52 per cent in states like Uttar Pradesh in 2016.

Of those Indians who have had interaction with the police, a majority (67 per cent) contacted the police, while 17 per cent were contacted by the police. What is striking here is the profile of those contacted by the police. Adivasis (23 per cent) are most likely to be contacted by the police, followed by Muslims (21 per cent), Other Backward Castes (17 per cent), Dalits (16 per cent) and Hindu upper castes (13 per cent). The likelihood of police contacting an individual is nearly twice as high among the poor (21 per cent) as compared to the rich (12 per cent).

OF those who contacted the police, one in every three reported having to pay a bribe to get her work done. Muslims, OBCs, and poor were more likely to be compelled to pay a bribe than the other respondents. It is no surprise then that India ranks a poor 79 on the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International.

Discrimination: Within and by the Police

A pattern of discrimination emerges through the analysis of the official data released by the police organisations. Police forces have a distressing under-representation of communities that have a statutory mandate for reservations – SCs, STs and OBCs – and the disadvantaged communities that do not, Muslims and women. When looking at the five-year average (2012-16), only three (Punjab, Uttarakhand and Delhi) of the 22 selected states in the study were able to meet the reserved quota for SCs; six states (Bihar, HP, Karnataka, Nagaland, Telangana, Uttarakhand) were able to fulfil the reserved quota for STs; and a slightly higher number of nine states (Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Telangana and Uttarakhand) were able to achieve the reservation benchmark for OBCs. None of the states were able to achieve the 33 per cent benchmark for recruitment of women.

Conversely, nearly all the states have disproportionately higher representation of SCs, STs and Muslims in the prisons, compared to the respective population of these communities. Out of 22 states, this is true for Muslims in all of them, SCs in 18 states, and STs in 19 states.

Police forces have a distressing under-representation of communities that have a statutory mandate for reservations – SCs, STs and OBCs – and the disadvantaged communities that do not, Muslims and women

While the disposal of criminal cases is uniformly better in all states than the disposal by the courts, it is the disposal of cases against the SCs, STs, women, and children which suffers the most. The disposal percentage by both the police and courts against the above groups is much worse than the overall disposal in nearly all the states. For instance, while the overall conviction rate is 75 per cent, the figure for cases against women is 21 per cent, SCs is 25 per cent, STs is 20 per cent, and children is 32 per cent.

A similar theme emerges from the survey findings as well, with more than three out of four respondents reporting that the police discriminates on various grounds, including caste, class, religion, and gender. Only a little less than half the Muslim respondents (47 per cent) believe that they are falsely implicated in terrorism-related cases.

Trust, Satisfaction and Fear

Despite the several systematic dysfunctionalities, ranging from high vacancies to a highly-discriminatory setup, we found that the general public’s trust in the police is significantly high. Nearly a quarter of the respondents reported “high trust”, and just a little less than half (45 per cent) noted that they were “somewhat” trusting. The levels of satisfaction, on the other hand, were predictably highest in areas where the incidences of crime had decreased over the last five years.

Here again, though, a high variation exists between the levels of distrust among literates (4 per cent) and non-literates (13 per cent) with the non-literates being three times more likely to distrust the police than the literates. Marginalised communities such as OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis (8 per cent each) are more likely to be distrustful.

Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have the highest respondents (71 per cent and 70 per cent, respectively) reporting positive perception of the police, much above the all-India average of 26 per cent. Punjab has the least positive perception, with less than one in 10 respondents reporting a “very positive” perception.

ALMOST incongruous with the high levels of trust and satisfaction, a large proportion of the respondents, 44 percent, simultaneously reported fearing the police and its extra-judicial torture in some form. Punjab stands out as the most fearful state with nearly seven in 10 respondents being fearful of the police.


The larger story of police in India – as it emerges through the study – is a story of vulnerabilities. While it enjoys a high degree of trust, satisfaction and faith by the public, a necessity in a functional democracy, a look at the more nuanced findings reveals the exclusion of vulnerable communities from the benefits of policing. In nearly all the indicators, whether in the survey or in the analysis of official data, there is a clear pattern of disadvantage towards the SCs, STs, OBCs, Muslim, women, poor, illegal ad migrants, often overlapping categories. This is an important aspect that needs to be recognised and addressed in any effort for bringing in police reforms in the country.

The performance evaluation by CAG of police and prisons in different states tells a sad tale of structural inefficiencies and malpractices. With unexplained and unscrupulous diversion of funds, under-utilisation of resources, absence of basic facilities, and substandard infrastructure, it is almost inconceivable how the police system continues to remain intact and to earn the trust of the public. Unless these structural issues, whether of infrastructure or of discrimination, are corrected, India cannot hope to meaningfully reform its criminal justice system.

Radhika Jha is Research Executive, Common Cause; Vipul Mudgal is Director and Chief Executive, Common Cause.

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