Forty-five annas worth of goods had vanished from the house in Katra Sheesh Mahal, nestled inside the lanes of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk: Kitchen utensils, women’s clothes, a hookah, and, mysteriously, a bowl of kulfi ice-cream. Late in 1861, Maeeduddin Yar Khan, son of Muhammad, walked into the Sabzi Mandi police station, one of three in Delhi, to report the crime. There is no way of telling what the police, over-burdened investigating gambling, prostitution, stolen mules and murders, made of the curious case of the kulfi thief. The crime was, however, recorded in the first-ever First Information Report.
Ever since he took power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been exhorting Indians to shed their colonial inheritance. Army bands have Indian musical instruments, there is a new naval ensign, and Raj Path has been renamed Kartavya Path.
There is one colonial legacy, though, that Modi hasn’t shown interest in eradicating: The Police Act of 1861, which makes Indian police forces accountable to the political establishment—but not the people.
Sixteen years ago this week, the Supreme Court laid out a blueprint for reforming the colonial-era governance of India’s police—among other things, calling on state and central governments to set up independent bodies to regulate the appointment of its higher leadership. The reforms called for giving the police functional autonomy, demanding public accountability in return.
Last week, when four men rode down a highway in Bihar, shooting at random—a rampage, police have alleged, that was meant to spread fear of their gang—the costs of the failure to reform became evident. Local police completely failed to respond as the shooting proceeded, and that isn’t the only sign of a criminal justice system in disarray. Efforts to fast-track sexual assault trials are flailing, while new organised crime and terrorism threats are emerging.
Legislative models to replace the 1861 Act, emphasising police accountability, have long been in place. In the years since the Supreme Court judgment, 17 states have passed new Police Acts.
But not one has implemented the independent system for appointments and tenure the Supreme Court mandated. In most states, political interference in appointments remains the norm—from the level of the Station House Officer to the Director-General. Appointments by the central government, too, remain clouded by opaque criteria and processes.
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The birth of the Indian police
From 1793, under Governor-General Charles Cornwallis, the East India Company set about laying foundations for the Indian police. The responsibility for law and order was taken from Zamindars, and handed to Darogas, or police-station chiefs. “They ruled their territories like little kings,” the civil servant John Beames recorded in his memoirs. The Daroga served the British by being close to the people, Beames wryly noted, and themselves by being close to criminals. “Their misdeeds were legion and always went unpunished.”
The Madras Torture Commission, which investigated the workings of the EIC’s police system in 1855, noted that “corruption and bribery reign paramount through the whole establishment [and] violence, torture and cruelty are their chief instruments for detecting crime.”
Following the rebellion of 1857, imperial British authorities understood the importance of having a civilian police force. Their plans sought, historian Erin Giuliani notes, to “increase efficiency, but diminish expense.” There were just 532 enrolled police officers in Bhagalpur in 1862, each responsible, on average, for a staggering 3,740 people. In practice, that meant handing over control of rural territories to local elites—and the use of coercion to solve crime, recover stolen goods, and suppress dissent.
Local village and urban police officials reported up to British officers—who in turn were accountable to imperial authorities, not those they governed.
As the Empire staged increasingly savage counter-insurgency operations to snuff out ethnic rebellions—and faced the beginnings of a nationalist movement—the repressive role of the police became ever-more marked. “The lines which separates the protective and repressive of a civil force from functions purely military” administrator William Hunter wrote in 1907, “may not always in India be very clear.”
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The state of criminal injustice
Following independence, India inherited an anaemic police force, with few tools but terror. “The old fear which the police used to inspire amongst criminals has largely dissipated,” lamented the director of the Intelligence Bureau, B.N. Mullick, in India’s first post-independence crime survey. “There has been no improvement in the methods of investigation or in the application of science,” the spy chief went on. In rural areas, Mullick reported, the police had simply “disappeared as an effective force.”
The consequences soon became evident. In a thoughtful 1971 paper, the scholar David Bayley noted that the relatively low levels of crime reported in India were misleading. “Crime statistics reflect as much about the organisation collecting them as they do about the real world,” Bayley argued. The low level of crime was an artifact of the thin presence of the criminal justice system—not of peace.
Even today, figures published by the Bureau of Police Research and Development show that Indian police forces are on average 20% short of the numbers of personnel governments have sanctioned. Bihar has just 75 personnel for every 100,000 people—well short of the 115 sanctioned—while Telangana has 130, instead of 209, and Uttar Pradesh 133 instead of 183.
The use of modern investigative technology, as well as training standards, remain poor. “There are no consistent standards,” expert Sonal Marwah has noted, “and most training facilities lack basic amenities and sufficient instructors.” “Training of police personnel tends to be militaristic, stressing how to use force rather than the responsibilities of police to civil society.”
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The vanishing point of law
India’s central government concedes policing has serious problems. “The police is seen as selectively efficient [and] unsympathetic to the underprivileged,” a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) note states. “It is further accused of politicisation and criminalisation.” The central government has provided funding for police modernisation since 1969—Rs 26,275 crore has been committed for the five years from 2021-2022—but the MHA admits the results “are not visible on the ground level,” because states lack “scarcity of proper advice and assessment.”
This diagnosis doesn’t go deep enough: As long as police organisations are not autonomous, wielding power over their own functional decision-making, they will not be accountable. And they will not be accountable until PM Modi pushes state governments—especially those ruled by his own party—to bring about genuine legal reform.
Ever since 26/11, governments have repeatedly promised more efficient policing—but resisted making the institutional changes that can bring it about.
In October 1979, on the orders of the Bhagalpur police, 33 undertrial prisoners were blinded. Patel Sah’s eyes were gouged out with a needle and acid poured into them. Many Bhagalpur residents had cheered the punishment. In a land without law, the savagery might have seemed to be a kind of justice.
British civil servant James Stephen wrote in 1883, “It is far pleasanter to sit comfortably in the shade rubbing red pepper in some poor devil’s eyes than to go about in the sun hunting up evidence.”
The state of criminal justice built by empire has enmeshed with the warp and weft of the Indian republic, degrading its democracy and civic life.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)