Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Writers' Block

( published as lead article in the Statesman, 13 November, 2005)

Sudhir Kumar Jha time-travels to walk the musty corridors of the majestic red structure that has been home to the Bengal secretariat for a century and a half, and the nursery of generations of clerks who are a class by themselves.

THE daily commuters who pass it by every day may not cast a second glance at Writers’ Building in Kolkata, but the building is an acknowledged heritage site. Imperial and Gothic in appearance, it has been home to all shades of political opinion, from the imperialists to communists. Its corridors have been witness to history being made and unmade. It has been the seat of the Bengal Government for almost a century and a half. What may not be so well-known is why Writers’ Building is so called. Nor that the present edifice is not the original but only its latest incarnation. The earliest version, erected around 1690, was a mud hovel within the old fort, meant to accommodate the “writers” of the East India Company. It was destroyed in a storm in 1695 and rebuilt. The site shifted to where the GPO is now, where a single-floor brick building came up in 1706.The East India Company’s building programme in Calcutta during the 18th century was meant to be utilitarian rather than demonstrative of imperial grandeur. It remained so even after the grant of Diwani and the victories at Plassey and Buxar had riveted the shackles of the East India Company’s rule in Bengal. With a spurt in the Company’s activities, there was an increased influx of hands from England. Apart from a larger working space, a place had to be found to house these people. As the newcomers were unencumbered by families, even dormitory-type accommodation was deemed adequate. By now the Company could have the pick of the location. Without disturbing the existing arrangement, fresh construction was taken up at the building’s current location adjacent to the lake. The new structure was in place by 1780. Records show that the new edifice had 19 sets of apartments, all identical, contained in a very long, rather solid three-stories block, classical in style, with 57 sets of identical windows, a flat roof and a central projection with Ionic columns. From all accounts it was uninspiring and resembled a military barrack or a seminary, but it was among the few early attempts at large-scale, classically-motivated architecture in India.This original design was super-imposed in the 19th century in two phases. The first, around the middle of the century, simply embellished the existing structure with low pediments. The second enterprise, undertaken at the height of British imperial power under Queen Victoria, was more ambitious. It now had terracotta dressings, dummy portico and pediment, and a Corinthian facade. The building as we see it today covers 2.8 acres of land and is 705 feet wide; the campus is spread over 10 acres. It is a cluster of 13 four-storeyed buildings and has been home to the Bengal Secretariat since the time of Lieutenant Governor Ashley Eden.Who were these “writers” that this behemoth, literally as well as figuratively majestic, was named after? With a view to compete with the Dutch spice traders in the Indies, a band of entrepreneurs formed a joint-stock company and obtained a charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 in the name and style of East India Company. In 1675 the Company established a regular gradation of posts. The lowest rank, that of the apprentice, was discontinued soon. Directly above them were the writers. LSS O’Malley believes (The Indian Civil Service, John Murray, London, 1931) that the appellation originated in 1645 and lasted until 1858 when the British Crown took over the direct administration of the country, by which time the mercantile duties of the office had long since disappeared. Above the writers were the factors (in charge of a trading post and not to be confused with the officer-in-charge in a factory), the junior merchants and the senior merchants — titles borrowed initially from the Dutch East India Company and officially employed till 1842. As a rule the East India Company maintained strictly separate cadres for the civilians and the military but there were exceptions when an infantry cadet received writership and vice versa. George Elliot came out to India in 1779 as an infantry cadet and received a writership two years later. He rose to become the deputy military pay master-general.A writer took about five years to become a factor. As the writers went up the ladder they occupied all the higher civilian offices and discharged assorted functions, mostly related to revenue, the judiciary and mercantile matters. They took on designations such as supervisor, collector, district judge, salt agent and mercantile agent. William Dampiers was the superintendent of police, a post corresponding to the present director general of police of the Bengal Presidency on the eve of the Mutiny and John Elliot, after whom Elliot Road in Calcutta was named, was the president of the Boards of Police and Conservancy in the early years of the 19th century. Some became commissioners, headed the Boards of Revenue and even became governors and governor-general. In all probability Job Charnock, the putative founder of Calcutta, came to India as a writer as did Robert Clive and Warren Hastings.It was mandatory for these writers, at least during their probationary period, to reside in the Writers’ Building. The stipulation of compulsory residence for writers was annulled in 1835. After being used as mercantile offices for some years, Writers’ Buildings became the home of the Bengal Secretariat. It became one of the community’s most conspicuous landmarks.A writer was what the term conveys — a junior clerk, a scribe. There were so many of them. One can visualize them slogging out their days on a high stool scratching interminable entries into a ledger in poor light, holding a quill in one hand and swatting mosquitoes with the other. These writers were sent to factories (trading posts); they kept accounts and were responsible for correspondence with London. Every letter to the head office was made out in triplicate to ensure that at least one surely reached its destination. Two copies were sent by two different sailing ships and the third went across land. Theirs was thus an existence of unbroken drudgery and tedium. A welcome break came in 1830 when David Wilson, a British national, opened a confectionery-cum-bakery less than 100 metres away. The writers could now take short breaks and hop across for a bun or pastry. The outlet, begun to serve primarily the writers, later morphed into the famous Great Eastern Hotel, the first modern, European-style hotel in the country. Alas, the heritage hotel is reportedly up for sale. Thankfully the Writers’ Building faces no such threat.Contrary to popular belief, writers were poorly paid. Perhaps it was in line with the Company’s philosophy: a penny saved is a penny earned. Sir john Shore, successor to Lord Cornwallis as governor-general, had started his Indian career in 1769 as a writer with a salary of Rs 96, then equivalent to £ 12 a year. He was barely able to afford half the rent of an ill-ventilated modest dwelling. Paying low wages was a sure inducement to indulge in “private practice” and corruption. The Company connived with its employees when it came to creative personal trading, as long as its profits were not affected. Corruption was condoned as a well-deserved recompense for spending half one’s lifetime in hazardous exile.The Company’s policy was to “catch them young”. Writers were inducted at the age of 16. Writers’ petitions or job applications had to include baptismal certificates, testimonials and details of education. Considering the writers’ impressionable age and virtual lack of education, in 1800 governor-general Lord Wellesley wanted to establish a college at Fort William for the purpose of completing the education of the company’s servants but was overruled by the court of directors. His dream came true with the opening of the East India College at Haileybury in England in 1806. Wellesley set up on his own in 1800 not a full-fledged college but a modest seminary for instruction in Oriental languages which survived until 1854 by which time it had long outlived its utility.An act of 1826 gave the directors discretionary power to appoint young men between 18 and 22 as writers. A writership was a passport to great riches and it was not always acquired without dubious dealing and corruption. This arrangement lasted from 1827 to 1832. Those appointed under the “nomination” scheme included well-known names such as Sir Robert Montgomery, lieutenant governor of the Punjab from 1859 to 1865 and William Tayler, commissioner of Patna during the Sepoy Mutiny. An Act of 1853 introduced the system of open competition for appointment to the civil service in India — the principle was not applied to the home civil service until 1870 — and the first exam was held in 1855. Henceforthe writers began learning the Indian languages, customs et al on the job as the arrangement at Fort William had by then been done away with. The East India College, however, sent out the last batch only in 1858 with the result that for two years the list of writers was made up of Haileybury men and Competition Wallahs, to borrow the title from George Trevelyan’s famous book. The hereditary connection with India was to become a remarkable characteristic of the Hailebury system. Sons stepped into their fathers’ shoes as a matter of course and brought their cousins and their nephews along with them. The Bengal lists included several Plowdens, Colvins, Tuckers and Metcalfes. The Bombay and Madras allotments showed a similar trend. As Kipling put it in his story The Tomb of His Ancestors, generation after generation came out to serve India as dolphins followed in line across the open sea. The first Indian to enter the civil service by competition was Satyendranath Tagore (1864), followed in 1871 by RC Dutt, BL Gupta and Surendranath Banerjea. Their induction put Bengal in the forefront of western learning. The writers have long been gone but Writers’ Building stands tall to salute their memory. The Indian Civil Service (ICS), the so-called “steel frame”, had every reason to be beholden to the writers. Our bureaucrats even today find it difficult to forsake the Writers’ legacy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Name Game

