Although I was born in Bombay in the house where my father and mother before him were born, I did not come to live in the city until I was six years old. My father started his career in the Indian postal service in the districts. When I was six, he transferred to the postmaster general’s office in Bori Bunder as one of the three deputy PMGs.
My first vivid memory of the police during this time was when I came home from school after picking up my father from his office. My school was in Dhobi Talao. The car took me to the general post office where my father worked. Then the father and son returned home together, led by Baptista Mendonca, who also acted as a postman.
The driver was from Mangalore. Son Konkani had a different deviation from that spoken in Goa. But it didn’t matter. He and my father were engaged in a heated conversation in Konkani. They paid no attention to the traffic cop standing on a box at the junction of Wodehouse Road and the road leading to Electric House, BEST headquarters. Mendonca broke the traffic light and so the policeman whistled!
The driver stopped the car, got out and approached the policeman. My father followed and spoke to the policeman. We were allowed to continue. My father told me it was his fault for distracting Mendonca’s attention and so he asked the policeman to forgive the driver, which the policeman did.
The following evening, the same traffic cop was on duty at the same intersection. As we passed him, our driver slipped something into the cop’s palm, very skilful he was. My father inquired and was informed that it was a simple token of gratitude from a “pawli”, a four anna piece. I remember my father quickly diving into his own purse, removing coins of equivalent value and rewarding Mendonca.
It was my first memory of the municipal police! I hadn’t bothered to notice the cops before this incident. But I was careful after that. I noticed the police were wearing something like a Knickerbocker, blue in color that went down below their knees and was tied there around the calf. On the chest a tunic, buttoned up to the chin, also blue in color. At the top of the head, they had a yellow head covering like bellboys wore in hotels. People described the cops in uniform as blue bottles, yellow caps!
My father died young at the age of 42 in 1937. I was eight years old then. We moved after his death to more affordable accommodation across from the Colaba police station. I was exposed to more cops there. The inspector in charge had to be a white man. The sub-inspectors were a mixed batch and unlike the police officers who traveled standing in the electric streetcars of that time, the officers had a standing position on the BEST buses. Many of them were white men, Anglo-Indians I guess.
When I was 12, we moved to Byculla. It was there when I was 14 or 15 that I was transported to the police station with other boys in our building as the cricket ball in play flew over the separation wall and smashed a neighbor’s window. on the other side. We were made to stand in line at the police compound as the apartment owner walked inside to recount his woes to the inspector in charge.
A tall white man in uniform soon emerged frightening the light of day out of us. He asked who the captain was. No one admitted to the honor! The owner of the apartment pointed the finger at me. I froze! The inspector told me to get out. I did as I was told. I didn’t know what was to come next. But the inspector only blamed me for not teaching my teammates the basics of hitting a cricket ball. The ball must not leave the ground, he said. And certainly, he shouldn’t be flying over walls. With this knowledge passed on, he let us go. The owner of the apartment was not amused, but my friends and I developed a healthy respect for the city police!
Many years later, while I was police commissioner to neighbor Thane, I received an SOS from my sister in Colaba stating that her son had been taken to the police station because of another case of broken glass. . Only the culprit this time was not a cricket ball but a soccer ball, thrown on the road in front of his apartment. Her husband, then head of the cardiology department at KEM hospital, went to the police station and found his son in the dungeon!
The boys were released soon after, but not before they suffered minor trauma. Their parents also felt that the police were a bit harsh on young people who had no other place to play than on the public road when the cars were not in sight, a questionable proposition!
The changes that the municipal police have undergone in the past nine decades since my own birth have been many and not limited to their uniform. At first the knickerbocker was dropped for a pair of blue shorts, and the yellow “band box” type of headgear was replaced with a blue side cap with a yellow flash. Some time later, even these were dropped for a more acceptable khaki shirt and long pants with a blue and yellow side cap.
Education standards for recruits have been raised significantly. Most men today are college graduates, although the minimum requirement is a high school leaving certificate. The police officer is computer savvy and may be tasked with investigating a crime if necessary. (This has not yet been introduced in the city of Mumbai).
The wives of today’s police officers are also well educated. It made a huge difference in life on the police lines and in the attitude of the police officer on the job. The size of police families has shrunk considerably. Aspirations have increased. The education of their children, the health of the family and the provision of a roof over their heads after retirement have become their main concerns. In the past, the ambition was to succeed their fathers in khaki uniforms. Not anymore. Medicine, engineering, law, business management, the sky’s the limit! The children of police officers, sons and daughters, seek a better position and a better status than their fathers and this is real progress.
Although it is allowed to travel for free by bus, hardly a police officer or two does. The vast majority have motorcycles. I even noticed a few cars parked in the queues! The percentage of junior officials of the rank of inspector and sub-inspector who own their own transport is almost eighty or even ninety percent.
These should be counted among the positive signs. The negative, unfortunately, is in the area of performance. Pride in work is what is missing. In the past, if a major crime went undetected, Crime Branch officers spent days moping about the inability to detect cases. They would gather in their offices and review what had been done and what remained to be done. They would assign agents to pursue unverified clues and to re-establish contact with possible witnesses.
This spirit is no longer present. The number of supervisors has increased in geometric proportions, but not the level of supervision. I am ashamed to admit that the focus is now on get rich quick at all costs, a value system that has gripped the entire population, especially young people. Unless this trend is fought by the most committed police chiefs, the public, who is the end user of the security apparatus, is doomed to lose.
But the biggest and most visible, as well as the most damaging change that has taken place over the past three decades is that the administration of the police has fallen into the hands of the political class! Professional police chiefs have lost control over their own men. And it is an absolute disaster that will eventually lead to indiscipline and the total absence of responsibility.
The political class has overhauled the rules for transfers and appointments, almost entirely taking the reins in hand. Police chiefs gave in either voluntarily or by force. Corruption has skyrocketed and criminals have a free hand. Soon people won’t understand what hit them.
The recent feud between the former police commissioner of the city police and the former interior minister of Maharashtra, something that was unimaginable in milder times, speaks for itself. An officer accused of murder and suspended for seventeen years has been irregularly reinstated in the service and charged with collecting money from a mixed bag of offenders! The minister wanted the lion’s share of the booty, or so the commissioner claimed.
It will not be difficult for the CBI or the NIA to establish the truth. But I am not on that topic in this article. Here I am only pointing out the changes in the city policing over the past ninety years since I was born in this city. Some of the changes are for the better, but the last mentioned change easily neutralizes any gain.
(The author is a retired IPS officer and former Mumbai Police Commissioner)