So what changed during the 13 days when a 23-year-old woman, subjected to unimaginable horror, took her last breath in a hospital in a foreign land? A country was awakened, a people were moved, and an unspoken assault became the national lexicon.
But while the people raged on the streets, a government hid behind police barricades and batons, guarded by water cannons and tear gas shells, desperately hoping that public memory will be short. They could do that because those sitting in the seat of government know that after the candlelight marches are over and the last tweet has been tweeted, people will return to their ordinary lives. Life will go on, people will still not vote and systemic reform will continue to elude us.
For years, individuals and courts have made solitary efforts to address systemic failures. In 1996, a respected and retired police officer approached the Supreme Court, seeking basic police reforms. Prakash Singh, who retired as Director General of Police (DGP) from the Border Security Force petitioned the SC to usher in a few basic reforms. His intent was to ensure that the courts wrench away the police from the pressures of political convenience through some institutional measures.
The case went through tortuous constitutional arguments as the state battled these reforms vigorously for 10 years. But in 2006, the SC finally judged in favour of reforms, giving elaborate guidelines and ordering that the states change the anachronistic Indian Police Act of 1861 framed by a colonial power to subjugate Indians. The DGPs are picked for political convenience rather than their professional abilities. Accountability eludes the police because it offers politicians an armed force to subjugate opposition rather than ensure law and order.
Instead, while India became a Republic, its police continued to be steeped in a colonial age, poorly trained, led and equipped for the pressures of a modern, rapidly-urbanising nation. The SC`s order continues to flounder even as a monitoring committee sat for a few rounds, its members being paid Rs50,000 per sitting while the states continued to wilfully commit contempt of court.
Had some of the police reforms taken place, policemen sitting in Delhi`s Hauz Khas police station could have responded with alacrity when a passenger who was robbed by the rapists approached them, seeking help. Had they taken immediate action, the bus could have been located and intercepted and a heinous gang rape and murder prevented. Instead, they ignored the complaint and wilfully abetted a crime that shook us all.
So, why is this critical? It is because the police are the first responders when a citizen reports a crime. They are the first line of defence against an anarchic state. They are also the investigators whose skills and abilities will decide the success of the prosecution as the case goes through a torturous legal process. While the union government, sitting in isolation in New Delhi set up two commissions to "speed up` the courts and the judiciary, they remained silent on the issues that really mattered.
A few years ago the CAG conducted an elaborate audit of the 10-year police modernisation programme. Crores of Central government funds were sent to states to modernise the police. The results of the report were shocking. The CAG, Vinod Rai, sent a copy to prime minister Manmohan Singh. His letter and report was confined to the dust bin of history. A quick calculation revealed that every year the government was only spending Rs 53 per policeman per year, and that too inefficiently.
Worse, this horrific crime also revealed the true intentions of the UPA II. They refused to accept any discussion on the long-pending demand to transfer the Delhi Police from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to the state government. The MHA -- already saddled with inter-state relations, the north-east, insurgency in Kashmir, internal security, managing the Indian Police Service, intelligence gathering etc -- also lords it over the police of a small state like Delhi. Their justification is that the Delhi Police have special duties such as protecting VVIPs. But, by doing so, they deny the people the ability to demand accountability from the government they elect in Delhi.
Instead, the government gives the union home secretary to grin and pat the Delhi police commissioner at a press conference hours after a nation was shocked by the brutal assault on a 23-year-old. It fiddles and rolls out platitudes and lists the speech of the PM as "action taken" after a gang rape, while a democracy dies a slow and painful death.
(The story was first published on December 30, 2012 in DNA newspaper)