(Cover Story in the Statesman, 8 July,2007)

How the English christened places in India might evoke memories of the Raj, but the circumstances have, nevertheless, become historical legacy that cannot be wished away, says Sudhir Kumar JhaREMEMBER the faux pas in a recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary? It said Bangalore — not even Bengaluru — got its name as the locals were Bengalis and spoke Bangla. This was the height of untruth and ignorance, a gaffe not expected from Oxford, but it does explain the myth and confusion prevailing in respect of place names. Places get their names by design or sheer accident. These can be plain, catchy or hilarious, obvious or intriguing, but never without some link to the past. Delving into the genesis of the English names of places in India has been an interesting but challenging exercise. For the sake of euphony, the terms “English” and “British” have been used indiscriminately. These place names evoke memories of the British Raj and, notwithstanding the ongoing attempts at renaming them, the circumstances of their naming have become historical legacy which cannot be wished away.It is sad that no definitive compilation of these names is available. At the beginning of the last century, two Calcutta-based scholars, KN Dhur of the Imperial Library followed by Lt-Col DG Crawford of the Indian Medical Service, made an attempt to list places named after the British. They consulted the survey maps of districts and also went through Newman’s Indian Bradshaw, Smith’s Students’ Geography of India published in 1882 and Keith Johnston’s Atlas of India published in 1894. Periodicals such as Bengal Past & Present and Saturday Journal also yielded some names. To the information so gathered, the two added their own knowledge based on folklore and hearsay. Their total came to a sizeable number, well over 150, but was far from being exhaustive. These came from the whole of British India which covered not only what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh but also Burma and the Malay Peninsula for most of the 19th century. Were they to include the localities or muhallas of towns, roads and streets, public and private institutions, monuments, gardens and parks, et al, so named, their list would have run into thousands. Bangalore Cantonment would have provided over 100 and Kolkata at least 20.The Andaman and Nicobar Islands provide over 40 such names. These islands were formally annexed in 1858 and converted into a convict settlement to confine the great number of life-prisoners left after the Sepoy Mutiny. The British gave the numerous names of their Mutiny heroes and members of the Andamans Commission to places in these islands. Several places in the Sunderbans falling in West Bengal and Bangladesh were named after officers of the Indian Navy, Royal Indian Marine, or Bengal Pilot Service. Amitava Ghosh mentions a few in his captivating book, The Hungry Tide. The one class of Britishers to have left the strongest imprint on the naming of places were the civil servants from the Provincial Civil Service and, later, from the Indian Civil Service, as District Collectors, and some as Lieutenant-Governors. In the days of the East India Company, military officers carried the flag into uncharted territories and laid the foundations of civil administration. New civil stations established by them carried their names, for example Daltonganj and Hunterganj in Jharkhand and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. There are railway stations that were named after the British, be it a railway engineer, priest or civil servant, because there was no village of any importance in the neighbourhood after which these could be named — for example Palmerganj between Gaya and Dehri-on-Sone and Twiningganj between Ara and Buxar. Places were also named after ranks in the British army. We have Captainganj and Colonelganj in Uttar Pradesh and Majorganj in Bihar. Brigade Maidan and Barrackpore in Kolkata and Brigade Road in Bangalore, too, have a British army connection. While many names famous in Indian history are commemorated in place names, many more of the first importance are not thus distinguished. There does not appear to be any place named after Robert Clive or Warren Hastings, the real founders of the British Empire in India.It is notable that most English names were given to places in the first 100 years of British rule in India, very few in the second half of the 19th century and hardly any in the 20th. Significantly, though the missionaries carried their work deep into the hills and jungles and made healthcare and education available to tribal settlements, not many places are named after them; they apparently did not try to impose their own or any other foreign names. Nor did the British try to change the names of villages already in existence.It is not that places were named only after Europeans, though exceptions are few and far between. For example, Achipur near Kolkata, on the banks of the Hooghly river, is named after Yong Atchew, the first Chinese settler in India in modern times. He came to Kolkata around 1780 and enjoyed the patronage of the East India Company as a cultivator of sugarcane.Exceptions apart, these exotic place names are in two parts. The prefix is English while the suffix is vernacular, invariably Persian-Urdu. By far the commonest, in northern India, is ganj, which means a market. Also common are abad and pur, meaning town. Whereas the Hindi garh has been used at least once, as in Georgegarh, nagar does not appear to have been used at all. In southern India, the suffix used is pet, again denoting a town or market; it has also been used in Marathi as Malcolmpet in Mumbai.Places were not always consciously baptised with English names. They just evolved as a corruption of vernacular names. Take the case of Bangalore. The British, after defeating Tipoo Sultan and restoring the Raja of Mysore in 1799, obtained the right to station their own troops in the state. They built their cantonment on ceded village land just east of the ancient town and fortress of Bengaluru, which was soon anglicised to Bangalore. English Bazar in West Bengal’s Malda district was originally the Rangreza Bazar, the dyers’ quarter. The first letter was dropped along the way and it became Angreza Bazar, and hence English Bazar. Kidderpur in Kolkata is not named after Colonel Kyd but derives from an older local name, Khettarpur. Some names got Anglicised, in pronunciation and in spelling, because the British could not pronounce these the local way. Kanpur became Cawnpore and Munger became Monghyr and Danapur Cantonment in Bihar became Dinapore. Likewise, Waris-ali-ganj in Bihar’s Gaya district began to be called Worsleyganj. Grierson market in Madhubani, Bihar, was named after the eponymous linguist, Sir George Abraham Grierson, ICS, who set up the market while he was posted as the SDO of that area. It has been known as Gilesan Market for generations. Bhendi Bazar in Mumbai is a phonetic caricature of “behind the bazaar”.Given below, by way of illustration, is the etymology of some place names from Bihar and Jharkhand:Goldinganj: This is a small village on the Chapra-Sonepur road about 12 km east of Chapra, an old district town in north Bihar. The only claim to fame of this otherwise nondescript place is a ring of mystery surrounding its name. It has a railway station catering to the North Eastern Railway and a post office with the postal index No. 841211. The station is spelt “Goldinganj” while the postmark reads “Gultenganj”. Old records reveal there was in fact one Edward Golding after whom the place was in all probability named. He was appointed the Company’s Commercial Agent at Bettiah in 1766 after the local Raja had capitulated to the East India Company’s forces. In 1769, Golding was promoted as the Supervisor (precursor of Collector) of Saran Parganas. His bailiwick covered what are today Chapra, Siwan, Gopalganj, Motihari and Bettiah districts. Lesliganj: This is an outgrown village, more of a kasba, in Palamu district of what is now Jharkhand. Located about 15 km east of Daltonganj, the district headquarters, on the road to Manatu, it has the usual appurtenances of an administrative outpost — a dak bungalow, a police station and a block development office. It has nothing much to offer except its exotic name. It was founded by, and is named after, Matthew Leslie, Collector of the Ramgarh Hill Tract in the 1780s. As with other East India Company officials of the 18th century, Leslie’s biographical details are extremely difficult to get. His revenue jurisdiction included the whole of what later became Palamu and Hazaribag districts and part of Gaya up to Sherghati. The Cheros had been the rulers of Palamu but their internal feuds afforded the British the opportunity to intervene and eventually assume control. As Leslie had to continually camp in Chero territory, he chose a hamlet that soon became known as Lesliganj, dropping an “e” from his name. It appears that Leslie’s good work as Collector of Ramgarh was taken note of and he was transferred as the Collector and Magistrate of Rungpore district in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), a more prestigious charge. Daltonganj: Situated on the Koil river, this is the headquarters of Palamu district, now in Jharkhand. It has the usual components of a civil station but nothing else and has been a poor and neglected cousin of the other towns in Chhotanagpur. Though connected by rail and road to the rest of the country, its back-of-beyond location is responsible for its