How WhatsApp helps India’s police involve its people in maintaining law and order
A couple of days ago, a builder began work in the plot of land behind my house. According to Indian law, construction work in residential areas is only permitted between 9am and 5pm. But this builder kept going with his ear-splitting jack hammers, till late night. At around 9.30pm, a neighbouring lady requested him to shut it down as she couldn’t sleep. The builder refused to oblige, and continued his unholy racket.
So why didn’t the lady just call the police? There are two reasons.
The first is fear of being harassed.
Let me illustrate what I mean by harassment. Though India is peaceful on the surface, it’s still a bit like the Wild West in reality.
Some years ago, a close relative had a verbal disagreement with a real estate group who was encroaching on his property. It ended with them threatening to beat him up. A few days later, a false police case was filed against my relative for having violently attacked the leader of the real estate group.
In such cases, the odds are stacked in favour of the group with connections. For instance, the ‘witness’ to this so-called ‘attack’ was a policeman. Based on this accusation, an arrest warrant was issued for my relative. It took a couple of years before his lawyer managed to get the case thrown out. He was lucky the builder was not one of the big guns, as the building mafia is quite powerful in India. They may even have contracted goons to beat him up or demanded ‘protection’ money or arranged a fatal ‘accident.’
No one needs such harassment, so generally people tend to avoid getting into a disagreement with anyone with powerful connections.
The second reason why Indians avoid cops, is because India’s police and its people share a very uneasy relationship as a result of the perceptions about India’s police.
Firstly, the cops are seen as powerless - any action they take, can be undone by culprits who have political connections.
Secondly, if the police are pressurised, they reveal the name of the person who complained about the culprits, who in turn, promptly go after the complainant, and force them withdraw their complaint.
Thirdly, Indians are scared of cops as they have an aura of violence - cops are usually seen on TV, violently putting down public protests of some sort.
Fourthly, India cops are poorly paid, and therefore viewed as easy targets for bribery.
Finally, there is a language barrier - India has many languages and typically cops are only fluent in the language of their state.
Because of all these, most people interact with cops only when they have no option, like when they are involved in a road accident. Even then, most try to avoid involving the police, and settle the issue themselves. Apart from serious crimes, the common man reluctantly calls the police only on unavoidable issues like robberies, clashes over property boundaries, etc. In fact, people often don’t even report live crimes happening before their eyes. Like I mentioned earlier, they are scared of being harassed.
This is a serious problem as India has a huge population, and the police’s effort to maintain law and order will only succeed if they and Indian citizens work together.
Recently, the police have begun actively working to change this perception, and get ordinary people involved in policing. One such initiative by the cops is happening in the South Indian city I live in, and is quite an admirable effort to take advantage of social media.
The cops realised that people won’t mind reporting attempts to break the law, if they can do this without getting into trouble themselves. This will only happen if police accept anonymous complaints.
And that was how WhatsApp came into the picture. India is WhatsApp biggest market with over 160 million active users on this popular social media platform. It’s available to anyone who has a smartphone, and allows one to send text messages, photos, audio recordings, and even short videos. With a decent internet connection, you can even make audio or video calls.
But what clinches the deal is the relative anonymity of WhatsApp. Though it’s tied to the mobile number, SIM cards are easily available in India. So a WhatsApp ID can be easily linked to a secondary SIM, and the person sending a WhatsApp message can stay anonymous.
So that is exactly what the cops did. They created a WhatsApp number where people could anonymously post complaints. People can even attach images or short videos to prove their complaint is genuine. The police posted this WhatsApp number on outdoor hoardings all around the city. Since the WhatsApp department is a separate unit, even the police cannot easily access the details of the complainant, which gives the informer added anonymity.
So that was how I complained to the police directly, for the first time in my whole life.
On the night of the incident, I didn’t have the WhatsApp number on me but it popped up on Google. I quickly typed out a complaint, and sent it via WhatsApp at 10.30 pm. Since I’m not fluent in the language of the state where I reside, I wrote the message in English and kept it as basic as possible. I included an audio of the jackhammer blasting away, and a Google Maps link to the location where the incident was occuring.
45 minutes later, I received a reply from the cops, saying the message had been forwarded to department concerned. They also gave me the direct number of the concerned police station in case I wished to contact them directly.
After another 15 minutes, I heard the contractor abruptly shut down all his equipment, and there was complete silence at the site. The entrance gate of the site is not visible from my house, but I presume the police arrived there and told off the contractor. The next evening, the contractor started work only at 9am, wound up all activities at precisely 6 pm. I must say the workers seemed happy to be leaving early. So it would seem that the cops did indeed pay the builder a visit.
What I like about the whole episode was the builder does not know for sure who ratted on him. I don’t even think the cops, who took him to task, knew who had complained. That anonymity is what makes me feel safe, and do my bit towards helping the cops do their duty.
‘Divide and rule’ is very much a part of these petty criminal’s tactics. If they had identified me, they would’ve harassed me in minor ways like ‘accidentally’ damaging my power, water or electricty line or the wall between their site and ours. If I were to go the police, they would note that there is only one person constantly complaining about another, and tend to brush it off as a personal feud. But since the builder does not know who complained, he would have to harass all the people in the area, to take revenge. That would quickly backfire on him, as the police would be forced to respond if they get too many complaints.
Change is indeed coming to India’s police, and it’s coming via Whatsapp.
I seriously doubt if Jan Koum or Zuckerberg had any idea that one day the police in India would be relying on their app to maintain law and order.
Quite an achievement for a free app.
Bless you, WhatsApp!