LAST November, the Delhi police hauled Ram Swaroop and seven other poor laborers from their huts and ordered them to work without pay. The drunken policemen beat the workers, then took Mr. Swaroop away. His body was found in a nearby canal. Human-rights lawyers sued the police and won a Supreme Court order of $3,000 compensation for Swaroop's family.
They also educed a rare admission of guilt from police officials investigating the killing. The five policemen involved are being prosecuted for murder.
The tragedy of Ram Swaroop highlights the problem of police brutality in India, for which Indian police have gained a widespread reputation during more than 40 years of independence, human rights activists say.
The incident also points to a new awareness among government and police officials of the need for reform.
``The common perception is that police are bullies who beat people at the slightest provocation and are corrupt,'' says Rajavijay Karan, Delhi's police commissioner and architect of a new reform campaign aimed at improving the police's image. ``We need to change the culture, ethos, and personality of the police.''
Today, more than ever, security forces play a pervasive, often troubling role in this diverse, contentious democracy of 800 million people.
In the northern, violence-torn province of Punjab, the police are armed with special powers to combat terrorism and backed by the Army and central paramilitary police. These forces have led an extensive crackdown on Sikh separatists and on innocent people in their path.
Throughout India, from remote corners in the south to crowded urban pockets in the north, the police and increasingly the paramilitary have been called on to douse a level of social conflict and communal violence not seen since the 1950s.
And in major cities like Delhi, exploding population growth, overcrowding, and unemployment have triggered an upsurge in crime and urban discontent.
Government officials say they have been forced to resist the forces tearing at India's delicate social fabric with more might. During the last six years, the central paramilitary police force has grown by 30 percent and now costs the government about $600 million annually. A current expansion program will raise their numbers to more than 400,000 by 1991.
In the states and territories, which control local law enforcement, police forces have burgeoned. For example, since 1984 when Delhi was first hit by a wave of terrorism and communal violence, the police have grown from 32,000 to more than 50,000, the world's largest metropolitan police force.
But police forces here are still hard-pressed. Those demands have buttressed long-standing pressures that have eroded police discipline and deeply politicized law enforcement: ethnic and religious divisions, corruption, and political interference.
POOR training, low pay, long hours, and frustrations in winning court convictions also prompt police to turn to more drastic methods, observers say.
Even the central paramilitary, made up of recruits from throughout the country and sent in as a more neutral check on local police, is now buffeted by similar pressures, due to overuse, fatigue, and lack of time for training.
``The police bring to the force the attitudes, values, and prejudices that are there [in society]. Overnight you can't inculcate different attitudes,'' says P. Chidambaram, the government official in charge of internal security. ``Over the years, the image has suffered because training has been a casualty.''
Many social observers, however, claim India is becoming a police state because the central government is grabbing more power and responding to trouble with force rather than deeply needed social and economic reform.
In many places, the police form a nexus with corrupt politicians and wealthy landlords and businessmen and are a tool of brutal oppression.
In what is widely seen as political expediency, the central government has yet to complete an investigation of police complicity in the disappearance of dozens of Moslems in 1987 communal riots in the northwestern town of Meerut.
In Bihar - a state seared by hopeless poverty, class conflict, and police atrocities - police raped, looted, and plundered villagers in Pararia last year. In March, a court acquitted 14 policemen and security guards and chided the village women for poor character.
Recently, New Delhi commentator Khushwant Singh wrote that he had met many Punjabi villagers whose one refrain was ``we can deal with the terrorists, you save us from the police.''
Amnesty International has repeatedly taken the Indian government and security forces to task for human-rights violations in Punjab as well as elsewhere. The criticism is a touchy subject with government officials, who consider the reports meddlesome and exaggerated and insist India has its own procedures to handle grievances.
`I'M not denying there are cases where the police have acted in excess. But there is no situation like Punjab anywhere else in the world,'' says Mr. Chidambaram, the security official. ``It is more than protecting the people. It is protecting the integrity of the country. The very survival of India is at stake.''
The police are also deeply mired in spreading corruption and political meddling. The extent of this was highlighted last year in the confrontation between Deputy Police Commissioner Kiran Bedi and Delhi's powerful legal community.
The lawyers were incensed by Ms. Bedi's arrest of an attorney for theft, a police assault on protesting attorneys, and police inaction while a mob stoned their offices and cars.
``Over time, they had been getting a lot of concessions by throwing their weight around. They were getting police officers suspended at the drop of a hat,'' Bedi says. ``Bringing down corruption is the biggest task of a senior officer. You can't root it out but you can make it more difficult for the corrupt to operate.''
While social and political changes are difficult in tradition-bound India, police experts say better training and more education can make a difference. Over the last five years in some areas, the government has improved police pay and benefits.
In Delhi, police chief Karan has launched a well-publicized effort to end police torture, purge corrupt officials, add more women to the force, and reward strong police performance.
``What we have come to believe is that the country needs a police force that is dreaded by the people, with officers at the top who have been selected for their ability to wink at brutality and corruption,'' writes K.F. Rustamji, a prominent police expert. ``A sense of alienation among the people cannot help the police in achieving its tasks.''