relative isolation. The town is named after Colonel Edward Tuite Dalton who, as the Commissioner of Chhotanagpur, founded a settlement here in 1861 on government land where the headquarters of Palamu subdivision was shifted from Lesliganj the following year. When Palamu was made into a separate district 20 years later, Daltonganj was the obvious choice as the headquarters of the new district. Dalton was the commissioner of Chhotanagpur during the Sepoy Mutiny and for many years thereafter. He initiated several administrative measures. In 1862, he ordered an outright substitution of Hindi written in the Devnagri or Kaithi script for Urdu in the Persian character as the medium of instruction and for court work throughout his commissionerate. In September 1870, Dalton laid the foundation of a permanent church at Ranchi in the presence of a large and assorted gathering. He is best remembered for his magnum opus, The Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, published in 1872.Forbesganj: This is today a subdivisional town of Purnea division in northeastern Bihar. It borders Nepal and is not very far from the Bangladesh border. The checkposts of various government departments notwithstanding, its busy market caters to buyers from both India and Nepal. The main business today is in grains and timber, jute having lost ground to plastic. How did Forbesganj acquire its exotic sounding name? It is named after Alexander J Forbes, an indigo planter and zamindar in Purnea district. His biographical details are not available except that he came out to India in the early part of the 19th century and spent the greater part of his life in Purnea, where he amassed a large fortune, mostly from indigo. One of Forbes’ indigo factories was at Forbesabad, which name was presumably changed to Forbesganj as the place developed into a township with a flourishing market. While on a trip to Calcutta, he died in 1890 at the age of 84, and lies buried at Purnea.Sandys’ Compound: In the heart of Bhagalpur civil station, there is a large tract of land that is locally referred to as Sandys’ Compound. At one time this whole area formed the compound of the residence of Teignmouth Sandys, who was the Judge of Bhagalpur around the middle of the 19th century. He belonged to the Indian Civil Service, though the nomenclature had not been fashioned till then. He was recruited as a Writer, like many others before and after him. William Tayler of Patna fame was his contemporary. Educated and promising youngsters from England were appointed as Writers, something like probationary Assistant Collectors and Magistrates, and rose to become Supervisors/Collectors if entrusted with revenue functions or as Judges if utilised for judicial work. Sandys belonged to the first batch of Writers nominated in 1826 for the qualifying examination in 1827.Revelganj: This is an inconspicuous town in Saran district in north Bihar. Situated 12 km west of the district headquarters town of Chapra, it is served by road and rail. Unlike some other places with European names, it is well known that Revelganj was named after Henry Revel. The East India Company posted Revel as the Collector of Customs at Chapra. It may be recalled that at that time, in the absence of satisfactory road and rail transportation, the East India Company carried on the bulk of trade and commerce by the river route. Revel realised the value of having a proper Custom House to earn revenue for the company so he set up one at Godna in 1788. A market grew around it and in no time the place developed as an important river mart. Revel appears to have been resourceful as well as kind-hearted and became a legend in his lifetime for his humanitarian and charitable acts. His memory was held in such repute that his grave was considered a shrine and his name invoked on occasions of calamity and adversity. It stands in front of the Eden bazaar alongside the Chapra-Guthni road. Tarapada Mukherjee, a local zamindar and lawyer, gave the place a facelift and was also instrumental in establishing a municipality in 1876 by combining the twin revenue villages of Godna and Semaria and, as it’s first vice-chairman, had the new township named Revelganj after Henry Revel. Bakarganj: Not to be confused with Bakerganj in Bangladesh, this lies in the heart of Patna and is named after Robert Barker, an officer in the East India Company’s army. The grant of Diwani to the East India Company in 1765 made the British the virtual rulers of what later became the three provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. A reorganisation of the East India Company’s army followed. Barker had long served the Company’s Artillery and distinguished himself during the siege of Madras. In the reorganisation, he was to have been made Colonel of the Artillery but had to contend with the place originally slotted for Major Knox of Patna fame. Of the three refashioned brigades, the first was located at Monghyr, the second at Allahabad and the third at Bankipore (Patna) under Barker. The 21st battalion raised by Barker at Bankipur became known as Barker-ki-Paltan just as the 20th battalion raised at Lucknow was called Hussaini-ki-Paltan for having been raised on the day of Muharram. Ironically, Barker-ki-Paltan, after several changes of nomenclature, mutinied at Azamgarh in 1857. Barker rose to become a general and Army Chief and was also knighted. He spent three years at Bankipur (Patna) roughly from 1765 to 1768, that is, until the cantonment was shifted to Danapur. The area around his residence developed as a military bazaar or mandi on the eastern side of Gandhi Maidan and was named Bakarganj after him. It is today an extremely congested commercial-cum-residential locality.Hunterganj: Contrary to popular thinking, Hunterganj in Chatra district, now in Jharkhand, is not named after the famous educationist and indologist WW Hunter. It derives its name from William Hunter who was the Collector of Ramgarh (spelt Ramghur) Hill Tract in 1794. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William had appointed him and other Collectors of the Bengal Presidency Justices of Peace. Hunter’s jurisdiction extended right up to Sherghati in today’s Gaya district. A patch of jungle was cleared to set up his camp during his visits to Sherghati and human habitation slowly grew around it. Soon it was being referred to as Hunterganj and developed as an administrative centre.McCluskieganj: McCluskieganj is a sad saga of aspirations gone awry. The Anglo-Indians were, generally speaking, a town-bred community without knowledge of agriculture or experience of village life. They were doled out petty appointments in the Railways and Telegraphs departments while their women worked as teachers in convent schools and as stenos in multinational companies. It was becoming difficult to find employment, whether in government departments or in commercial concerns, for the increasing number of Anglo-Indian youth. Having observed their conditions first-hand, the Indian Statutory Commission made a suggestion, with the concurrence of the government of India, that an attempt be made to bring the Eurasians, chiefly the Anglo-Indians, to the land and open up a wider range of self-employment for them. The Anglo-Indians seized upon the idea and was thus born in 1933 The Colonization Society of India Limited, registered as a limited company. On behalf of the company, ET McCluskie, a Calcutta-based Anglo-Indian real estate agent and member of the Bengal Legislative Council, discovered a beautiful spot in the Chhotanagpur forests, 60 km from the district headquarters town of Ranchi. The Society bought 10,000 acres of forest land from the local Maharaja in 1932. Plots were allotted as per the layout plan prepared by McCluskie. In a creditable display of grit and determination to conquer the natural difficulties, they made the clearings, dug wells and planted orchards. It was not long before a large number of sprawling bungalows and cottages situated in the midst of several acres of land came up in these sylvan surroundings. The new colony became home to nearly 300 Anglo-Indian and domiciled European families. McCluskie died soon after and, as a fitting tribute to this pioneer, the new settlers named the place McCluskieganj, the putative Tel-Aviv of their homeland. Come Independence and, feeling deprived and insecure, there was a mad rush to migrate to Australia, the USA, Canada and the UK. The Society went into liquidation around 1955. Today there is nothing much to see here but a place gone to seed. One can take long walks through the forest, do some bird watching and listen to their chirping. Not more than 35 Anglo-Indian families now live here and fewer are descendents of the original allottees.There is no dearth of English place names. One only has to be inquisitive. There has been a trend in favour of demolishing English names originally given to a place. We cannot turn the clock back by renaming such places. Naming Calcutta Kolkata has not made the traffic less congested. People still prefer VT to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and refer to Connaught Place as CP and not by its new official appellation. Whether we like it or not, these mysterious place names have become a part of our heritage. Dhur and Crawford could not trace the etymology of each and every name they catalogued, leaving enough scope for future probe. Before the trail gets colder, all such names should be collected, collated and a funded research undertaken to record for posterity the circumstances of their naming.
(The author can be contacted at


