Indian society is going through a transition. Post the economic liberalization in 1991, there has been an influx of foreign investments that has created new job opportunities, enhanced income levels, improved quality of life, and changed social and cultural norms. Family patterns, caste hierarchies and gender equations, which have hitherto dominated life in India, are now being shackled by rapid urbanization. As a result, acts that were once considered a taboo in Indian society are soon becoming socially acceptable. However, our archaic laws and police force have not kept pace with the changing society.
Last week's arrest of more than 40 couples by the Mumbai Police for 'indecent behaviour' is an example of this conflict between society with its changing values and our farcical laws. Enforcing Section 110 of the Bombay Police Act-1951, the police dragged young couples out of private hotel rooms and detained them for hours in the police station. Cops then forced the youngsters, most of who were college students, to call their parents and humiliated them in front of them. Traumatized by the police action, a 19-year old girl told a newspaper that she was contemplating suicide.
This incident is only one among several that occur across India on a regular basis, where the police curtail individual liberties and basic human rights under the pretext of upholding morality and 'good behaviour'. Armed with laws that were passed several decades ago, the police frequently intrude into the private spaces of consenting adults and shame them in public. In a country like India where social audit continues to govern the society, young adults and their parents go through trauma and depression after being subject to such public humiliation.
In fact, this is not the first time the Mumbai Police has resorted to moral policing. In January 2013, the city's police commissioner had issued a circular asking his department to reign-in on couples indulging in public display of affection (PDA). After the public outcry, the circular was withdrawn.
"Officials brazenly justified this illegal detention by saying that youngsters were wasting their precious time in 'insignificant activities'."
In a yet another case of police vigilantism, cops in Hyderabad recently took 105 youngsters into custody for roaming on the streets at night. Though the youth were not breaking any law, the police summoned their parents and counselled them. Officials brazenly justified this illegal detention by saying that youngsters were wasting their precious time in 'insignificant activities'.
In 2009, it took Delhi High Court's intervention to exonerate a young married couple who were booked by police for kissing in public. Not to forget the much publicised "Operation Romeo" by Meerut Police where dating couples were slapped and punched for 'public obscenity'.
There are many more incidents of moral policing by authorities that rarely make it to the national headlines. Often, cops on patrol duty in public places blackmail gullible couples. Fearing backlash from parents, these young couples are willing to bribe them. In fact, this extortion has become such a lucrative business that there are even fake police doing the rounds collecting money from unsuspecting youngsters.
Repeated incidents of police oppression on citizen and their rights throw up some serious questions to our policy makers. Why are old laws such as the one that gave Mumbai police the chance to harass couples not repealed? How is the police action against the couples justified even after the Supreme Court's ruling that pre-marital sex is not an offence? How does a police officer define indecent behaviour? What gives the police the authority to contact the parents of adults? How does holding hands or hugging in public violate the law? Is policing 'indecent behaviour' the biggest threat to the maintenance of law and order?
"Is policing "indecent behaviour" the biggest threat to the maintenance of law and order?"
India has become a paradox of economic growth and entrepreneurial success on one side, and apathy and insensitivity of government officials on the other. Part of the reason being antiquated laws like the Bombay Police Act-1951. While the Narendra Modi-led NDA government at the Centre is doing the right thing by scrapping old laws, the State governments must follow suit. Since law and order is a state subject, it is important for states to periodically revisit such acts and quash the clauses that have become irrelevant to the society. Some of these laws are more than 50 years old and make no sense today. They only end up becoming tools for police to perpetrate brutality against powerless people.
Also, the law enforcement agency must be held accountable for the violation of human rights. After the media outrage over the abuse of power by Mumbai police, the department routinely ordered an internal enquiry. These probes are opaque and rarely lead to disciplinary action against erring officials. Recently, state governments have grudgingly accepted the Supreme Court directive and started Police Complaint Authority (PCA) in the state capitals and district headquarters. But there is very little public awareness about the existence of these authorities and avenues for people to report misuse of power by the Police.
Furthermore, police personnel in the lower ranks must be sensitised to the impact of their actions. On a day-to-day basis, common people face lot of indignities in their hands. According to a survey conducted by Transparency International a few years ago, Indians regarded police the most corrupt of all the major public institutions. 100 percent of the survey respondents have claimed to have bribed the police at some point of the time or the other. Initiating police reforms and implementing at least important recommendations made by the Soli Sorabjee Committee can help change this public perception and greatly improve the quality of policing.
On one hand, police departments claim shortage of human resources in tackling serious crimes like terrorism, human trafficking, robbery, kidnapping and murder, and on the other hand, it wastes its existing resources to curb people's personal freedoms. Liberty is one of the pillars of democracy. Police force is the law enforcement agency of the government. In a democracy, police is expected to uphold individual's right to personal liberty and not stifle it. Incidents like the Mumbai hotel raids are regressive and blur the distinction between India and a society under military dictatorship.