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Police Reform is a Necessity to Protect the Indian Civil Society

Is the police equipped to handle the law and order challenges in today’s technologically and culturally complicated ecosphere?

By Sreya Sarkar

Whenever a city’s law and order situation spirals out of control it is expected that the city police will get blamed for not performing its function appropriately and for failing to contain the crisis. The response of the Delhi Police has been rather sluggish, a trait that has been consistent in the recent past starting from November of last year. First, at Tis Hazari court during the lawyer-police clashes, the police overreacted. Second, they used excessive force in Jamia Millia Islamia University, yet they did nothing to stop the mayhem in JNU campus. Third, they erected redundant barricades around Shaheen Bagh intensifying the traffic clog and lastly, when a communal riot flared up in Northeast Delhi they failed to dowse it.

The violence continued for three days causing the death of more than forty people. Delhi Police appeared so rudderless, so utterly lacking in leadership and bereft of a sense of purpose, that the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had to visit the trans-Yamuna area to calm down the scared residents.

The recent law and order crisis in Delhi has coughed up a nagging issue that has persistently given trouble to Indian citizens, yet each time the crises has abated, it has also disappeared from the public radar. Delhi Police, a professional force of more than 80,000 cops is failing in its duty towards maintaining law and order, repeatedly. The other state police forces are also not performing adequately and this has been the continuous police narrative in India for the last seventy years.

Doval stated two years ago that India would face more and more internal security problems. He said, "You cannot have a great powerful country if you cannot manage its internal security. It is only the policemen who can fight this battle and win it."

He had said that we are now in the phase of the fourth-generation war. “It is a warfare with an invisible enemy... it's a warfare, in which the civil society is both the battleground and the ground and the people that you have to protect.”[1]

"From normal policing to crime detection, organized crime, management of borders, cybersecurity, banking frauds... (the police need to) acquire a lot of knowledge and skills," Doval advocates.

So, is the police equipped to handle the law and order challenges in today’s technologically and culturally complicated ecosphere?

The short answer is no. The present police force is not ready to deal with the kind of law and order problems erupting in modern Indian civil society. Their professional competence is being questioned for a good reason. But before we judge them too harshly, let us turn to some facts.

When it comes to dealing with protests and demonstrations, the police has to, till date, follow archaic laws passed before Indian independence. Therefore, though Article 19 of Indian Constitution provides the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression and guarantees to all citizens right ‘to assemble peacefully and without arms’, the police can suppress dissent by use of force because of the Police Act of 1861.

A quick look into the history of this Act shows that it was enacted following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, to support the political and executive interests of the British empire. The Act was designed to suppress India’s freedom movement and is still being used today to suppress public dissent.

Indian independence transformed the political system, but the police system retained its colonial underpinnings. The subsequent years witnessed the enactment of new legislation in several states of the country. Unfortunately, these new Acts were patterned almost exactly on the model of the 1861 Act, resulting in no significant improvement in the performance or behaviour of the police force and political control over the police remained intact. Implanting mechanisms to assure accountability of the police to the public it serves did not become a priority, as it should have. The managerial philosophy of the police remained militaristic in design and suppressive in practice. To this day, the police system in India can be characterized as a regime force, which places the needs of politicians or powerful individuals over the demands of the rule of law and the needs of citizens.[2]

The Police Act of 1861 is not the sole or only law in relation to police functions. The maintenance of public order and the criminal justice system are based on the Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code, Indian Evidence Act as well as a large number of other special legislations.[3] Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code that authorizes the government to prohibit an assembly of people in a public space in case of a nuisance or apprehended danger. This Section was applied various times by multiple state governments in the last few months along with internet shutdowns. Once imposed, even a peaceful assembly of people who had taken prior permission can be termed “unlawful.”

Another added layer of complication in case of Delhi Police is that it is directly under the Union Home Ministry. Though the current Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal has been making some noise about reassigning the force under Delhi administration, it is going to continue remaining under the home ministry for national security reasons. Delhi is unique from a constitutional point of view as it does have full statehood status and is essentially a Union Territory (UT) and is also the national capital. In all UTs in the country, the home ministry has control over the police. And even if Delhi Police was to come under Delhi administration, would that really make it more efficient?