(Published in the Indian Police Journal, Oct-Dec, 2002)

We are stuck with the police the British gave us in 1861, which was not what they had back home. Theirs was an unarmed civilian ‘service’; ours was an armed ‘force’. Theirs was the people’s police; ours was the ruler’s police. The Colonial policeman was not meant to have the friendly face of the London Bobby. The paramilitary character and ‘force’ orientation of our police bore the imprint of the Royal Irish Constabulary and its parent, the Napoleonic Gendarmerie, though the British never acknowledged the French lineage.
Napoleon Bonaparte may have been England’s bete noire but for France he was her ‘saviour’. His avowed aim was to save the French from themselves after the excesses of the Revolution. At the same time that he was creating havoc on the borders of his empire through his endless wars with rival powers of Europe, Napoleon was giving those parts of Europe under his own control the highest standards of law and order yet seen on the Continent. Napoleon’s chief tool to this end was his policing policy which allowed him to restore order effectively in an even-handed, professional manner. He rejuvenated the Gendarmerie that he had inherited from the revolutionary governments and refashioned its role. He made it into an armed police force, a paramilitary force in today’s parlance, for maintaining peace and preventing crime in the French countryside. Napoleon was thus the first to create a force exclusively for police functions, leaving the military free to defend the borders and fight wars. Police was to deal with internal security and the army was to take care of external threat, a role distinction that was to become a standard practice all over the world. Soon the Gendarmerie became a solid fixture in the life of rural, provincial France and those other parts of Europe where Napoleon extended his rule. Long after Napoleon was dead and gone, the Gendarmerie became a model for police forces throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. Wherever a state had unruly rural hinterlands to deal with, and where a government was strong and solvent enough to create it, a Gendarmerie appeared. Arguably it had the widest influence of all Napoleonic institutions. Without saying ‘thank you’, the British freely applied the principles underlying the Napoleonic Gendarmerie to the police system they introduced in India in 1861. In 1869 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police did the same when they adopted the Irish model for a centralized, paramilitary force that would keep order until settlement was complete, so that Canada could avoid the experience of the United States where the Western frontier was the scene of bloody warfare between indigenous settlers and white people.
Napoleonic Gendarmerie was an elite force subject to a strict code of conduct. Gendarmes were specially chosen serving or former soldiers. They were elegantly uniformed and better armed which, combined with their height, was meant to produce an impression of reliability, professionalism and glamour. Napoleon wanted the Gendarmerie to be close to the rural communities it served but also stand apart from them. He tried his best to balance this and was largely successful. With its own hierarchy, following a pyramidal pattern, the Gendarmerie was scattered throughout the French countryside in small ‘brigades’ – units of six to ten men, so that no area was left uncovered, not very different from police stations in India. The Gendarmerie, like the police in India, was thus not only the arm of the state closest to the people but also was the most visible symbol of government’s authority. Gendarmes, including their families, were to be housed in barracks, to keep them separate from those they policed and to prevent them becoming a financial burden on the communities they served. Secondly, gendarmes were not to be local men but to come from parts of France other than those they policed. Finally, the Gendarmerie was not accountable to the civilian authorities though the latter could call upon its services.
Britain, the arch-enemy of Napoleonic France, paid the Gendarmerie a left-handed compliment when, in 1820s, Robert Peel chose the Gendarmerie as his model for the Irish Constabulary for policing rural, rebellious Ireland but developed the police of mainland Britain along very different lines. The challenge before the Irish Constabulary (Queen Victoria granted the force its ‘Royal’ prefix for having successfully dealt with the Fenian rebellion in 1867) was similar to what the Gendarmerie had been faced with – to control a hostile rural, Catholic peasantry. Like the Gendarmerie, the Constables were carefully attired, accoutered and armed. Both the forces were subject to a strict code of discipline. The Constabulary too was a centralized paramilitary force with its own chain of command and the only civilian control was at the level of the Secretary for Ireland. The men were not to be billeted on the communities they policed but were to live separately in their barracks. Each County was supervised by a County Inspector, with the counties subdivided into a number of districts, each headed by a District Inspector. At the headquarters the Inspector was assisted by a Head Constable on whom rested the main responsibility for operational policing and conduct of the men in the barracks. There were a number of barracks in each district, usually with a Sergeant and four constables.
In India, the East India Company had been tinkering with police reforms right from the time of Cornwallis but, in the absence of an existing model or a ready blueprint to copy from, only ad hoc measures could be taken. The motley crowd that passed as policemen was under the District Collector who was too busy with his other responsibilities to be able to control the Thana Daroga who behaved like a despot. The public suffered in silence. It was in this background that Charles Napier came to India fresh from the reforms instituted by Robert Peel in England and Ireland. He had seen the police at home regenerated from a state of notorious inefficiency into a fine body of men under proper supervision. No sooner had Napier conquered Sind (now in Pakistan) in 1843 than he set himself to the task of introducing an efficient police on the model of the Irish Constabulary, itself a replica of the Napoleonic Gendarmerie. Police was to be a separate force under its own officers and employed solely on police work. It had to have nothing to do with military or revenue functions. Though the policemen were to be available for assistance to the chief civil officer of the district, yet in each district they were to be supervised by an officer whose sole duty it was to control and direct them. The paramilitary character of the force was reflected in its deportment, weaponry and drilling. The Gendarmerie had made its proxy debut on the Colonial subcontinent.
Enthused by Napier’s successful experiment in Sind, the Court of Directors of the East India Company wanted the Government of India to have one general plan of police organization for the whole country, preferably on the pattern of the Irish Constabulary, read Gendarmerie, but modified according to local conditions. Police was to be taken out of the control of the Magistrate of the district and made into a separate department under a European officer seconded from the military. The reform would have gone through but the Sepoy Mutiny a year later led to reconsideration of certain principles that had been accepted earlier. With the Mutiny still haunting them, the Police Commission toned down the Irish model. They felt that, politically, while the civil constable was more useful he was less dangerous than a military policeman, who was in effect a ‘native’ soldier. They recommended complete separation of a military armed force with military duties under military command and a civil constabulary with civil duties, evoking memories of Napoleonic France. They wanted to combine features of the English and Irish Constabulary Acts so far as they were capable of adaptation to India. Under the Act of 1861 the new police was to be an armed civil constabulary not independent of civilian control. While the Gendarmerie was under the direct authority of the central government, in view of India’s size the new police was placed under the executive governments in the provinces. The general management of the force in each province was entrusted to an Inspector General who was to be a European civilian. While not letting go of magisterial supervision, police in each district was placed under the control a District Superintendent, also a European, seconded from the military. Borrowing the rank structure and even the nomenclature from the Irish constabulary the subordinate force was to comprise of Inspectors, Head Constables, Sergeants and Constables, the Head Constable being in charge of a police station, and the Inspector of a group of stations. Police stations corresponded to ‘brigades’ in France and ‘districts’ in Ireland. India had a long history of village policing which France and Ireland did not have. The new Thana police was therefore to be linked to the village police so as to make the latter a useful supplement to the former. So far the army alone had been housed in barracks; keeping policemen in barracks was Napoleon’s idea he applied to the Gendarmerie. Ireland had followed suit and now India too. The Colonial constabulary was to be paid, like the gendarmes, directly from the government treasury so that they did not become a burden on the local population.
Napoleon had also inherited from the revolutionary governments a less well-known ‘administrative police’, a civilian force which served partly, but not entirely, as the secret police of his sinister Ministers of Police, Joseph Fouché and Jean Marie Savary. In its seedier role, this force coordinated informers and spies, received and evaluated denunciations of one person by another, and enforced state censorship. Britain would have none of this on their mainland, in Ireland or in India. Under the new dispensation there was to be no detective body, no spies and informers, who had been the curse under the later Mugals and continued under the East India Company. Of course, political situation at home and in India was in due course to force the British government to bring in the spies and the censorship.
Napoleon was proud of his elite Gendarmerie; no one was enamoured of the new constabulary. Appearance and efficiency weresacrificed in the name of economy. Despite attempts at ‘civilianization’ the new police could not shake off the imprint of the Gendarmerie and the Irish Constabulary and took on a distinctly paramilitary appearance. As the officers entrusted with putting the new police in place were all Europeans seconded from the military, at least in the initial stages, some degree of militarization was inescapable. The uniform and the badges of rank adopted by the police bore close resemblance to that of the army. Police followed the army drill manual and there was too much emphasis on the physical aspects of training. The ‘service’ orientation expected in a civilian constabulary was never encouraged. Gradually the Colonial police developed the psyche of a ‘force’. The arrangement suited the British rulers and has continued to find favour with successive Colonial governments since independence. Police in India remains an ‘armed police force’ of the state, ‘paramilitary’ in body and mind. The ghost of Gendarmerie continues to haunt.

