Oct 19, 2009

Eve Teasing and Counterinsurgency

This week, we sat down with Atul Goel, who is on leave from his job as an officer of the Indian Police Service (IPS) for two years as he pursues a Masters in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In his most recent posting, Atul commanded a force of 1,200 police officers in the Kashmir valley, heading up investigations of violent crime, government malpractice, and counterinsurgency-related crimes.

Atul, thank you for speaking with us. To start, can you tell us a little bit about the Indian Police Service and your role with this law enforcement body?

The Indian Police Service (IPS) is not a force itself but a service providing leaders and commanders to staff the state police and all-India Para-Military Forces. IPS officers are recruited and trained by the Indian government, after which they are assigned to police departments in various states to work in key leadership positions.

I have worked with IPS for 5 years, including a training period in which I spent one year in the academy and one year in the field, acting out all of the roles I would later command, from being the most subordinate officer (beat constable), all the way up.
It took me 4 years to get into IPS. It is a highly competitive exam that is used throughout the federal government to recruit senior executives in foreign services, administrative service, policing, etc. The position requires somebody who is highly competent but also a generalist – obviously, we are taught law and forensic science as part of the training, but what is stressed is common sense and how not to be prejudiced against certain things. Additionally, we have to know how to deal with politicians, handle the common people's problems, and do personnel management.

Although my family lives in Delhi, I was sent to Kashmir, one of 100 IPS officers sent to that region. I was responsible for 1200 policemen most recently, supervising 7 police stations. Since Kashmir also has paramilitary forces, I also supervised 3 battalions of paramilitary forces (focusing on counterinsurgency problems, not hard crime).
My region encompassed roughly 300,000 people, with a middle class population of roughly 40% and a lower income population of about 60%.

It is interesting to hear that you were responsible both for "hard crime" problems and for counterinsurgency issues. Can you give us a sense of what kinds of crime you most frequently dealt with in both categories?

Well, for hard crime, the most frequent issues were burglaries, low-level drugs (not cocaine or marijuana, but usually prescription drugs that people were taking illegally, like cough syrup), and eve teasing.

What is eve teasing?

You know, like Adam and Eve? It means making snide remarks about women -- Indian citizens can be booked for it and prosecuted. In fact, just before I came here, when the elections were happening, there was a case with this guy doing eve teasing from his car. Two girls were walking on a road, this guy was trying to make conversation, and the girls weren't responding to his small talk. So he crushed one of the girls under his car and she died.
Also, there is a fair amount of mob violence. Because of certain political circumstances and the insurgency in the area, there are a lot of protests and they are not always peaceful ones.

And what about the counterinsurgency crimes?

Our biggest concern is about bomb blasts. In fact, last July, we had a really bad one, in which a family of people died (among the dead were four small siblings). This is the kind of thing we are always worried about, so we are constantly collecting intelligence, doing paramilitary prevention based on that intelligence, and investigating cases once a crime has happened. When a blast happens, you have to rush in, insure immediate relief, conduct autopsies in case there are any dead, and investigate the case (the level of insurgency-related violence has in fact decreased significantly over the last few years).

Really, the distinction between hard crime and counterinsurgency is not that clear-cut – once an event occurs in a place, it is a crime under your local penal code, so it becomes your duty to investigate. Sometimes, larger federal investigation agencies come in to take the case. Like that blast where four people died, that was investigated locally, but I used a special investigation team at my office level because it was slightly more important than the normal set of events.
With counterinsurgency, it becomes really important, especially in terms of intelligence collection, that the officers who are working there at the police station have a good knowledge of the area (they have a good feel of what’s happening). We have an entire branch in the police that is just for collection of intelligence, but we are not going to separate the channels of information if there is relevance for other crime issues.

So what is the murder rate in your area?

It's really pretty low, absent counterinsurgency issues, perhaps two murders registered per year. The murder rate is generally pretty low in India, as compared to other countries. Our crime is mostly for economic reasons, in my opinion. Burglary, for example, people stealing mobile phones. Last year, one murder case was the crushed girl and there might have been one more.

Including the militancy, however, the murder rate is pretty high. As I mentioned, with the mob violence: there was one day when six people died in our jurisdiction. Although gangs are not really a problem -- we don't have the culture of gangs in the same way that US does -- there was a case where a family of five was murdered. The person who did it was 600 miles away, in another state. You know, there are these tribes, groups of people who, under the British system, were classified as professional criminals. Since one is born into this group, the entire male adult population of a village could be part of these "criminal tribes." After independence, the government reorganized this group of people, but the 5 murders I mentioned were committed by a gang of people from these "criminal tribes." I don't agree with this terminology, but just to give you an understanding of the issues at play.

I would imagine that there would be a certain amount of gun trafficking in the area. Is that correct?

Yes, there is a lot of gun trafficking in Kashmir, most of it done from Pakistan. In fact, we had this one murder case in which a son killed his father. So as to divert the attention of the police, he got a hand grenade (which are easily available in Kashmir) and planted it near the dead body, to make it seem like it was a militancy-related crime. There is a lot of shifting between militants and crime. There are some cases in which the guns that are meant for militants go towards committing of routine crimes and in some cases regular crimes have been given the color of militancy. People sometimes go into others' houses to steal stuff, with toy guns, behaving as if they are militants. They don't do any physical harm, but maybe they steal a mobile phone or some other valuables.

What are you hoping to do moving forward?

Getting into the police service is a big gamble, because you might not get through past the test. It's a big stress job with lots of power and perks, but a lot of educated Indians see the opening of the economy and moving are to private sector. A lot of people take this exam because one of best ways to serve the people and change the way the country functions, since you get into a powerful role. I hope that an education at Harvard will give me the skills and the credibility required to contribute meaningfully to the manner in which the criminal justice system in general, and policing in particular, is perceived by people in India.

One of my objectives would be to get rid of the sense of fear or shame that an ordinary Indian feels in approaching the police for a bonafide service. We should be able to project the image that the police is a just like any other public provided service and that it exists to serve the people. What policies will get police to be more people-friendly?