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Only public pressure can bring police reforms now. Supreme Court order is gathering dust

15 years after the Supreme Court judgment in Prakash Singh case, we must ask what's holding up police reforms – Indians' lack of appreciation for good policing or the feeling of having given up?

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On 22 September 2006, the Supreme Court of India delivered its landmark judgment in the famous Prakash Singh case, mandating country-wide police reform and issuing seven crucial directives to immediately start the implementation process. The 15th anniversary of the judgment this week is a good occasion to take stock of where we stand on the reform front.

Unfortunately, not much has changed in the way policing is done in India. Despite widespread disenchantment and discontent with the functioning of the police force, the cause of reform has not captured the imagination of Indians. Is it because of inadequate appreciation of the importance of good policing for the health of a vibrant democratic society with economic potential to develop into a world power? Or, is it sheer apathy – a feeling of having given up? Possibly, a mix of both.

Why does our policing need reform?

Those who claim that the existing police system is working satisfactorily turn a blind eye to several glaring reasons necessitating reform, the foremost being the common public perception of our police being unprofessional, insensitive, brutal and corrupt. These perceptions may be too sweeping, yet bear correction through conscious effort. Hence the need for reforms.

Further, good policing is a sine qua non for a healthy socio-cultural environment in society. Economic progress, too, is a function of a climate of safety and security. Police reform is, therefore, important for India’s socio-economic health.

Most importantly, the need for reform is dictated by the all-important role of the police as the primary protectors of the rule of law. It demands a police force that is apolitical, unquestionably fair and impartial, and free from all kinds of extraneous influences. A classic example of rule of law-oriented policing was provided recently by the Norwegian police, which imposed a heavy and exemplary fine on its own prime minister for organising a party on her 60th birthday in violation of Covid-19 regulations. Our police officials also need to practise unbiased law enforcement, without fear or favour, as demanded by the rule of law.


Also read: Judging police performance by crime data is a bigger issue than politicisation: Neeraj Kumar


Legacies of the past

Much of the ills of our police system can be traced to its colonial inheritance. Its edifice is based on the foundations laid by the British in 1861. Created on the heels of our First War of Independence, it was intended to be a force that would ensure domination of the ‘Raj’ through control over the native population, and not so much as a ‘service’ to cater to the policing needs of citizens.

The force, therefore, had to be kept isolated from the populace, no matter if its policing methods led to creating an adversarial relationship with the public. Policing also had to be done at the bare minimum cost – an anxiety vividly reflected in the provision of manpower strength, equipment, etc., besides abysmal working conditions and poor salary structure.

Interestingly, the police system so introduced in India was not modelled on their own police system based on the celebrated Peelian Principles, but on the Irish Constabulary, which was more of an occupational force than a public service. Regrettably, the functioning of police still continues to be governed largely by the tenets of the Police Act of 1861. Reform is needed to change this.


Also read: An all-India Police Act, that’s what we need to curb Waze-like cases of corruption


Saga of reform initiatives in independent India

Athe infirmities and inadequacies of the police system reared their ugly heads time and again, in the post-Independence period, state after state, starting with Kerala in 1959, constituted their Police Commissions to examine the ills dogging the police functioning. The central government, too, appointed several commissions and committees to study the problems and ills of police functioning either solely or as part of the administrative apparatus, or criminal justice administration, or national security architecture of the country.

The maladies afflicting police functioning, thus, also came to be studied by several national-level expert bodies. The eight volumes of the Report of the National Police Commission, in particular, represent a seminal and comprehensive study of the existing structures, methodologies, and their weaknesses, alongside the policing needs of modern India – a secular democracy, pursuing the goal of an egalitarian and economically strong society.

However, despite hundreds of useful recommendations, our police forces continue to remain plagued by most of the ills of their colonial past, in fact further multiplied manifold by the frailties piled up since then. An earnest attempt at implementation of the recommended reforms has been missing, barring some nominal, piecemeal refurbishments here and there.