Monday, September 24, 2007


( This article was published in The Statesman in two parts on April 16 and 17, '07 as lead article under the caption Continental Police)

Police reform appears to be the flavour of the season across continents. A realisation was emerging, backed by popular demand, that police reforms were too important to neglect and too urgent to delay. Police was perceived as inefficient, highhanded and corrupt, a mere tool in the hands of the powers that be. A thorough overhauling was needed if the police agency was to be made into a professionally competent body accountable to law. In India the Supreme Court hands down a decision to implement the long awaited police reforms by the year end. Around the same time the President of Pakistan lists reforming the police as one of his major achievements. In Bangladesh UNDP persists in its campaign for giving the police a new friendly face.

Other Colonial Experiences
In Malaysia public concern is voiced regarding the process of implementation of the 2005 Royal Commission into policing. An opinion article appears in Kenya criticising the pace and effectiveness of police reform. In Trinidad and Tobago the Leader of Opposition pleads ignorance about the progress of government drafted and opposition supported police reform bill. In Northern Ireland the Police Oversight commissioner releases a report examining the state of police reforms in Northern Ireland. In Australia an opinion article discusses police corruption in light of the Police Integrity Commission. In UK British Conservative leader David Cameron releases details of police reform plan as Superintendents of County Police grapple with reform and modernisation at their annual meeting. In Guyana a tainted former New York City Police Commissioner is appointed to lead reform of Guyana police. There is call for greater police accountability. In Nigeria a 20-point recommendation is made in a white paper produced by the Presidential Committee on police reforms.

In Indonesia in 1999, that is, post-Suharto, police is separated form the military and is placed under the control of the President of the Republic. As part of the reform process the ethics and code of conduct are rewritten to capture the new civilian mission. There are several shortcomings but the agenda of reform is open and continuing. In Philippine too police is a part of the Department of National Defence until an Act of 1990 makes the Philippine National Police a civilian entity under the Department of Interior and Local Government, to be administered and controlled by the National Police Commission.

Sri Lanka
The setting up of the National Police Commission in Sri Lanka is a concession to the demands by the opposition. It is still at a nascent stage. It is supposed to be a totally independent body dealing exclusively with the members of the Police Department (about 75000 strong). Any person who interferes with the NPC is liable to a seven year imprisonment and fine. That notwithstanding, there are murmurings that politicians do try to interfere when police officers are transferred pending enquiries.

As far as the Indian subcontinent is concerned, dismantling the Indian Police Act of 1861 has proved a hard nut to crack. The motive behind the British masters giving India (as it was then) a police force patterned on the Irish Constabulary and not on Peel’s police is not difficult to guess. It did not bother them if the police machinery was inefficient and corrupt as long as it served their imperial interests. But that should not surprise us. After all, a colonial power has to safeguard its interests first. What is however disturbing that a similar mind set has continued half a century after the British made their exit leaving the subcontinent bifurcated. The same set of politicians in India and Pakistan who had been bitter critics of the colonial police chose to continue them in the same mould and use them as tools of the state power. Status quo continued even after Bangladesh, the third sibling, was born in 1971. Let us examine how police reforms have fared in the three countries of the Indian subcontinent.

In Pakistan demand for police reforms started being raised soon after its birth. It related to having a police commissionerate in the port-city of Karachi, like the one in Bombay. It was sabotaged time and again by vested interests among the bureaucrats and politicians. It was only years later that Karachi and the new capital of Islamabad got police commissioners. If we skip the sporadic tinkering with the police apparatus the first serious and composite attempt at reform was made with the setting up of the Police Committee in 1985. It recommended wholesale overhauling of the existing system. Several foreign missions to Pakistan also echoed the same sentiment. A British delegation visiting Pakistan in 1990 urged that the entire philosophy of policing be recast in the manner suggested by the Police Committee of 1985. Ironically, it was quite a volte-face for the onetime masters to pitch for a democratic police system which they had denied to the subcontinent in 1861. A team of experts form Japan expectedly emphasised the building of trust between citizens and the police. At core lay community policing for which Japan is famous.