Not necessarily. According to writer and former member of Union Public Service Commission, Purushottam Agrawal, “The behaviour of Arvind Kejriwal is symptomatic of the politics of ‘development’ minus the idea of democratic citizenship. Such politics can do well on the welfare front to some extent, as the AAP government has really done, but on the crucial concern of democratizing the social structure, it will always be found wanting because it is a question of political ideas, not merely of ‘development’.”[4]

What is the solution, then? Fundamental Police Reform

Demand for police reforms is not a new one. Various commissions and committees like Ribeiro Committee (1998), Padmanabhaiah Committee (2000), Malinath Committee (2003) have recommended reforms. Before them, the Dharamveer National Police Commission in 1977 had submitted multiple recommendations and reports. In 1979 the National Police Commission (NPC) was set up to report on policing and give recommendations for reform. It produced eight reports, dozens of topic-specific recommendations and also a Model Police Act. None of these reports has been implemented.[5] So, though both the problems and potential solutions are well-understood, what has stymied the implementation of these reforms is the lack of political will. Political parties, whether at the Center or the States, both ruling or otherwise have developed vested interests in maintaining the police force as a tool that they can ultimately control. And that is the reason that the police has never been people-centric in India.

For more than two decades Prakash Singh, chairman of Indian Police Foundation and Institute, has been involved actively in trying to bring about police reform. In 1996 he had filed a PIL asking the Supreme Court to direct governments to implement the NPC recommendations. In 2006, the Supreme Court delivered the verdict on this--a historic judgement instructing the central and the state governments to comply with a set of seven directives laying down practical mechanisms to kickstart police reform. These directives[6] sought to mainly achieve functional autonomy for the police and enhance their accountability. If this was successfully carried out, the police force would have acquired the following three benefits --security of tenure; streamlining of appointment and transfer processes; creation of a buffer body between the government and the police.

Here are the seven directives in a nutshell:

  1. Limiting political control: Constituting a State Security Commission to ensure that the state government does not exercise unwarranted influence or pressure on the police.

  2. Appointment based on merit: Ensuring that the Deputy General of Police is appointed through the merit-based transparent process and securing a minimum tenure of two years.

  3. Fixing minimum tenure: Police officers on operational duties (Including Superintendents of Police in-charge of Districts and Station House Officer-in-charge of a police station) are also provided minimum tenure of two years.

  4. Separation of investigative and law and order functions of the police.

  5. Setting up a Police Establishment Board to decide on transfers, postings, promotions and other service-related matters of police officers of and below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) and recommend the same for officers above the rank of DSP.

  6. Setting up Police Complaints Authority at the state and district level to inquire into public complaints against police officers in cases of serious misconduct.

  7. Setting up National Security Commission at the Union level to prepare a panel for selection and placement of Chiefs of the Central Police Organizations with a minimum tenure of two years.

A decade after the passage of the directives, a Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative study found that there has not been a single case of full compliance and that the state governments have either blatantly rejected, ignored, or diluted significant features of the directives.[7]

If the political parties don’t take the initiative to implement the seven directives, who will? The citizens

A 2019 survey conducted jointly by Common Cause and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies interviewed policemen and women across twenty-two states about their perceptions, attitudes and professional skills. It concluded deficiencies in attitudes, biases and professional skills in their performances. The survey revealed that fifty per cent police across the states feel that Muslims, Scheduled Castes(SC), Scheduled Tribes(ST) and migrants are more prone to crimes than others. Uttar Pradesh tops the list of police prejudices against Muslims, SCs, STs and migrants, followed by Delhi.

The survey also finds that the police are lacking in right training especially down the line in caste, gender, community, religious and human rights sensitization. According to the survey, more than ten per cent police personnel have never got any training.[8]

There is a marked lack of motivation among the police to do their job because they have no immunity from their political masters. Bereft of choice, cops take solace in venting their ‘powerless power’ where they can, mostly on citizens who are poor and helpless.

The responsibility of changing India’s police narrative thus falls on its citizens. They must raise the demand to a level that compels the parties and governments to reshape the police as a citizen-centric institution.

Civil society groups have previously attempted to put police reforms on the political agenda. In 2004, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative convinced the Congress party to include police reforms in its manifesto. But the UPA government did not go beyond appointing the Soli Sorabjee Committee. BJP’s manifesto in 2014 promised police reforms in the framework of governance and cooperative federalism. Promising to raise the ‘Indian Police at par with international standards’, BJP listed the details of the reforms in their micro and macro dimensions. But since then, the government has ignored it. But that can’t be allowed anymore.

The transformative reforms in the Indian Police have become a necessity and can only come through the collective action of all stakeholders who should start a nationwide campaign for change, keeping in mind, the difficult conditions under which our police functions.

Also, it is imperative that we understand that we need to go beyond mere structural changes within the system. It is essential to now look at the police as a service organization meeting those needs of the society that are essential for safety, security, quality of life and peace. Community involvement and vigilance; problem-oriented policing and proactive policing strategies need to be adopted in order to revamp and reboot an effective police service that will work for the Indian citizens and not against them.


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