Liberty behind bars!

Some days ago I had a confrontation with a traffic cop. For a change, I was on the wrong side of the law– I still however think that I was quite justified in my anger.The story goes thus: I was trying to get an auto driver to take an authorized turn through a partially displaced barricade back home, because otherwise I would have to take a three kilometer long U-turn all the way back home, wasting precious time and money. As luck would have it- my auto-driver who was reluctant to break the law (not because he was particularly law abiding or wanted to go the extra distance , it was a very hot afternoon, but because he knew the policeman in question would harass him, extort money and confiscate his vehicle) turned around three times seeming rather uncomfortable with the idea of going through the barricade.

When after much cajoling he decided to listen to me, we were stopped by the policeman. Here is what the policeman told me amongst other things: a) That he would confiscate and beat up the auto-driver, despite it being MY fault, b) He would fine the auto driver 500 rupees for listening to his customer’s request, c) He would fine me rupees 1500 for getting out of the auto and arguing with him! He then said he would take me to the station when I asked how much of the fine he intended to spend on alcohol.

Chennai has just seen a whole spate of moral policing. A guy not allowed to wear red in college, a couple reprimanded for kissing… All by the police force. The fact that I broke the law is not what this is about. I did. I however have arguments to my side. For one, the barrier is partial so that vehicles can cross over! The policeman stands there as long as the chief minister is in the vicinity… Anyone willing to bribe the policeman gets to cross without the U-turn and a barrier at that particular point is ludicrously and most inconveniently placed. This is ofcourse an entirely new strand of argument: Must we obey laws that are obsolete and make no sense whatsoever?

The point is this: We understand the police, atleast in this country as a force. A force automatically brings about feelings of superiority, fear and authority. This might be a good thing for law enforcement but is a terrible disaster for liberty. Why? For one, it implies the sort of power that any monopoly or the State has- such power if abused (and it is) has unfortunate implications for people. What we need to start doing is to understand the police as a service. A service provided to people for their own security, but a service nevertheless. A service makes the police accessible, people friendly, a degree un-authoritative and therefore accountable in all its dealings especially with the masses.