Brij Mohan Sharma is a stockist for Hindalco, and sells aluminium to retailers for a living. But that won’t be the first thing you learn about him when you visit him at his office in Old Delhi. A nameplate in Sharma’s office instead prominently identifies him as a ‘police mitra’. A photograph on his desk shows him wearing khaki, and can lead one to believe that he is an actual policeman.
Sharma isn’t technically a policeman. He hasn’t been trained in rules, laws, and procedures like police personnel are and doesn’t draw any salary like police officials. But he comes close. He has an arm-band and an ID-card that lets him act like the police. He manages crowds during Muharram or Kanwar processions, pacifies mobs, and, unlike common civilians, is also occasionally part of police-patrolling.
In his late fifties now, Sharma has been the police’s friend for about 15 years. Owing to his family’s “influence in the area” and his close relationship with the people in the area, he explains, the police have long sought his assistance. “They (the policemen) were in uniform. I was without uniform. I am also a policeman,” he says.
In Delhi, a police mitra is a civilian enrolled with a police station or an entire district for “prevention of crime, maintenance of law and order and for better communication with citizens”. The scheme was launched late last year.
But just who are these people? And what are their motivations for assisting the police? After all, the government doesn’t pay them to do this work. More importantly, why does the police need to make these friends?
According to the standing order issued for their appointment, accessed by YKA, any able-bodied person above 18 years of age can offer to become the police’s friend in the area they live in, by filling an online application form, as long as they have a “good reputation” of having assisted the police in prevention of crime or in maintaining law and order. Claims made in the form are verified by the police through people living in the neighbourhood and criminal antecedents of the person checked before one is selected.
Exact figures are unavailable but, according to a Delhi Police press release, there seem to be around 2000 police mitras across the city. According to the standing order, they are are supposed to help the police out with a range of activities – from organising meetings in schools and colleges to reporting activities of criminals residing the area.
Such volunteers are at times professors, doctors, businessmen, or social workers. While making law and order arrangements, however, a senior officer tasked with mitras’ appointment told YKA, “It is easier for us to have somebody from the local area who has more say than us.” Other officers also said that volunteers are aplenty, but factors like ability to provide assistance at short notice, ability to provide information about crime in the area or capacity to work on local security issues help in choosing the right fit .
Sharma, for example, has experience in relief and rescue work, apart from his photograph in khaki, because he volunteers for the Civil Defence Corps. He is also a member of the Metal Traders Association in Basti Harphool Singh and claims to be the Mahamantri of the area’s Arya Samaj.
Parvez Mian, in his late forties, is a doctor by profession. A mitra for the Krishna Nagar police station, he has been working with the police for nearly three decades. On the walls of his residence-cum-clinic, in a narrow lane in Kanti Nagar, are multiple photographs of him with politicians like Sonia Gandhi and General V K Singh. Trophies and mementos commending him or his organisations for social work occupy cabinets and desks.
Growing up in an Old Delhi neighbourhood in the early eighties, befriending the police was first a necessity for Dr. Mian. He says “if there was a communal tension anywhere in India, curfew would be imposed” in Old Delhi localities too. He worked against this distrust by arranging meetings between the police and the community. After he shifted to the east in the 90s, he says he got a police post built in Old Seelampur with the help of donations from the public so that the police could arrive faster during riots, which were rife in ’92.
Vinod Madan, a businessman, who is also a mitra with the Krishna Nagar police station, is more reserved when speaking of his motivation for assisting the police. He says he was moved by the fact that the police have to work long hours and even during festivals. So he organises health camps for the police, assists in CCTV-installation, or arranges meetings with senior citizens and the RWA. His association with the police, he says, started in 2007 when he helped an SHO organise a havan.
Pushpa Sharma, a retired teacher, has an entirely different reason to help. Her work with the police revolves around helping women and children – something she feels strongly about.
Reducing the distrust between the police and the public is also an aspect she works on. “We do such activities that even a teenager girl doesn’t feel afraid of directly approaching the police,” she told YKA.
But beyond the mitras’ claims of selfless service, there are also hints of a need for power and influence. When Madan rides his scooty through the lanes of Krishna Nagar, passers-by, including policemen, greet him with respect.
Explaining the necessity for the scheme, Pushpa Sharma says, civilians too “need some power to be able to intervene for maintaining law and order (on the street), because it is not possible for the police to arrive immediately”.
It is true that the police in India lack in resources. According to latest statistics of the Bureau of Police Research and Development, there are about 395 total policemen per lakh of population in Delhi.
But the police mitra scheme is not just about making up for this lack of resources. It seems to be a step in the direction of achieving the micro missions of the National Police Mission to ensure outreach through community policing.
What has until now mostly passed for community policing in India though is a provision for Special Police Officers (SPOs) under Section 17 of the Police Act of 1861. The legislation was imitated by states and UTs, including Delhi, while framing their respective Police Acts. Those selected have the powers of ‘an ordinary policeman’. But in Delhi, the new standing orders give mitras powers of only ‘an ordinary citizen’ under Section 43 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, although they are technically SPOs under the Delhi Police Act.
This clarity in distinction, however, seems to be missing. The mitras YKA spoke to repeatedly told YKA that the police tell them that they are like any other policeman.
Conferring such powers on civilians does not qualify as community policing. “Community policing is not policing by the community,” says a 2011 Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) report. The report says that since policing – or enforcing the law – in itself “requires professional training”, say in the nitty-gritty of law, and “a unique skill set”, laymen should not be made to do it.
This misconception has led to abuses. The erstwhile SPOs of the Delhi Police, for instance, were purportedly disbanded because they started using nameplates to emphasise power, and because there were complaints of corruption and goondaism. Their tenure has now therefore been reduced. Brij Mohan Sharma was an SPO for ten years, but he can work as a mitra only for three.
Yet, the roles and functions of the police mitras continue to revolve mostly around assisting the police, and have nothing to do with holding the police accountable. Lack of accountability is also one of the problems the 2011 CHRI report held responsible for the public’s alienation with the police.
“It’s such a slippery slope between this and then really becoming, you know, the insidious thing that happens maybe when you have a vendetta against someone, and you want to implicate them in something,” explains Devika Prasad, Coordinator of the Police Reforms programme at CHRI.
Prasad also suggests community input in appointment of such mitras, so that police mitras don’t end up being the “local power brokers” and so that there is representation of all communities. Kerala’s amended Police Act, for instance, made an explicit provision for representation in their Community Contact Committees.
In Delhi, no such provision has been made. In its stead, even existing rules that remove this ‘local power broker’ equation seem to have been flouted. Although the standing orders require that “people with any vested or political interest do not get appointed”, Madan and Mian both have immediate political affiliations. While Mian has been an active member of the Congress and held several offices in Delhi, Madan is a cashier of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for Gandhinagar area. Madan also claims to be a former cashier of the Geeta Colony division of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Their association with the police seems to have had more influence in their selection than the prescribed rules.
For the police to be friends with the public then, it is not enough that members of the public are ‘friends of the police’. “They should assist people to be able to file complaints against the police,” Prasad suggests. She is not too hopeful though if that will happen anytime soon.