Saturday, July 21, 2007

An essential reform process: Police reform in India

India needs reform at many levels. There is the need to get away with the license Raj, where the Government believed that everybody needs to live by rules (so far so good), and they cannot be expected to comply with these rules and hence need regular inspection, resulting in incredible levels of corruption. This is slowly going away (slowly being the word). Another area is the need to reform the bureaucracy, the steel framework of India, which has mostly rusted. The bureaucracy in India is one of the most corrupt and tainted bodies, strongly supportive of the whims of the politician, where honest people either wither away or live a life resigned to not making much of a difference.
The biggest area in which Indian society needs to be reformed is the politician-police nexus. Unlikely would be the case of finding a citizen who is not either personally or indirectly been affected by the corruption of this nexus. A policeman is the force of law and order in our society, and has almost unparalleled power, being subject to only either a higher bureaucrat or policeman, or indirectly to the politician. However, this power brings with it a great responsibility, and this is where the police force falls flat. Historically, the police force has been the force of state rule, and this is now entrenched in India. A policeman decides who has done right or wrong, delivers immediate justice (in terms of punishment to some degree); and most importantly, decides whether a person can be spared (even if the person is doing a crime).
And this is where a politician comes into the picture. This power over society can be used to great personal benefit for the politician, and the proceedings shared with the policeman. How does a politician control the police force? Simple, through the power of moving a policeman to a good police station, or to one located in a bad area, or through the power of promotion. How many people have not heard of police posts in important areas not being sold (or policemen paying money to get these posts)? Or, whenever a new party takes over, it orders sweeping changes in the bureaucracy and the police force, so as to bring their own men into power. If the police force were impartial, where would come these concepts of mass transfers or 'own men' ?
Recognizing this, over a period of time, people, including the media and police reform committees have called for police reform. In the meantime, we have had numerous riots where the police force have shied away from their 'supposed' traditional role of law enforces or keepers of the peace, and have instead behaved as being from the same society, taking sides and being totally partial. The 1984 Delhi anti-sikh riots, 1992 Bombay riots, the Bhagalpur blindings, the 2002 Gujarat riots, all these are instances of the dismal failure of the police force bending to the
political masters. It is the army and paramilitary forces in India that are the final enforcers of the law.
In 1996, a case was filed in the Supreme Court by 2 former police heads (ex-DGPs Prakash Singh and N.K.Singh) asking for police reforms. Then a revolution. In 2006, September 22, the Supreme Court, recognizing that the Government and legislature was not expected to pass any accord on police reform that would affect the rights and powers of politicians, passed a sweeping judgment. It has some basic tenets, whereby the power of politicians to transfer police officers from the station upwards to the DGP was taken away (a single step to break away the nexus between the politician and police). This was an unprecedented taking away of the power of the executive and legislature, but enjoyed immense respect, and as you will read below, the court cared little for the screams from the politicians.
So what did the Supreme Court mandate? It ruled for:
- Setting up a State Security Commission to break the influence between the politician and police
- Ensure that police officers are appointed for a mandate of 2 years and also set up bodies to decide and nominate postings and transfers for police officers at different levels
- Set up independent Police Complaint Authorities to look into complaints against police officers for misconduct and serious crimes
It wanted to see compliance in a few months, with states setting up the required legislation to bring these into effect. Another first, with the court ordering states to create specific legislation, and the Central Government had created a nodal bill under the stewardship of Soli Sorabjee, and the expectation was that the states would create bills similar to this bill.
As expected, a number of states, especially ones where the nexus was all-important (yes, you guessed right, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, etc) screamed for a number of reasons. They screamed about the Supreme Court ordering something that was a state affair, they protested that this would make the police force no longer responsible to the people's representatives, they screamed that there are no complaints of political interference, and hence no need for such a measure, that fixed tenures will demoralize other officers, there is no need to bring the UPSC into recommending names for DGP posts, and that the complaints authority will demoralize the police and be outside the existing system. Essentially, what they were all moaning about was the cutting off of the police force selection process from the political system.
Anyhow, even though the states seemed to be getting their way of not following through the orders of the Supreme Court, eventually things seem to be on track. The Supreme Court has made clear that it does not care about the reservations expressed by the various states, and has over-ruled all the objections, and has been following through with the states about their measures for compliance. By May 2007, there were essentially 6 states that were still holding out, Uttar Pradesh being one of them. And then the Supreme Court threatened contempt:

The Supreme Court has directed the Chief Secretaries of six states to file their responses on a petition seeking initiation of contempt of court proceedings against them for not complying with the judgements of the apex court dated September 22, 2006, issued to improve the functioning of police in the country.
A bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justices B P Singh and G P Mathur issued directions to the Chief Secretaries of Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh on a petition filed by former UP DGP Parkash Singh, based on which the directions were issued.

Contempt petitions have a great influence in getting the political authority to move ahead on measures on which they have been somewhat stone-walling. There is some amount of hope that if the political authorities do not try to weaken these new measures, we may get a police form that is truly one that can say 'For you, with you', instead of 'from you, against you'.

And in a measure of some progress, one of the states, Gujarat is discussing a bill to implement these measures. As the states start falling into order, one wonders whether it is possible to dream of a situation where the police force is a force for law and order (eventually) and with reduced corruption.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 6:34 AM