As part of the early initiatives of the military government, which assumed power in October 1999, was the devolution of power down to a grassroots level. The assumption was that increasing accountability to the grassroots level would improve service delivery, including that of law and order as well as the dispensation of justice. The Police Order 2002 was a genuine attempt to address inter alia the problem of strengthening the internal organisation of police so that it could grow into a cohesive and effective force. The law provided necessary administrative powers to the police officers and put in place an effective command structure. It also ensured security of tenure to the officers in key field assignments. Along with these improved administrative powers, the role of police was redefined, making it more service-oriented. Stringent checks were built into the system to protect the people's rights. The police relationship with the political leadership was crafted and fine-tuned along with external checks to prevent political interference.

Unfortunately, this law was never implemented. The provincial governments created all kinds of impediments to frustrate the creation of an institution that would check their unfettered powers. They unleashed negative propaganda and created an impression that the new law gave vast powers to police that should be curtailed. The provinces were agitated at the idea of an independent police force that would refuse to let itself be used to intimidate and victimise political opponents, and would only function within the bounds of law; they wanted a pliant and docile police command that would carry out orders unquestioningly - whether to remove hoardings in the name of Islam, arrest and harassment of opposition politicians, to disrupt opposition parties public gatherings or to interfere in elections. Through an ordinance massive amendments had to be incorporated in the Police Order 2002 that, in addition to institutionalising political interference in policing, also struck at the command structure.

In 2004 the Asian Legal Resource Centre presented before the 60th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva a rather damaging critique of the situation in Pakistan. It says that the new Police Order of 2002 has failed to provide a framework for public accountability, de-politicisation of the institutions of justice and the provision of a people friendly policing system in the country. On the contrary, by giving accountability to district councils and political figures, the government has assured that the institutional controls of justice remain under the same privileged group as always. The Zila Nazim, a politician, records the annual Performance Evaluation Report of the District Police Officer, counterpart of our district SP, relating to all police functions including management of force, investigation and prosecution of cases for which the DPO is not responsible to him under the law. The first countersigning officer is not the DPO's immediate supervisory officer at the divisional level but the Provincial Police Officer (corresponding to our state DGP). The second countersigning officer is the Chief Minister who ensures total subservience of the DPO by personally recording his PER. With a Zila Nazim and the CM from the same political party, the PPO will also lose his relevance as commander of the force. The DPO, who now can only be posted with the Chief Minister’s approval, will willingly carry out even their illegal orders confident in the knowledge that a politicised Police Complaint Authority will protect him. There is a National Police Commission composed of 12 members, six of which are members of Parliament, with both parties equally represented. The bipartisan approach is meant to send a message that policing is not a politically driven issue.

The Bangladesh experience has not been much happier. Other than renaming the Police Act as Police Rules nothing has changed for the police in form or substance. Since the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 half a dozen or more committees and commissions have submitted specific recommendations. However, scarce resources, vested interests and lack of political will prevented the reform agenda from being implemented. Police has felt overshadowed by the military. For many years army officers headed the police. Even today the chief of the Bangladesh police is designated as Inspector General and equates with Major General and that is a disadvantage in a country where the army predominates. It was after overcoming a stiff resistance from the army that the government allowed him to fly the flag on his car; no other police officer is permitted that. Lately the bete noire is the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) which has been charged with fake encounters and repeated human rights violations. Police is grossly understaffed with a police- public ratio of 1:1300 for the whole of Bangladesh while at the sub-district level it is as low as 1:8000. Most policemen are required to work for 13-14 hours a day and even on weekends and holidays. Most of the police budget is consumed by the armed wings but then things are not very different in India. Like in India the percentage of women in the force is small, barely 12%.

In January 2005 a far-reaching police reform project titled 'Strengthening Bangladesh Police' was launched to improve the law and order situation. The Ministry of Home Affairs launched the project yesterday in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UK Department for International Development. The programme aims at improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Bangladesh Police by supporting key areas of access to justice; including crime prevention, investigations, police operations and prosecutions; human resource management and training; and, future directions, strategic capacity and oversight. The three-year project, involving $13 million, aims at improving performance and professionalism at all levels of the police force. It will focus on crime prevention through better engagement with the community, investigation, operation and prosecution, human resource management, training and strategy and oversight, including clear performance target. Acting British High Commissioner Robert Gibson expressed the hope that the project would help the police serve the public better and said, "A police force free from corruption and political interference will help renew public confidence". The project was designed on the basis of an assessment of police needs carried out by the ministry in cooperation with the UNDP in 2003.

India’s track record in carrying out police reform is no better. The Police Act of 1861 has remained unaltered till today. The Police Commission of 1902 was intended more to review the working of the Act after a 40-year run. Apart from some hierarchical changes, like adding the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police to accommodate the Indians, the structure of the Act remained untouched. Nothing happened for the next seventy-five years. The National Police Commission (1977-79), set up by a non-Congress government, for the first time made sweeping recommendations to make the police a professionally competent, people-friendly force free from political interference. The successor political dispensation found the report too strong to stomach and just sat over it till it died a natural death. Subsequent experience showed that, irrespective of the political hue, no government was prepared to let go of its stranglehold over the police. As a result the Police Act of 1861 still continues in its original form.

Lately the Supreme Court had been voicing its displeasure over the government’s reluctance in replacing/revising the outmoded Police Act of 1861. Sensing the mood of the Supreme Court the central government had set up the Soli Sorabjee committee to draft a model police bill to replace the existing Act. The committee has since submitted its report. It incorporates almost all the directives of the Supreme Court and some more. The Sorabjee Committee submitted a comprehensive draft report for a new Police Act, which aims to define the new responsibilities of the police force, especially the growth and spread of militancy and Maoist violence, and suggest measures for a new working methodology and the use of scientific investigation in view of the future trends of organised crime, including cyber crime, and technological advantages in the hands of the criminals. Concerns for human rights, weaker sections, women and people belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have also been addressed. The draft bill also lists measures to improve the working conditions for policemen.

Some provisions of the draft may raise eye brows and prove difficult to implement. The draft stipulates that the rank of constabulary in the civil police be done away with. The argument that the civil police, as against the armed wing of the police, needs better-educated personnel to exercise discretionary powers in dealing with people and investigating cases may be very sound but it is going to cast a heavy financial burden on the states. The experiment may suit metros and large urban conglomerations and be a right step in the direction of community policing but for the far-flung rural areas we also need large numbers of police constables. Similarly, separation of investigation from law and order functions will involve substantial augmentation of police personnel at huge costs, besides the fact that the two cannot be divided into watertight compartments. The duality of command at the PS or even district level will be counterproductive. Then again there will be hardly any relief from political interference if the State Security commission has the CM as its Chairman and the DGP as its Secretary. Likewise if the Central Security Commission has to take orders from the Home Ministry, the political bosses’ will shall prevail. With the Panchayati Raj system taking roots in most states the Panchayat bodies at various levels will have to be inducted into the board which will debate and decide on police planning for the district. While it may reflect popular aspirations more forcefully, one hopes it will not degenerate into we vrs they and hamstring the functioning of the local police. Surely, all these and many other issues will get sorted out during the debates on the floor of the house.

