A daylight rape of a teenager by a policeman and a ban on dancing bars. Two unrelated incidents. Yet there is a connection. One that raises questions about the role of the state in a modern society. Last week, on Mumbai's famous Marine Drive, a drunken policeman accosted a teenage girl. He insisted she come into a small, wooden police chowki for questioning, locked the door from inside, and raped her. People passing by heard her desperate screams, banged on the door of the chowki only to be confronted by an unrepentant policeman, brazenly zipping up his trousers and threatening the crowd that had gathered by then.

This incident has enraged people in Mumbai. On the day of the rape, people would have lynched the policeman if his colleagues had not rescued him. The police chowki was smashed.

Subsequently, in a step that defies all comprehension, the police themselves removed the chowki. In effect, they have destroyed vital evidence in the case.

The day after the rape, hundreds of residents stopped traffic and shouted slogans against the Mumbai police. They demanded that the policeman be handed over to them.

While the police have suspended the constable and his superior, charged the former under the criminal law and remanded him to police custody, what has angered people in the city is the attitude of the police. Mumbai's Police Commissioner A.N. Roy pleaded with the media not to paint the entire police force black because of one incident of a deviant policeman. Another senior police officer claimed this was the first such incident and the media should not make too much of it.

Surely, these senior people in the police should know that even one such incident requires the police to stop in their tracks and check what is happening in the force. And it is incredible that they would not be aware that the focus on custodial rape was brought about as far back as the mid-1970s by the famous Mathura rape case when two drunken policemen raped a 14-year-old tribal girl in Maharashtra. While the Bombay High Court convicted the policemen, in 1979 the Supreme Court overturned the lower court's judgment on the grounds that there was "no reasonable evidence of guilt on the part of the policemen." The judgment also cast doubts on the character of this minor girl.

A year earlier, there was the rape of Rameezabi by four policemen in Hyderabad as she was returning from the cinema with her husband. Her protesting husband was beaten to death. The next day, local people stoned and burned down the police station. Widespread protests finally led to the institution of an inquiry commission that confirmed the crimes of the policemen. Yet they too were finally let off by the courts.

Antiquated laws

There have been many such cases of custodial rape in the past but it was the judgment in the Mathura rape case that resulted in an outcry against antiquated rape laws that put the onus on the victim to prove the crime. An open letter to the Supreme Court, written by four lawyers, sparked a campaign for changes in the law. In the subsequent years, some of these changes have come about. Although provisions pertaining to rape are still not watertight and convictions are few and far between, they are much better than what existed before the Mathura rape case.

Unfortunately, in 2003, the Supreme Court set aside an important provision in the law that prohibited the police from questioning women within the premises of a police station unless women police were present. The dilution of this provision has made women more vulnerable to the kind of custodial rape we saw enacted in Mumbai last week.

So in the last two decades and more so since the Mathura rape case, have the police in general and the Maharashtra police in particular learnt anything? The decline in the quality of the Mumbai police force, in particular is a pity. Once regarded as one of the best in the country, in the last 15 years it has revealed itself to be well below par, particularly as a force designated to protect the more vulnerable sections of society. For women in Mumbai this is particularly troubling as the metropolis has long been considered one of the safest for women. However, the latest statistics from the National Crimes Record Bureau illustrate the decline in Mumbai where the number of reported rapes is the second highest in the country after Delhi. What is worse is that the largest number of these reported cases are of girls between the ages of 14 and 18 years.

Loss of trust

The loss of trust in the Mumbai police was highlighted in the Srikrishna Commission report on the 1992-93 communal riots. "The police, by their own conduct, appeared to have lost moral authority over the citizen and appeared to evoke no fear even in the minds of the criminal elements", the report stated. It named specific policemen for their involvement in the riots and recommended the following: "Punishment for corruption, brutality, dereliction of duty and mala fide exercise of authority should be prompt and no less than dismissal from service, apart from prosecutions under criminal law." In the years since this report came out, little has been done to bring these men to book for their actions during those terrible times.

Since then, we have had the Telgi scam where once again senior officers of the Mumbai police have been charged. And the courts in Mumbai are also hearing a significant case involving the death in custody of Khwaja Yunus, suspected for his involvement in the bomb blasts that took place in a Mumbai suburb in December 2002.

Given this history, it is remarkable that senior officers in the Mumbai police suggest that this is just a single incident and have not used this criminal action by a man in uniform to reassure the public that they will investigate the inherent problems that are embedded in policing and the police force. If people lose trust and confidence in one arm of the state, like the police, then they are bound to take the law into their own hands. The demand that the rapist be handed over to them by the people demonstrating in Mumbai after the rape incident is yet another illustration of the growing frustration of citizens with the institutions of state. This is a dangerous signal that both the Government and the police need to heed.

The Marine Drive rape case has come on the heels of the outcry against the Maharashtra Government's decision to close dance bars across the State with the exception of Mumbai. In course of time, it threatens to close the Mumbai bars too. The same police that have come under the scanner in the rape case are supposed to be responsible to ensure that unlicensed dance bars do not operate with impunity. Yet, the Government itself acknowledges that a good number of the 1,500 or so dance bars across the State operate without a license. How is this possible without the collusion of the enforcers of the law?

Complaints from women?

Instead of investigating this violation of the law, the state in this instance has decided to act as the moral policeman — an ironic epithet given the rape case. It has decided to close down the bars, put thousands of girls who dance in them and others out of work, all in the interests of upholding moral standards. According to Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister R. R. Patil, he decided to act because women complained to him that their husbands were spending money on alcohol and dance bars instead of the household. Hence he felt compelled to move against these dance bars.

But is this the job of the state? Should Governments decide what people should eat, what they should drink, whether they should drink, what films they should see, what television programmes they can view and whether sexual favours can be sold and bought? All this becomes even more inexplicable when you realise that this is the same Government that speaks of globalisation and liberalisation and that wants Mumbai to be transformed into a global international city. People had hoped that the present State Government was different from the cultural nationalists who had ruled the State in the past. Yet it is becoming evident that the line dividing the two is so fine as to be almost invisible.

The role of the state is not to decide what moral standards people should live by but set standards through its own actions. Mumbai, Maharashtra, and India, need policemen with moral standards and professionalism, not moral policing by the state.