Home Opinion Don’t laud UP police commissionerates yet. You can’t be judge, jury, executioner:...

Don’t laud UP police commissionerates yet. You can’t be judge, jury, executioner: IAS officer

The Uttar Pradesh govt implemented the Commissionerate system in Lucknow and Noida earlier this year, but touting its success misses the bigger picture.

UP Police
Representational image | Uttar Pradesh Police | Facebook

I recently came across a series of articles in a few newspapers about the ‘success of the Police Commissionerate system’ in Noida and Lucknow. I think it is important to offer a counter-narrative at this point, in the spirit of an informed debate. Policies should always be weighed in the scales of greater public good, and be based on empirical evidence.

To begin, we must note that the Police Commissionerate system was implemented in Uttar Pradesh in the wake of an increasingly volatile law and order situation, after a series of policy decisions like the scrapping of Article 370 and the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 (CAB). Because of this turbulent phase, the decision to implement the Commissionerate system was not a result of wide-ranging consultation or deliberation. Crisis always strengthens the narrative for a centralised and more liberal use of legitimate state force. It is social logic.

The fundamental difference of this system is the placement of authority. As Frank Underwood remarks, “Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location.”

Also read: Uttar Pradesh is India’s broken heartland, break it into 4 or 5 states

Police Commissionerate in Uttar Pradesh

In this system, police officers above a certain rank get magisterial powers under the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). The authority shifts from the magistrate to within the police hierarchy. This erodes two fundamental tenets of any power structure:

a. the separation of powers

b. civilian control over a uniformed force

The separation of powers is a general framework. Consider preventive arrest under section 151 CrPC. The police are duty-bound to produce the arrested person before a magistrate within 24 hours. On more than one occasion, I have seen minors, senior citizens or injured persons produced before me, because they were likely to ‘commit a cognisable offence’ if they had been free. Now, they will be produced before a police superior, who will have the very same machinery to verify if the report is correct — judge, jury, and executioner.

The British, who were an invasive and brute force with the sole purpose of suppressing and retaining their colonial subjects, also did not apply this system as extensively as one would expect.

Also read: The case against dividing Uttar Pradesh into smaller states

Role of the magistrate

The second point is a contentious one. The most favourite logic for giving police magisterial powers is that it would lead to swifter action in law and order situations. This is, I can say with some confidence, a smoke screen. A law and order situation is, first of all, not by the book or within the neat lines of our laws. If an action has to be taken, it is usually taken, regardless of the presence or absence of a magistrate. There are no examples — I dare you to find one — where ‘delay’ in decision-making by a magistrate led to a law and order situation getting out of hand. A magistrate is totally, irrevocably and undoubtedly answerable for law and order. There is no ‘confusion’ in fixing responsibility. There is no authority without responsibility, just like there are no free lunches. Let us not overlook the fact that the mere presence of a magistrate in a law and order situation often diffuses it, as s/he enjoys the trust of the people. If a person dies in a road accident and there is a crowd of hundreds blocking the National Highway, it is nearly impossible for the police to convince this crowd that things are under control. In fact, the police often expressly ask for a magistrate to be present. For instance, Panchkula, Haryana the police demanded the magistrates to deal with the outcome of the Dera Sacha Sauda verdict in 2017. The magistrate can assure the family of the deceased of an impartial enquiry, compensations under the Motor Vehicles Act, payouts under government insurance schemes, a job for the dependents in case the person was a government employee, a residential lease of land, and so on.

To quote a 15 July article in the Hindustan Times, “According to data provided by the department, there has been a reduction of 172 per cent in the number of cases of vehicle theft from 1,381 in 2019 to 507 this year, a reduction of 157 per cent in rape cases from 54 (2019) to 21 (this year), 109 per cent in loot cases from 94 (2019) to 45 (this year) and 100 per cent reduction in dacoity and ransom based kidnappings.” This might be statistically impressive, but analytically, it is rather bankrupt.

Whatever happened to the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown? Has anyone factored that in? The article also talks about new U-turns made on highways, and the increase in the number of traffic lights. Surely, the police didn’t have orders from the magistrate to not make these changes earlier? Also, has there been an improvement in domains, that were exclusive jurisdictions of the police, such as cyber-crime or modern techniques of investigation?

The two districts in Uttar Pradesh that were most affected by the pandemic were also the ones that had the Commissionerate system. The state government, in fact, had to appoint a nodal officer for management of the pandemic, primarily to ensure coordination between the district administration and the police. The Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government, owing to the deteriorating situation in the capital, had to expressly issue an order on 15 June that said, “…there shall be unified command and control in the district and therefore all the DCPs of Delhi Police… all district heads of other departments…shall report to the respective district magistrate and shall function under their command…” This, in a state that has had the Police Commissionerate for decades.

Also read: Yogi Adityanath said ‘gunda raj’ over and people bought it. But UP crime still the worst

Rethinking narratives

The needs of any social structure should evolve over time based on feedback. Selectively culled narratives are sometimes counterproductive. An independent, third-party assessment is a better way to assess the gains of the new system. If it leads to better convictions, better and timely investigations/chargesheets, express conclusions of quasi-judicial proceedings under the National Security Act (NSA) or Gangster act, improved confidence in the public, and sets in motion other police reforms that have been on the back-burner, then we would have really progressed.

Currently, most of these issues are not even in the realms of discussion. Instead, a deliberate, systematic narrative is being created by injecting images, axioms and anecdotes into the public psyche. But this questionable narrative has the capacity to shape policies, lives and histories.

A more literate populace and vibrant civil society have levers of control that render such changes in the body politic fruitful. We perhaps should re-evaluate if we are there yet. The glitter of Police Commissionerate sign-boards should not blind us to the real issues.

The author is an IAS officer of 2017 Batch, Uttar Pradesh cadre. He is an engineer from Delhi College of Engineering. Views expressed in the article are personal and do not represent the stand of Government of India or the Government of Uttar Pradesh.