The government might still have dragged its feet had the Supreme Court not dropped the bombshell by passing a historical judgment on September 22, 2006 on a PIL filed by retired IPS officer Prakash Singh to reform the existing criminal justice system with a view to establish better rule of law in the country. The apex court invoked the recommendations of the National Police Commission and the Sorabjee panel and ordered some revolutionary changes in the system with a view to making the Indian Police more accountable and free from any kind of political interference. The 7-point directive includes, inter alia, the separation of investigation from law and order duties at the police station level and a fixed tenure for all officers from the DGP to the SHO. Not leaving the central and the state governments any scope for prevarication the court ordered them to implement the changes within December, 06 and to send compliance report by January, 07.

Some hiccups were anticipated in carrying out the reforms as indicated by the Supreme Court. These surfaced when the Union Home Secretary, representing the Central Government, met the Chief Secretaries and DGPs, representing the views of their state governments, in Delhi on November 14. The reservations, states were not ‘objecting’ at this stage for fear of the wrath of the apex court, relate to the role of the centre in the appointment of the DGPs, security of tenure of police officers and the setting up of accountability commissions. The centre is wary that states are sensitive about any attempt at encroachment by the centre on matters relating to law and order which is a state subject under the constitution. Some legal dilly-dallying was therefore not unexpected. The dead line of 31 December set by the apex court is long past. With the central government and the states drafting and passing their own versions of the Police Act some minor variations may creep in; the parameters laid down by the Supreme Court will not permit major aberrations. The central government will also have to mollify the states if the police bill is to include a category of serious offences – to be termed ‘federal offences’ – that can be investigated by the centre rather than the ill-equipped state police forces.

Whatever forms the new central and state enactments may take one thing is for sure. These will make political interference a shade more difficult and, aided by the Right to Information Act, will usher in accountability and transparency in the working of the police department. Let us hope these will make the police everything they are not: efficient, professional, independent, accountable and representative of social diversity.

(Sudhir Kumar Jha)
(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar. He can be contacted at

Do Not Sell Your Soul

One can understand, though not condone, freelance biographers and journalists indulging in mud slinging and character assassination to make a quick buck but not officers holding very senior positions in intelligence and investigation agencies. It amounts to ‘selling’ the secrets as the compelling motive is lure of the lucre compounded with self-glorification and instant publicity. Unfortunately more and more of them can be seen succumbing to this temptation.
Those connected with CBI, Intelligence Bureau and RAW have been the worst culprits. Some books that come to mind readily are Inside CBI by its former Director Joginder Singh; Open Secrets: India’s Intelligence Unveiled by Maloy Krishna Dhar, a former Joint Director of IB; India’s External Intelligence: Secrets of Research and Analysis Wing by Maj Gen V.K. Singh; and the latest scoop Kaoboys of R&AW – Down the memory lane by B. Raman, a former Additional Secretary of RAW The authors may claim that they are merely bringing out into the open the anomalies in their respective organisations’s lack of accountability, transparency and effective leadership. What comes out is their lack of objectivity, their own hurt and bruised ego.
Joginder Singh writes that pressure was exerted on him to register a case against Ms Jayalalitha and to block Laloo Prasad Yadav's arrest in the notorious fodder scam case. Among his other ‘disclosures’ Maj Gen V.K.Singh has zeroed in on the well publicised release of Kargil tapes by the NDA govt to the then Pak Premier Nawaz Sharif and has questioned the ethics, wisdom and legality of this action. He attacks RAW with no holds barred.

Maloy Dhar blatantly vents his ire against the then Director IB who is presently the National Security Advisor and the reference is not veiled. Dhar calling his former boss spineless and self-serving is in poor taste and smacks of nursing a personal grudge. He refers to some instances of phone tapping. He writes about much else which is either in bad taste or violation of the Official Secrets Act.

The latest to join the race is B. Raman, a former Additional Secretary of RAW, and he surpasses the others. Look at some snippets from his book. That RAW should have been in touch with America's CIA, UK’s MI6 and other foreign agencies is only in the fitness of things and is hardly a startling revelation. If Raw had a mole in the office of Gen Yahiya Khan Pakistan returned the compliment by fomenting trouble (insurgency) in Punjab in collusion with CIA. Raman does drop a bombshell when he blames the domestic arm, the Intelligence Bureau, for ignoring a crucial input from German intelligence which might have prevented Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

Such books dish out salacious gossip and earn good money, besides making the authors the darling of the media for a time. These are based on the author’s personal knowledge or ‘classified’ documents access to which is not permitted even under the RTI Act. Most of what has been said thus remains beyond verification but the unsuspecting public laps it all up. The contents have gone unchallenged by the persons directly or indirectly accused in the book and by that amorphous body called government. There can be state secrets and divulging them may jeopardise national security. It is for that reason that the Right to Information Act, 05 has exempted the intelligence services from its purview. At times these also relate to the conduct of prominent public figures and it is questionable whether washing their dirty linen in public is going to help the society. That our intelligence agencies – be it CBI, IB or RAW – are used as a political tool is an open secret but an insider’s account of factionalism within these organisations or the ongoing turf war between our internal and external intelligence agencies is likely to undermine people’s faith in them.

Books such as these raise issues of ethics, conduct rules and law. The sleuth is expected to be anonymous, with lips sealed but eyes and ears open. All of us who have served in such positions are repositories of state secrets. We swore not to let them out, much less sell them. We held that kind of information in trust and to make it public is downright unethical and a breach of trust. It is not understood why the government shies away from invoking the Official Secrets Act and prosecute such offenders. If they have also violated the Conduct Rules, their pension may be forfeited. If necessary, the OS Act and the conduct rules should be amended to make them more comprehensive and stringent. There is a rule prohibiting government servants from accepting private employment within two years of their retirement. Why can’t there be a rule that an employee cannot publish accounts of his service days till, say, ten years of hanging up his boots? Maulana Abul Kalam Azad stipulated that some pages from his book India Wins Freedom could be published not before thirty years after his death. Too much secrecy can be counterproductive and some degree of public accountability can be achieved by having a parliamentary committee oversee the performance of our intelligence agencies, like in US and UK.

(Sudhir Kumar Jha)

(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar. He can be contacted at

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Dilemma of Proactive Policing

( This article was published in The statesman dated August 17, 2007)
The Bollywood image of the crook invariably getting the better of the police appears to have stuck. This reactive response of the police, and that too in slow motion, angers the public who want to know why the crime could not be anticipated and prevented. In other words, why can’t the police be proactive? Truth is that every police force does want and try to be proactive, often without realising it. In fact preventive policing is synonymous with proactive policing. Foot or mobile patrolling within a given beat, dance-like gestures by traffic policemen on busy crossroads, deployment of uniformed and plainclothes men during VVIP visits, use of closed-circuit cameras in a sports stadium are some everyday examples of proactive policing.
Traditionally and the world over, in the ongoing battle of wits between the law-breakers and law-keepers the initiative invariably rests with the former. They act and the police react. The priority which must be given to the management of change from reactive to proactive policing has been constantly engaging the minds of the police top brass. Experiments continue to be made but no solution has yet emerged. There can be as many facets to proactive policing as an innovative mind can conceive. There are as many stumbling blocks to frustrate the experiments.

