Once one has a hammer, one tends to see a nail everywhere — the use of lethal force by organs of the state against its own citizens needs utmost vigilance.
Over the last two decades, the size of India’s Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) has almost doubled. At the same time, expenditures on these forces have increased by almost an order of magnitude. These increases are occurring at a time when virtually all major ministries and departments of the central government have witnessed a decline in their personnel.
The implications of this growth in the militarised approach to policing have not received the attention they deserve.
As per data from the Seventh Pay Commission, the number of ‘persons in position’ in the central government declined by 42,817 between 2006 and 2010, and increased by 70,607 between 2010 and 2014.
The one notable exception is the Ministry of Home Affairs, led by the remarkable growth of CAPFs. Between 2006 and 2010, staffing in MHA increased by 68,984, and between 2010 and 2014, by an additional 167,063.
In other words, over the period 2006-14, personnel increases in the MHA (thanks to CAPFs) were more than six times the net increase in personnel of the entire central government.
The foremost function of any state is the safety of its citizens. This function is discharged through two principal instruments of the state — the army, to protect its citizens from external aggression; and the police, to ensure their physical safety as well as that of their property.
In federal systems, the former is controlled by the central government and the latter is largely the responsibility of sub-national and local governments. While this has been the case with India as well – with the army performing its tasks substantially better than the police – India is rare in having a third paramilitary instrument controlled at the federal level, not by the armed forces but rather by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
While the CAPFs perform a range of functions, from riot control to VIP duties, overseas deployments and disaster relief, they have two principal functions: guarding the country’s borders, and internal security. After the Kargil war, following the recommendations of the K. Subrahmanyam Committee, the principle of ‘one border, one border-guarding force’ was adopted for guarding the country’s international borders.
Thus, the BSF guards the Bangladesh and Pakistan borders, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) the 3,488 km of the India-China border, the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) is responsible for keeping an eye on India’s 2,450 km open borders with Nepal and Bhutan, and the Assam Rifles – the oldest paramilitary force of the country and the only CAPF officered by army officers – the border with Myanmar (the army only guards the land borders along the LoC with Pakistan and the LAC with China).
The largest CAPF, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), has been deployed principally in the two most vexing internal security challenges facing India — the strife in Jammu and Kashmir, and Left-wing extremism in central and eastern India. About 118 battalions of the CAPFs have been deployed to combat the Maoists using the Indian state’s “elephant” approach on dealing with insurgencies – throw tens of thousands of men (and now women as well) at the problem, and the sheer weight gradually crushes the opponent. Table 1 provides data on the current size of the different CAPFs.
- Table 1: Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) as on 01.03.2017 | Source: Lok Sabha Starred Question 526, 11 April 2017.
More worryingly, this expansion has proceeded much more rapidly than that of the other security-providing instruments of the state, the army and the police (Table 2). In 1998, CAPFs were less than 58 per cent of the size of the army. By 2015, this had increased to 82 per cent – and the number is climbing.
It could be argued that this by itself should not be a cause of worry, since modern armies are not as manpower-intensive as in the past. However, the relative budgets have climbed as well – expenditures on CAPFs have increased from 12 per cent of the defence budget in 1999-2000 to nearly 18 per cent in 2016-17.
- Table 2: Personnel strength of CAPFs (Civil police excludes state armed police) | Source: Data on army from the Indian Institute for Strategic Studies, and civil police from Bureau of Police Research and Development
Source: Data on army from the Indian Institute for Strategic Studies, and civil police from Bureau of Police Research and Development
At the other end, the size of CAPFs relative to the civil police has increased by nearly 15 per cent over the last two decades, which means that basic law and order – which is the first line of defence and is already under severe stress – is being neglected at the cost of a more militarised approach to policing. Indeed, these figures underestimate the latter, since they exclude 153 sanctioned Indian Reserve Battalions under state governments, but are funded in part by the central government.
There has been little scrutiny on the larger implications of the rapid expansion of the CAPFs.
Organisationally, there are hard questions regarding the overall effectiveness of these forces, stemming from weaknesses in training, poor equipment, and ineffective leadership. Rapid expansion has meant that recent inductees have not gone through as much rigorous training as needed. Their equipment is often shoddy, whether heavy helmets or body-armour, or simply inappropriate, as is the case with the limited range of non-lethal and non-maiming weapons to handle stone-throwing youngsters in Kashmir. Even their food rations often get siphoned.
But perhaps the biggest lacuna is leadership. The political leadership incessantly misuses them in activities like “VIP duty” (an activity that requires 7.5 per cent of the personnel resources of the CRPF). And even as the caste system in Indian society has been weakening, it is very much alive in the Indian police. IPS officers have a stranglehold on top paramilitary positions, even though the service was never meant to lead a paramilitary force, and most have little experience of leading from the front in insurgency areas. While there are exceptional IPS officers in the CAPFs, there is no reason why they should enjoy a de facto monopoly on the leadership of these forces.
Internal officer recruits in these forces know they have little chance to get to the top, undermining motivation and how they care for their troops. Little wonder that the officer-to-soldier casualties in the CAPFs are much lower than in the army.
The results have been all too painful in the severity of casualties of the rank-and-file of the CAPFs. Suicide rates in the CRPF are at least as high as among Indian farmers, but there is little anguish in the media about that. Data indicates that far more perish from malaria and stress-related heart attacks than combat.
Virtually all accounts of the instances when they have suffered a large number of casualties indicate poor leadership, but there is little accountability other than slap-on-the-wrist transfers. Feeble leadership also underlies a weak esprit de corps in the units, with bodies not always recovered after ambushes, and weapons of dead soldiers looted by the Maoists, which would not happen to army units.
There are potentially serious long-term implications of this very rapid expansion of CAPFs. For one, there are fiscal implications, not just of relative priorities of public spending, but even for the CAPFs themselves, as pension and healthcare bills will sharply rise in due course and cut into much-needed spending on better equipment and facilities. This is happening to the army, where one can see the crowding-out effects of rising pensions bills on military modernisation.
More importantly, the rise of the CAPFs is indicative of how states in India have been abdicating their constitutional responsibilities on law and order, by both under-investing in and over-politicising their own police forces. The reality is whether it is election duty or riot control, CAPFs are more trusted on competence and perceived as less partisan than local police forces. As a result, states have been slowly but surely giving up important policing powers to the Centre.
But there might be an even more disturbing implication. Once one has a hammer, one tends to see a nail everywhere. The use of lethal force by organs of the state against its own citizens requires utmost vigilance. The state needs to be extremely careful that the rapid growth of the CAPFs does not end up creating more problems than what it is trying to solve through this expansion.
Devesh Kapur is Madan Lal Sobti Professor for the Study of Contemporary India and the director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.