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September 1, 2009

The Khaki must shine

The Police organisation in India in its present form is based, essentially, on the Police Act of 1861, which was specifically designed to raise a police which would be “politically more useful.”  It constituted a single homogeneous force of civil constabulary for the entire country to perform duties which could not be assigned to the military arm.

The Indian Police Commission of 1902-03, which reviewed the working of the police, found that “the police force throughout the country is in a most unsatisfactory condition, that abuses are common everywhere, that this involves great injury to the people and discredit to the government, and that radical reforms are urgently necessary.” This was the first time that a responsible body talked of police reforms. Ironically, the battle for reforms continues even after more than a hundred years.

At the dawn of Independence, the political masters could have restructured the police and made it accountable to the people. The transformation was unfortunately not carried out. As years passed, every successive government found it convenient to use, misuse and abuse the police for its partisan political ends. In 1977, the government appointed the National Police Commission (NPC) as it felt that “far reaching changes have taken place in the country” since independence but “there has been no comprehensive review of the police system after independence despite radical changes in the political, social and economic situation in the country.” The NPC submitted eight detailed reports between 1979 and 1981, containing comprehensive recommendations covering the entire gamut of police working.

The government’s response to the core recommendations of the NPC was, unfortunately, negative. In 1983, when the reports were forwarded to the State Governments, they were asked merely to take appropriate follow-up action. The hint was more than obvious and it was not surprising therefore that the state governments conveniently put the major recommendations of the NPC in cold storage.

These recommendations of the NPC were subsequently resurrected in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Supreme Court in 1996. At the time the petition was filed, the Supreme Court’s attention was drawn, among other things, to two major tragedies which had overtaken the Republic due to the failure of the police to uphold the rule of law: the Delhi riots of 1984 and the demolition of the disputed shrine at Ayodhya in 1992. The Justice Nanavati Commission, which inquired into the 1984 riots, recommended that “there should be an independent police force which should be free from the political influence and which is well equipped to take immediate and effective action.” The Liberhan Commission report on Ayodhya is yet to be made public.

During the pendency of the petition, another tragedy befell the country—the Gujarat Riots in 2002 when the police acted in a partisan manner.  The National Human Rights Commission, which inquired into the incidents, urged “that the matter of police reform receive attention at the highest political level, at the Centre and in the States, and that this issue be pursued in good faith, and on a sustained basis with the greater interest of the country alone in mind.”

It is significant that while the PIL was progressing in the Supreme Court, three Committees were appointed by the government at different periods of time to deliberate over the question of police reforms: the Ribeiro Committee in 1998, the Padmanabhaiah Committee in 2000 and the Malimath Committee on criminal justice system in 2002. All three committees broadly came to the same conclusions and emphasised the urgent need for police reforms in the context of newly emerging challenges. However, the much needed reforms were never carried out because of the combined opposition of the political parties.

The dilemma before the Supreme Court was whether it should wait further for the governments to take suitable steps for police reforms.  However, as recorded in the judgement, “having regard to (i) the gravity of the problem; (ii) the urgent need for preservation and strengthening of Rule of Law; (iii) pendency of even this petition for last over ten years; (iv) the fact that various Commissions and Committees have made recommendations on similar lines for introducing reforms in the police set up in the country; and (v) total uncertainty as to when police reforms would be introduced, we think that there cannot be any further wait, and the stage has come for issue of appropriate directions for immediate compliance so as to be operative till such time a new model Police Act is prepared by the Central Government and/or the State Governments pass the requisite legislations.”

In a landmark judgement on September 22, 2006 the Supreme Court demolished in one stroke the colonial police structure that hobbled India for over 145 years. It ordered the setting up of three institutions at the state level with a view to insulating the police from extraneous influences, giving it functional autonomy and ensuring its accountability.  These institutions are:

  • State Security Commission which would lay down the broad policies and give directions for the performance of the preventive tasks and service oriented functions of the police;
  • Police Establishment Board comprising the Director General of Police and four other senior officers of the Department which shall decide all transfers, postings, promotions and other service related matters of officers of and below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police and make appropriate recommendations regarding the postings and transfers of officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above to the state government; and
  • Police Complaints Authority at the district and state levels with a view to inquiring into allegations of misconduct by the police personnel.

Besides, the Court ordered that the Director-General of Police shall be selected by the state government from amongst the three senior-most officers of the department who have been empanelled for promotion to that rank by the Union Public Service Commission, and that the appointee shall have a prescribed minimum tenure of two years. Police officers on operational duties in the field like the inspector-general in charge of a zone, deputy inspector-general in charge of a range, superintendent in charge of a district and station house officer in charge of a police station would also have a minimum tenure of two years. The Court also ordered the separation of investigating police from the law and order police to ensure speedier investigation, better expertise and improved rapport with the people.

The Union government was also asked to set up a National Security Commission for the selection and placement of heads of central police organisations, upgrading the effectiveness of these forces and improving the service conditions of its personnel.

The Soli Sorabjee Committee drafted and submitted a Model Police Act to the central government on October 30, 2006.  The Model Police Act conformed to the fundamental principles enunciated by the Supreme Court, though there are slight differences in nomenclature and in details.

The Supreme Court orders and Sorabjee Committee recommendations have the potential to transform the police and change its working philosophy. The transition is however encountering strong opposition from the political leadership and the bureaucracy. Ten states have satisfactorily complied with the directions of the Supreme Court, but the majority of states are dragging their feet. Some states have enacted laws with a view to circumventing the implementation of Supreme Court’s directions. Unfortunately, there is total absence of public consultation on the subject.

The reforms, it needs to be understood, are not for the glory of the police—they are to give better security and protection to the people of the country, uphold their human rights and generally improve governance.

The Supreme Court has meanwhile constituted a monitoring committee to oversee the implementation of its directions in the various states.  It is obvious that unless the judiciary cracks the whip and makes an example of one or two non-compliant states, the much needed reforms would remain only as an aspiration. Unfortunately, the monitoring committee is working at a slow place and seems averse to making any stringent recommendation to the Supreme Court. Public opinion must press the executive and the judiciary to accelerate the process of police reforms. The media should also contribute to this effort.

The stakes are very high. The challenges on the law and order front are getting more complex with every passing day. Organised crime is spreading its tentacles. Naxalites pose a formidable challenge. The terrorist threat is extremely serious and has the potential to destabilise the country. We cannot face the formidable challenges of the present times with a police force which was raised to meet the challenges of a colonial past.  Our first line of defence has to be strengthened and its capabilities augmented. There is no room for further delay.


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