Pragmatic | Another police reforms rant

So many reports, yet no result

An Indian Police Service probationer was killed by the mining mafia in Morena district of Madhya Pradesh last evening.

Home Minister Umashankar Gupta said Kumar, acting on a tip-off, chased the tractor-trolley carrying stones and ordered the driver to stop. When the driver did not comply, Kumar reportedly got down from his official vehicle and tried to board the tractor. The driver then reportedly pressed a lever and tipped the trolley on the IPS officer, crushing him under the heavy stones. Kumar was rushed to a hospital in Gwalior where he died.[Indian Express]

Of course, people can dissect the operation threadbare — whether the officer followed the Standard Operating Procedure or the local police was part of a conspiracy that led to the officer’s death. Yes, the police in India do not possess adequate skills and capacity to professionally respond to a number of challenges they face today. But that is to miss the larger point. The Morena incident is not the only one where the police has been treated with such contempt. In Hissar, the protesting  Jats attacked a police station earlier this week. Similarly, the police were unable to act against a mob holding journalists hostage in Jhansi this week. The incidents in Bangalore have led to a situation where police is on the street, organising a protest against the lawyers.

Notwithstanding the need to ensure that the police is better equipped to uphold the law, the political context of this malaise cannot be ignored. It is the political interference which lies at the root of this malaise. Police is, more often than not, a tool being used by the ruling parties to further its political aims. No political party in India, despite the Supreme Court’s clear directions, is thus willing to embrace police reforms.

The major excuse given to stall police reforms is actually a thinly-disguised call to continue with this politicisation of police in the name of democratic accountability. It is best understood by this extract from the Fifth Report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, which was headed by Veerapppa Moily. This is where the report states the first core principle of police reforms: accountability of the elected government.

In a democracy, the government is elected to serve the people. People transfer a part of the right over their lives to government in order to serve the common goal of ensuring public order and protecting the liberties of all citizens. It is but natural that such an elected government must have authority. In our system, government is accountable to the legislature and to the people. Government must exercise real authority once elected to office. The imperatives of impartial investigation and fair trial demand autonomous functioning of the investigative and prosecution wings. But the overall accountability to the elected legislature and broad direction and supervision of the duly constituted government cannot be diluted. Also, several other functions of police including protection of public property, fight against terrorism, riot control and maintenance of law and order and intelligence gathering to anticipate threats need to be monitored and supervised by the political executive. Any reform proposal must recognise this requirement of democratic accountability and the responsibility of the political executive and elected legislatures. A police free from political direction can easily degenerate into an unaccountable force with the potential to undermine the foundations of democracy. The coercive power of the police can easily extinguish liberty unless it is tempered by responsible political direction.[Para 4.1.1]

Let me draw an inexact but relevant parallel here.The elected government is also responsible and accountable for national security of the country. Replace police with the armed forces in the above extract and it will still make complete sense. But does that accountability translate into interference in routine operational functioning of the armed forces? No politician tells the Navy which Captain should be commanding which ship or which airbase should have how many fighter jets stationed there. The only time when elected political leadership tried to personally select military commanders and direct a military campaign, it resulted in the debacle of 1962 against China. But the politicians continue to do the same with the police. Thus, what we are witnessing is a 1962 every single day in our police’s inability to uphold the rule of law and maintain public order.

As with the armed forces, the elected government must provide broad direction to the police. But it can’t mean direct interference in the daily functioning of the law and order machinery. There are, of course, major problems with the police and the criminal justice system in the country. None of them are easy to fix in a short span of time. But what is dispiriting is the broad political consensus against even moving forward on this critical issue.

The first attempt at police reforms in India happened in 1860. That was also perhaps the only time a government accepted and implemented the recommendations of a police commission. After that, the Indian Police Commission was constituted in 1902, the UP Police Commission in 1960, the West Bengal Police Commission in 1960, the Bihar Police Commission in 1961, the Tamil Nadu Police Commission in 1969, Gore Committee on Police Training by the central government (1971-73), the National Police Commission in 1977, the Ribeiro Committee in 1988, the Padmanabhaiah Committee on Police Reforms in 2000, Sorabjee’s Police Model Act Drafting Committee in 2005, and finally the Supreme Court’s directions were issued in 2006. But all these have amounted to little. Frankly, we don’t give a damn.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.