The year 2019 was significant for India’s internal security for two reasons. First, the security forces faced unprecedented challenges in Kashmir and in the northeast due to various threats as well as some policy measures of the Narendra Modi government. Second, and rather unfortunately, a section of the Central Armed Police Forces was engaged in an acrimonious campaign to oust their IPS leadership.
The border guarding forces and the armed police maintained by the central government have grown rapidly since the 1960s owing to disputes with China and Pakistan, growing internal security challenges like militancy in Punjab and Kashmir, and the rise of Left-wing extremism (LWE).
The Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) were raised and nurtured by the Indian Police Service (IPS) officers. But over time, states began to show reluctance in sparing young IPS officers. Besides, state police forces too have undergone expansion with the creation of new districts. This led to a shortfall of IPS leadership in the CAPF. In response, successive governments expanded the recruitment of cadre officers in the CAPF. So far, the policy consensus had been that the CAPF officer cadre will play a supporting role to the IPS officers who will provide strategic leadership. That consensus is now being challenged.
Cracks in apparatus
Matters have come to a head, especially in the past one year, due to two separate developments.
First is the issue of salaries. The Sixth Pay Commission accorded all Organised Group A Service (OGAS) with Non-Functional Financial Upgrade (NFFU), that is, a rise in pay irrespective of vacancies in the next promotional pay scale. The Supreme Court in February 2019 accorded OGAS status to six CAPFs. The CAPF cadre officers want the OGAS to be implemented in full in order to completely end the IPS deputation and have approached the Delhi HC.
Essentially, they want the courts to rule on the wider issue of how the government designs strategic command of CAPF organisations — and, in the process, fundamentally alter the character of the Indian Police Service as an All India Service (AIS). There is nothing eternal or sacrosanct about the design of the All India Services and their role in governance. What is curious is that far-reaching policy changes are being sought not through informed debate, but through an extremely well-funded legal challenge and a vitriolic social media campaign.
The second development is the increasing use of social media through anonymous accounts by some CAPF cadre officers to criticise the Modi government and the IPS leadership. The entire atmosphere has turned toxic with not-so-subtle hints at disaffection. Many other interest groups have joined the chorus either with their own agenda or because they have an axe to grind against the IPS. Despite criticism, the IPS fraternity continues to carry a great degree of public trust.
The merit debate
As things stand today, the CAPF officer cadre wants the perks and privileges of both the armed forces and All India Services. The CAPF entry exam, though conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), doesn’t have either the physical or the psychological rigor of the Services Selection Board (SSB) for the armed forces, nor the intellectual heft of the civil services exam. While CAPF cadres love to deride the AIS as one-exam wonders, the fact remains that most of them attempted and failed to qualify. Entry-level caliber is not the primary issue in determining the place of the CAPF officer cadre in our internal security system anyway. Most police organisations are hybrid outfits with multiple entry levels. Many cite the tactical abilities and the bravery displayed by CAPF cadre officers as sufficient proof of their capability to head these organisations. Parallels from the armed forces are drawn to strengthen this argument.
First, even in the armed forces, tactical prowess and bravery are not the overriding considerations in selecting officers for strategic leadership positions. Second, the CAPF officer cadre does not face a steep pyramid like the armed forces, where the vast majority of officers fail to make it past the Lt Col (second-in command) rank in the CAPFs. Third, they do not face early retirement at different ranks beyond colonel level like in the armed forces.
There are larger issues of size, cost, and overall efficiency when deciding the CAPF’s place in India’s internal security architecture. The government spent about Rs 60,000 crore on more than 10 lakh CAPF personnel in 2018-19 and around Rs 1,30,000 crore on 25 lakh personnel in state police forces. The best guarantee of internal security is a well-resourced police force that enjoys public trust and confidence, and not merely heavily armed boots on the ground. To strengthen the state police forces, the government could convert many CAPF battalions into India Reserve Battalions (IRB), and allow some of the border guarding CAPF component to come under the strategic leadership of army generals even in peacetime, like the Assam Rifles.
Recently, a retired IPS officer, N.C. Asthana, argued that there was no justification for continued IPS leadership of CAPFs. Asthana confuses tactics and strategy to claim that IPS officers have been found wanting as leaders. The experience of armed forces around the world suggests that tactical brilliance is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for strategic leadership. This is why senior commanders undertake Strategic Leadership Courses in India and abroad to equip them to understand the role of the organisation they head in a rapidly changing world.
Recently, it has been reported that a committee has recommended to the UPSC that the CAPF recruitment should be brought under the ambit of the civil services exam. Given the statutory changes it will require, it is a long way from being implemented. While this may or may not satisfy those disgruntled among the CAPF cadre, it has to be carefully thought through.
Recently, the Modi government decided to merge a number of railway services into one service. So, will the CAPF cadre recruitment be merged into the overall IPS recruitment, or will they be recruited as a combined CAPF service? More importantly, will recruiting them through the civil services examination mean that they too will be brought under the Right to Information (RTI) and subject to civilian legal processes? Currently, these organisations are exempt from the RTI and their personnel is subject to a military-style in-house legal system, even when they commit criminal offences against civilians in peacetime areas. Clearly, the CAPF officer cadres cannot claim the status of civil services and expect to hold on to military-style privileges.
If we analyse the use of the CAPFs, clearly, a substantial chunk of their manpower and resources are used to support state police in various routine and extraordinary internal security challenges. If we are to continue doing so, and convert their officer cadres into civil services, then their military-style regimentation and immunities will have to undergo some changes. Or else we face a scenario where the CAPFs are primarily used for sequestering our elite.
Any change in the police organisation must address the critical gap between India’s capacity to secure the powerful and serve the common citizen. It’s mostly the police stations that need personnel but that is where there is the maximum resource gap. Also, policing is best done within a strictly legal framework, subject to law and limited by law. If the CAPF cadre genuinely aspires to be treated as civil services, a lot of work will be required to reorient the forces towards a more citizen-centric ethos.
The military and police leadership in India have distinguished themselves with their professionalism, broad acceptability in society as well from the elected leaders. And they have never allowed India’s constitutional system to be imperiled. What the CAPF cadres are demanding has huge national security implications and for the contours of our civil-military equations.
There is, of course, the larger issue of distribution of power between the state and the central government, and of democracy itself. Should the central police forces be more militarised or should they be made more accountable to citizens, the law and elected representatives? This is the most important question that must guide the debate. The leadership role given to each cadre should follow from that. Anything else would amount to placing the cart before the horse.
Sudhanshu Sarangi is Commissioner of Police, Bhubhaneshwar. Abhinav Kumar is Inspector General, Uttarakhand Police. Views are personal.