Security versus Freedom

Terrorism throws up a bigger challenge than conventional crime against person and property. If life sans freedom is unthinkable, a life led in terror is not a life worth living. A trade-off between freedom and security took place with the dawn of civilized society and has continued ever since. Thus far and no further, but who is going to lay down the line and where? To strike a balance between security and freedom is the toughest test for the security forces today. The laws of civilized society rightly keep them on a tight leash.

Whereas it is ‘no-holds- barred’ for the terrorists the security forces have to act strictly within the confines of law. The Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993 and 2006 did not cripple India’s economy but brought her face to face with the reach and capability of cross-border terrorism. But for the loss of human lives, the synchronised suicidal attacks on the United States on September 11 were comical in their absurdity. Stunned but never witless, the authorities in Mumbai and New York almost instantly sprang into action. The apparent ease with which a passenger could reach the airport barely fifteen minutes before the take-off time and board the flight without any serious checking or frisking raised eyebrows. And yet to say that it was laxity or oversight on the part of the US authorities will not be fair. They allowed this facility in the firm belief that individual freedom should be interfered with as little as possible in a free society like theirs. The law does not permit proactive policing beyond a point, a constraint that is absent under a totalitarian or fundamentalist regime. For instance, even in a crisis grave as this one the FBI agents were seeking search warrants in Florida amid evidence that suspected sympathisers of the accused terrorists were operating in the area. Would the police agencies in erstwhile eastern communist countries or Taliban-ruled Afghanistan have had to act with such restraint? But can we take away a very large measure of people’s freedom even in pursuit of the larger goal of fighting terrorism? Therein lies the dilemma of proactive policing.

Preemptive action can be taken if one had a clue to what the likes of Bin Laden were thinking and plotting, but how to read their inscrutable minds? There comes the role of intelligence that is the backbone of proactive policing. By having a mole inside the militant outfit one can get as close to their thinking process as is humanly possible. Experience, however, has shown that it is extremely difficult to penetrate a multi-tiered outfit in which the top man is a shadowy presence, members are sworn to secrecy on pain of death, and duties are allotted on a need-to-know basis. One version of proactive policing is to wrest the initiative from the militants and take the battle into their camp, KPS Gill style. True, this approach did yield results and Gill today is hailed as a hero and an expert on terrorism but he and his team have not come out unscathed. From the lowest to the highest court of the land have charged them with transgressing the law and several of them, President’s Gallantry Medal winners, are being tried for torture and murder under appropriate sections of the Indian Penal Code. The National Human Rights Commission also gave them a drubbing for the alleged human rights violations. Interestingly, the human rights activists were nowhere to be seen when militancy was at its peak but started crying foul when the tide turned.

Police in all societies have exercised surveillance over known criminals and political suspects by way of proactive policing. But surveillance can be a double-edged weapon and must be carefully and sparingly resorted to. Even in British India this police power was subject to checks and balances. While new electronic gadgets have given the state a much broader sweep and deeper penetration (satellite tracking?), public sensitivity to any real or perceived attack on privacy or individual freedom is now so high that an allegation of telephone tapping becomes the subject of a parliamentary debate and government falls when two constables allegedly watch a top politician’s house.

Then there is the economic aspect of terrorism that stumps the police agencies, FBI and CBI included. There are reports that Laden & Co made a killing in stocks by short selling in some Europe-based company stocks with foreknowledge of the strike against America. No police agency has the expertise to understand such financial tricks, much less monitor and neutralize them. It is no secret that, in India, large funds reach the fundamentalist outfits through the hawala route. We presume that our intelligence people have kept the government informed but there has been a persistent lack of action to monitor the inflow and plug it. Political considerations seem to frustrate proactive policing.

Community Policing

Community policing in which local residents have a say in the policing of their area is yet another example of proactive policing and perhaps the most desirable. But it is a costly proposition and the success varies on the size and composition of the community. A compact, homogenous urban community is the ideal laboratory to try this experiment. Therefore, whether it will suit India, which is predominantly rural and where the level of literacy is low, is a point for consideration. Community policing will involve an exponential growth in the number of policemen. Even an affluent country like the USA could not sustain the high cost for long. There the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 made important investments in programs designed to prevent crime, including putting 100,000 community policing officers on the street and reducing violence against women and children. The Community Oriented Policing program proved `a miraculous success’ and drove down crime rates. Within a few years one city after another was forced to cut down on the number of community police officers because of drastic slashing of the local budget under this head. As a result, local police chiefs had to reluctantly pull officers from the proactive policing activities that were so successful in the nineties. This was not a choice taken lightly. Police chiefs understood the value of proactive policing but they simply did not have the manpower to do it all. They were being asked to do more with less, and responding to emergency calls had to take precedence over proactive programs. There was increased gang activity. Murder rates and auto thefts--two very accurate indicators of crime trends -- started rising sharply.

Road Policing

Proactive road policing can be an important and visible element in the police’s commitment to protect the public and to support law-abiding citizens’ confidence in law. Criminals use road to carry out a great deal of their activity, ranging from burglary and theft to drug dealing and terrorism. Proactive road policing, apart from ensuring safety on roads, can deny criminals the use of the road and is an effective measure for containing and deterring crime. The deployment of available and emerging technologies, in partnership with the other agencies involved, can thus be a valuable tool in proactive road policing. The installation of speed cameras at selected places and laser tracking of registration details had a salutary effect in the United Kingdom with instances of over speeding and resultant accidents coming down significantly. This will be an expensive exercise and whether a country like India, where even electronic signalling is limited to a few large towns, can afford them is another matter.

Moral Policing

Leave aside the rest of the world, In India itself there have been instances of proactive policing which have boomeranged on the police leaving them with a bruised image. That is when they have taken upon themselves the role of the moral police and self-styled arbiters of social values. And this is one area where the public will not tolerate any uncalled for initiative by the police. The logic is simple. The police are meant to enforce the laws and not to make or interpret them. In a small town in Punjab policemen beat up a group of students celebrating their XIIth class results at a hotel. Not many months back viewers saw policewomen thrashing boys and girls in a park in UP as part of Operation Majnu.

All said and done nothing deters a criminal more than getting legally punished for his act. The successful investigation of a case resulting in the perpetrator getting convicted and sentenced is thus the best form of proactive policing. In the Indian context, many serious crimes would be nipped in the bud if the police acted on the reports of non-cognizable offences. Available resources ought to be more effectively targeted on investigating crime and thus help achieve other objectives. Criminals are expanding their illegal activities and operations in an increasingly complex, political, social, legal, and technologically driven environment. In response police have to develop new techniques to counter and restrict such activities. An appropriate balance must be maintained between the use of new investigative methods and techniques on the one hand and the privacy rights of individuals on the other.

Proactive policing is better professed than practised. Police gets damned either way. The research is constantly on to devise new ways of proactive policing. The ideal will be to create a social environment so pure that man is not tempted to break the Ten Commandments. Sadly that is not to be and certainly it is not for the police to play God. Any society will welcome a proactive police but police activism must not be allowed to be carried too far lest it leads to police excesses. In a legal system which allows rights even to the accused, policemen cannot be permitted to be ‘Peeping Toms’ nor in any other manner interfere with the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms or basic human rights. In future changing conditions on the ground may compel governments to enact legislations to vest their law enforcement agencies with wider powers. Till then, proactive policing must mind its limits.

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha
(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar. He can be contacted at