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Supreme Court’s directives

The Supreme Court judgment of 2006 was the outcome of a public interest litigation filed by a retired illustrious police officer, Prakash Singh. The judgment decreed setting up certain institutional mechanisms aimed at insulating police functioning from all kinds of unlawful extraneous influences; providing for due professional autonomy to the police; and ensuring their accountability for any misconduct or unlawful actions. It also sought to deal with the malady of abrupt transfers, used as a tool to ‘control’ or manipulate officers. The mandated institutional mechanisms were:

  1. A non-partisan State Security Commission for each state, headed by the Chief Minister/Home Minister, and having the Leader of the Opposition, a retired High Court Judge, a few non-political independent individuals, etc. as members. The Commission would serve the checks and balances purpose of providing restraint against exercise of unbridled ‘superintendence’ over the police by the state government or by the ruling party by proxy.
  2. A Police Establishment Board as a collegium, comprising the DGP and four other senior police officers, to decide on transfer/postings, etc. of officers up to Dy SP rank, and to make recommendations to the state government on similar matters respecting officers of higher ranks.
  3. Police Complaint Authorities headed by retired judges, one at the state level and one each for the districts, to inquire into the complaints of serious misconduct like custodial deaths/rapes, etc., against senior officers and officers of and below Dy SP level, respectively.
  4. Another important directive mandated a transparent, merit-based process of selection of DGP. This would take care of undesirable extraneous considerations, often governing such appointments. The directive also provides for a fixed minimum tenure of two years to the officers so selected as well as for all officers on operational duties, including District SPs and SHOs.

The obvious hope was that the implementation of these directives would help inject functional autonomy as also accountability – the two main pillars of democratic policing – in police work, besides providing a spur to the other needed reforms.

The governments initially dilly-dallied, but having exhausted all avenues of seeking ‘review’ and dilution of the directives, finally proclaimed ‘compliance’ with them, albeit more in defiance. The Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee, in its report (August 2010), ruefully expressed its ’utter dismay’ over the total indifference of the states to reform in police functioning.

Even the current situation of the implementation of the directives, after a lapse of 15 long years, is dismal. Forget about ground-level implementation, even in terms of paper compliance, no state or union territory is fully compliant on any of the directives. A recent assessment concludes that “checks and balances that the Supreme Court directives seek to instil to make policing more professional and accountable are being stymied by the states in multiple ways”.


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Roadblocks

Good policing has obvious merit and value, but then why are reforms being so stoutly stonewalled? The obvious answer is the antipathy and aversion to it borne by the powers-that-be and other beneficiaries of the inept and unprofessional policing.

A sizeable section of the political class and influential bureaucracy has become so habituated to using, misusing and abusing the police force that the issue of reform sounds as an anathema to them. Moreover, not all police officers are reform-minded. The apathy of the citizenry, too, deserves the blame.

The way forward 

Indian citizens have a crucial role in the actualisation of police reforms. After all, in a democracy, the people’s voice holds the strongest power. Political leadership needs people’s support to win elections. Issues that can potentially fetch them votes are swiftly lapped up. In the absence of public pressure, the political class can easily afford to ignore the cause of police reform, which, in any case, suits their vested interest. Therefore, there is a dire need for the citizenry to rise up and build pressure on powers-that-be.

Ironically, Indians are quite indifferent to reform even though they do feel the pinch of bad policing every now and then, and it is they who are to benefit the most with reform. They need to be sensitised to their vital role, and community leaders and NGOs can play a part in promoting this awareness through systematic campaigns, extensively using social, print, digital and visual media. Political leaders at various levels also need to be educated about the significance of good policing in their own overall interest. Multi-pronged approach is what is needed. 

Kamal Kumar is a retired IPS officer, who has been involved with several government initiatives on police reform and was also a member of the Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee. He is the former director of National Police Academy, and former vice-chairman, UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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