With 71 towns and metros in 16 states and Union Territories now under the Police Commissionerates in India, it is perhaps time to delve into the history of the institution, and ask ourselves – whether the changes have been substantial or just a change in nomenclature?
Are the new Commissionerates closer to the predecessor institutions in then Presidency towns of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, or just a case of rank inflation at the top with little or no changes in the functioning of the police stations and interface with citizens?
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Law, Europeans and uniforms
Before going further, do note that contrary to general perception, the Police Commissionerates were not started in India’s Presidency towns. The credit goes to the princely state of Hyderabad where the Nizam established the first Police Commissionerate in 1848. The Presidency towns got their Commissionerates only a decade after that. The reason for the appointment of Police Commissioners in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras was that these towns had a large European population. The Directors of the East India Company, and later the key officers of the Crown, wanted the administration of these cities to be modelled on the lines of a European city. As such, the Calcutta Police, established in 1856 was modelled on the Metropolitan Police, but in the aftermath of the First War of Independence (Mutiny), many elements of the Royal Irish Constabulary were incorporated.
However, the basic difference between policing in Presidency towns and the mofussil was maintained. In fact, the three Presidency Towns and Rangoon (till 1935) were not regulated by the Indian Police Act of 1861, but by the Calcutta Police Act of 1866. Under the Police Act of 1861, the district magistrate (DM) or collector was in charge of the district, and the Superintendent of Police reported to him. The powers of the executive magistrate, such as issuing orders for preventive arrest or imposition of Section 144, were vested in the DM and collector, and it was an effective means to dispense justice and collect land revenue, the principal source of tax for running the colonial administration.
Unlike the police in the mofussil, which was heavily dependent on the constables, head constables and Darogas/Kotwals, who ruled by the ‘fist rather than the law,’ the Presidency towns had European and later Anglo-Indian Sergeants as the heads of police stations. They were well versed with the law and conscious of the fact that they were under the observation of the citizens, the English press, and the high courts. Unlike their counterparts in the mofussil, they were also better paid, better trained, and certainly better equipped with much smarter uniforms. When their counterparts in the districts wore khaki half pants, the Sergeants of Calcutta police were dressed in naval whites and rode Harley Davidsons!
The difference between the two distinct types of police came under the scrutiny of the first Police Commission constituted by Lord Curzon under civil servant Sir Andrew Frazer in 1902. The commission was of the view that the extant arrangements should be strengthened. ‘For the preservation of order and for dealing with cases in which Europeans are concerned, a considerable infusion of the European element will always be required, but this necessity must not be allowed to operate as a complete bar to the employment of natives in the higher subordinate posts,’ it said.
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City police can’t match up
After Independence, the special characteristics of Presidency towns gradually whittled away, and the police in the three Presidency towns were not exempt. The Police Commissioners were reporting directly to the government, and not to the IGP/DGP of the state. Meanwhile, Delhi too got a Commissionerate in 1977, and it was generally accepted by the Police Commissions and the Ministry of Home Affairs that corporations with a population of more than 10 lakh should be placed under a Commissionerate by transferring the functions of magistracy to the police.
However, as policing is a state subject under the seventh schedule, different state governments have applied different criteria regarding the transfer of powers and functions. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, police commissioners do not have powers to issue gun licences, excise permits and the imposition of the National Security Act (NSA).
While the Bureau of Police Research and Development and Police Commissionerate are patting themselves on the back for increased efficiency in the functioning of the police in urban areas, the counterfactual has been brought out in research studies by the ORF. These have shown that the basic idea of ‘officer-centred urban police’ in which most personnel are drawn from the city to ensure a popular connect with the citizens has not materialised. Moreover, unlike city police forces across the world, which don’t have more than four or five ranks above the constable, the Delhi Police has 12, and four stages of induction. Unlike her counterpart in London or New York, the best a Delhi Police constable can hope for is to rise to the rank of an Inspector, or ACP. The recruitment of sub-inspectors in the Delhi Police is tagged to that of sub-inspectors in the CAPFs, with a much greater focus on physical fitness. The job requirement for a sub-inspector in ITBP and that of a cybercrime unit in Delhi are as different as chalk and cheese. Above this rank, Delhi Police gets officers from the Delhi and Andaman Nicobar Police Service and the IPS: both are part of the civil services examination. A similar four-stage induction can be seen in other Commissionerate as well.
Another vital difference between our Commissionerates and the city police organisations elsewhere is the complete bypass of mayors, and in the case of Delhi, the chief minister, in the maintenance of law and order and review of crime. All this makes policing in our metros far more complex, and there is a need to re-examine not just the 1861 Police Act, but also the colonial practice of four-stage recruitment, the superfluous hierarchy, and the non-involvement of city governments in the maintenance of law and order, and such crimes that do not directly impinge on national security.
Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.
This article is part of the ‘State of the State‘ series that analyses policy, civil services, and governance in India.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)