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A people’s cop

Author: admin

Back in the 1980s, when a young police officer, fresh out of the Academy, took up his first posting, he learnt a lesson that would steer his course for the rest of his career. It was a time when touts held sway over cinema halls in Jorhat in Assam, where he had been posted in 1987.

Kuladhar Saikia, then additional superintendent of police, rounded up a dozen touts and was planning a bigger crackdown when he had a life-changing conversation. “There was this man who walked into my office and said he appreciated what I had done. Then he said he was one of those touts I had rounded up and that his wife had to sell the only gold chain she possessed—that was a wedding gift from her parents—to bribe a police sub-inspector to get him out of detention. In that moment, I realised I had only aided and abetted a bigger crime by curbing a smaller one,” he says.

That fateful encounter left an indelible mark and Saikia decided his policing methods would always be guided by compassion and empathy. Sure enough, it’s been a beacon for the 1985 batch IPS officer, who was appointed Director General of Police in Assam recently.

Saikia has always looked beyond the crime, seeking to understand the criminal’s motivations. This unusual perspective led him to develop a community-based approach to his work, which has since been the pivot of all his projects. He is noted for initiating Project Prahari, which he launched in 2001. It was a time when witchcraft-related crimes and lynchings were sweeping Kokrajhar district, where Saikia was posted as deputy inspector general of police (western Assam). He realised that to stem this wave, he would have to include all relevant stakeholders, such as citizens, village leaders, students, women’s groups and the police.

“While the police had picked up a number of persons, I found there were socioeconomic reasons behind these crimes,” shares the top cop, who has twice received the President’s Police Medal. “Communication was poor, healthcare was in a shambles, illiteracy and belief in superstition were high, and the communities were heavily dependent on quacks in the absence of doctors and health workers. I initiated Project Prahari, which involved more civilians than police personnel to eradicate witch-hunting.”

The Prahari Project, which was implemented in 50 villages in Assam, was not only heartily embraced by the tribal villagers, it also contributed to curbing insurgency to a large extent as well as social prejudices and economic backwardness. It was so effective that it has been suggested as a model of good governance by the Centre’s Bureau of Police Research & Development. It was also noted as a model of women’s empowerment by the Government of India in its status report submitted at the UN General Assembly meet on gender in 2005.

This innovative model of community participation has been included in prominent management and public policy institutions as material for training purposes. In 2014, Harvard Business Review published a three-part case series titled Being A Change Agent, holding up Saikia’s work as a stellar management model.

Scratch the surface a little and you will perhaps understand why Saikia is such a unique police officer. His empathetic nature stems from a literary bent that has earned him a Sahitya Akademi award for Assamese literature in 2015, for his short story collection titled Akashor Chhabi Aru Anyanya Galpa (‘Picture of the Sky And Other Stories’).

One of only four IPS officers who have been conferred this coveted literary award, Saikia has a body of literary work that includes a novel, three plays, a collection of essays and 19 collections of short stories, one of which—If A River and Other Stories—was released this February.

Being a writer probably helps him look at crime in ways other than a regular police officer. “I see a lot of different things when I handle a crime or a difficult situation,” he says. “I look at things from the socioeconomic angle as well as the psychosocial angle. I always look at the backdrop and the various compulsions that may have pushed people to commit a crime.”

In a classic case of life influencing art, Saikia says some of his short stories relate to his work. “In my stories, like Ravan Habildar and Sipahi Dinabandhu, the protagonists are police personnel. Through such stories, I try to reveal life and love,” he muses. Other themes include students and youth, and stories centering on rural life.

Saikia hails from Rangiya, a town about 52 km from Guwahati. “My father was the founder and headmaster of Rangiya High School, while my mother was a homemaker who also took part in adult literacy campaigns for the village women,” says the police officer, the youngest of seven siblings. A brilliant student, he is an alumnus of Ramjas College, Delhi, after which he acquired a master’s degree from the Delhi School of Economics. He also spent a couple of years teaching economics at Hindu College in Delhi, before making it to the Indian Police Service in 1985. Saikia was intent on an all-round education and earned the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship for Community Leadership. He also did a stint as a consultant for the World Bank and is often invited to the Indian Institutes of Management around the country and management institutes overseas to speak on economics and other issues.

Our top cop has, at times, been accused of being too ‘soft’. Saikia chuckles and says, “As a policeman, I can be as tough as anybody else. But I believe a lot of things can get done by being ‘soft’ too.”

—Dr Tapati Baruah Kashyap

Photo: Dr Tapati Baruah Kashyap
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
November 2018