The Kerala Human Rights Commission’s suggestion that police officers must address citizens as 'sir' or 'madam' is timely. A subculture within the police force has been hampering such reforms for generations.
The first attempt to sensitize the police came in the 1970s. That was an initiative by the then inspector general Sinkaravelu. He wanted policemen to say good morning when they attended the phone at the stations. The gesture was adopted not without a hint of sarcasm but that has become a habit now.
Police stations have a reception area and women help desk nowadays. The mere presence of women personnel has brought about a change in the language used by the police.
Another attempt was the reform of the Police Act in 2011. Section 29 of the Act stipulates that the police should interact with the people affably and respectfully and be sympathetic towards the complainants.
The main impediment to a more civil police force is the remnant of an outdated culture, not a lack of norms and rules. What we need is a cultural transformation and that will take its time.
The police in the British Raj were trained to establish superiority over the public by way of words and deeds. That was the only method then known to keep the people under control. The police operated under this notion.
This attitude is presented clearly in E.V. Krishna Pillai’s ‘Police Ramayanam’ published in the 1930s. The work lists out the greetings reserved for each rank. The most revered form of greeting is reserved for the head constable, while the commissioner could be addressed as just 'Mr, Commissioner'.
The degree of respect wanes as you go up the rung. There is a clear reason for this anomaly. No one bothers if you failed to show respect to the commissioner. But try to be disrespectful to the head constable, who interacts with the public on a daily basis, and you will be shown your place instantly.
Addressing citizens as 'sir' or 'madam' is a good idea. But maybe we can think of alternatives in Malayalam. Malayalam lacks the equivalent of the convenient 'bhai sahib' in Hindi.
Police officers in almost all developed countries address citizens as 'sir' or 'madam'. The policemen address as 'sir' even errant drivers during a routine check.
Many educated youngsters are joining the police in Kerala. They receive good training and take home a decent salary. The government is sympathetic to them in matters of promotion and benefits. The police have no excuse not to mend their ways.
The Kerala police may be interacting with at least 50 lakh persons on average a day. Not even one in a thousand among them may be a criminal. Nothing justifies rude behavior towards them. Citizens enjoy their full rights when they are treated respectfully by the police. That will make the people confident. That would be the celebration of freedom and democracy.
It took 30 years for the police to say 'good morning' to the public. Another 40 years have passed and it is high time that they train themselves to say 'good morning, sir'.
(The writer is a former director general of police)