Around a year ago, we worked on a short community documentary about the traffic police in Bengaluru for Write Leela Write. My friend Vishnu Nambiar and I went around the city, nettling traffic cops for interviews on their busy beats, meeting senior police in quaint, old police stations and trying to capture the perfect money shots of the traffic pileups that have come to personify Bangalore's collective grief, pain and anger. As one senior traffic police cadre pithily summed it up "It used to be the Garden city, now it's just a garbage city with traffic."
Sure, this was no 'Apocalypse Now', but we worked pretty darn hard on this film. Two months of earnest work went into the making a docu-short that had a running length of 5 odd minutes. Personally, I felt it was a miles ahead of our first documentary where we interviewed Tea shop owners across Indiranagar. The questions we posed were more focused, there was a far more rounded narrative and even the editing and cinematography seemed to belie our modest budget. However, the first one was far better received. Obviously, there are many factors that could have contributed to this- metrics are rarely predictable. But there's an elementary fact that underlies the tepid response to the second film. People don't like cops.
To understand better how Indian society perceives it's police force, we only have to look at our movies. Typically, they are portrayed as corrupt, inept and are endowed with a drawl that one has to chew obscene amounts of paan to achieve. At their best, they are seen as a larger than life, iconoclastic mustachioed breed who break and/or bend the law towards realizing a rather sanskaari sense of morality and masculinity (an essential trope in this specific genre). There is some truth to these caricatures, Indian cops are often corrupt, inept and mustachioed. But, in both these cases, the bedrock remains the same- a cop is inherently unethical - even when he's busy committing a litany of infractions for what audiences will eventually consider the greater Indian good.
Our loathing for the police cuts across classes. But it's the so called middle class' loathing that is uniquely peculiar. Most of us in Bangalore have never been through police brutality the way a minority has in America has or, closer home, folks in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and Manipur have. I personally have been roughed up by the cops on a few occasions over here, and by Indian standards I certainly 'deserved it' even though I definitely don't agree with the Indian requisites of when violence ought to be implemented. I've also heard horror stories from women trying to approach the police with grievances, a occurrence that's almost passe in a depressingly patriarchal society. Nothing justifies these incidents and I'm not even attempting to exonerate the Indian police.
However, a lot of the middle class' deeply held grouses against the police stem from their own sense of being inconvenienced when a cop was merely doing his or her job (being caught driving under the influence, without a helmet, speeding, jumping a red light etc etc) and the truth is we practice traffic violations like an activity sport. More often than not, we're let off with a warning or a fine, or a bribe (which gives us some absurd moral advantage over the policeman taking the bribe), which is still a pretty lax punishment for being an entitled moron on the road. Our methods of punishment are often reflective of our society and there's no greater representation of our society than the enforcers of the law.
While shooting the documentary,it became clear to us that the Indian police were an underpaid, overworked and pretty understaffed unit, you know, like techies with lower pay, no lanyards and bereft of the illusion of capitalist benefits. Even bribe taking wasn't this glorious free for all that we had imagined, there were sanctioned monthly targets to be met and most regular cops didn't see much of the moolah in any case. None of this was news to us, but it's a fact that we choose to overlook when we spit venom at a cop who pulled us over for jumping a red. It's almost as if we forget our cops aren't the well oiled, heavily armed machinery we see in American movies. They're just regular folks in khaki, accoutred with a lathi, and a glistening few armed with outdated pistols that would even make part time thugs operating out of Tannery road giggle.
This is why the police's efforts in the recent events that plagued Bangalore are particularly spectacular. Besides a fantastic social media presence that assuaged the fears of the general public, which had reached such a mindless, pointless fever pitch that was just waiting to morph into hysteria, their efforts on the ground far exceeded anything their Twitter handle had the time to articulate. Almost all the ethnic Tamil neighbourhoods were heavily protected, troublemakers were brought to book swiftly and they even took the time to tow and thereby protect parked TN registered vehicles. The police force on the road were approachable, ready to help in any way possible and and within a day Bangalore was back to a sense of normalcy that we had only last seen in the 90's (because of the lack of cars on the roads).