Thursday, September 15, 2011


(Published in the Statesman on 19 October 2011 and reproduced in Asia News Network and leading Sri Lankan daily The Island on October 21 under the title Bumbling Bobby)

The Tottenham riots (early August) took the British police by surprise. They fumbled initially for apparent lack of contingency plans. They lost more face when the trouble engulfed not only the city of London but much of the British urban landscape (surprising why these. did not spread to Scotland, Wales and North Ireland) exposing lack of coordination among the different city police forces. The London Bobby has long been viewed as a role model for police forces the world over and the Scotland Yard as icon among the detective agencies. Post-riots tongues started wagging that foreign police agencies might think twice before turning to London for advice on public order. There was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Prime Minister David Cameron might be calling in experts from New York and Los Angeles police on tackling gangs.
Whatever might have been felt and said in the heat of the moment one should not be too harsh in judging the police. The Metropolitan Police had been headless for some time denying the police the benefit of a centralised command. Not having been exposed to a serious riot since the Broadwater Farm riots 26 years ago they seem to have forgotten their riot drill. They were grossly under equipped and under strength They rose to the occasion like one man once the reinforcements came with sufficient riot gear. The London cops, with their strength gone up from 6000 to 16000, effected 1700 arrests; of the 700 charged two-thirds were remanded to custody. Within hours they were tried and those found guilty were sentenced. (Contrast this with India where there is virtually no conviction following a major riot.) Going by a media poll, despite the initial setback the public (at least the majority of the whites) continue to view their police as professionally competent, fair and impartial. In their view the riots were the outcome of the skewed policies of the government over a period of time.
Britain has been a divided society for the last few decades and the hiatus is only growing. The country has had a problem with its youth, a generation that is functionally illiterate, unemployable, demotivated and criminalised from early childhood, stuck in a vicious cycle of generational poverty. They have no jobs, no prospects, and no future except living on dole in dwellings built out of public money. Hate and anger had been building up over a period of time. The super rich bankers in the Square Mile and the rioters next door in Hackney may be next door neighbours but there is little in common between them besides their fondness for the same gizmos. Walking down the trashed streets one found the items looted were electronics, designer clothes, phones, perfumes, cosmetics and jewellery. It is therefore being said that the riots were a consumerist uprising of the have-nots against the haves.
The native white population has reason to feel threatened by the size and relative prosperity of the non-white immigrant communities. Police will have to remain on guard against the rise of right (white) extremism of the kind that was responsible for the Norway carnage last month. According to his own admission the suspect in the Norwegian attacks, Anders Behring Breivik was only trying to draw attention to the imminent danger of ‘black’ immigrants engulfing the whites if the tide was not arrested.
Leave aside the government police too failed to read the writing on the wall. When the society was static the beat constable knew his charge by name and face. He bore on his person nothing more than a truncheon, more as a symbol of authority than as a weapon of assault. If police was unarmed, so was the criminal and so the cycle went. Law and order problems were few and far between. Lately
police have largely abandoned visits to racially sensitive areas. Any law enforcement in these areas is treated with a simmering resentment which quickly erupts into violence. The easy option for the police has been to designate them as "no-go areas", effectively abandoning the silent majority to a life of misery under the threat of violence and crime. Cuts to policing are evident in the mere fact that visible, proactive patrols don't exist any more.
It is time for police to introspect and to answer a few questions. Was there enough provocation to open fire at Tottenham? It looks like not having had to handle anything so serious for a long time police had become complacent. Fire power was used where other methods such as parleying, baton charge, water cannon and tear smoke might have done the job. Police have to answer the charge of intelligence failure and not having a contingency plan ready. Why did they not activate their ‘sleeper cells’? The deteriorating socio-economic scenario and the near total alienation of the youth were bound to result in an outburst sooner than later. Police failed to feel their pulse. Once the trouble started there was obvious lack of coordination between the police forces of different cities. Why could the conflagration not be prevented from spreading to other cities? If the looters could coordinate their actions through Facebook, Tweeter and other social network sites the police could also have responded in kind and intercepted or jammed them? Perhaps they could not under the law. After all, United Kingdom prides herself on being a free, liberal society.
What complicated matter for police was that the victim in Tottenham was an Asian immigrant. Police, nearly all white, have not been able to shake off allegations of racial prejudice. Considering the large immigrant segment of British population a fresh dose of sensitization is called for. The United States is trying to deal with this problem by inducting a sizeable number of Afro-Americans in their police force.
Having lambasted the autocratic regimes in the Arab world all these years for human rights violation spy glasses are constantly turned on UK for any signs of similar transgression. With the sword of human rights violation hanging over their head British police law enforcement has become lax. In coming years law enforcement without compromising on human rights is going to pose a challenge for them.
The British police are still one of the best in the world. Let them treat the riots as a wake up call, fine tune their strategy and tactics, and take stock of what they have and what they need. Equally or more so, government must take note of the changed environment. With latent hostility at home and international terrorism staring country in the face days of the unarmed beat constable have to end. Police need latest equipment and gadgetry, mobility and, most of all, manifold increase in numbers. Policing, proactive as well as reactive, is going to cost the exchequer a packet, budget cut or no budget cut, and there is no running away from it.

(Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha)
(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar)


(Published in the Statesman, Delhi and Kolkata, on 8 October 2011)

An anti-corruption Ombudsman, to be called Lokpal, had long been envisaged as a watch dog against sharks such as some of those who are biding their time in Tihar Jail. For reasons which need no elaboration the law enforcement machinery, be it the central or state agencies, fight shy of trying to net the big fish, unless the higher judiciary intervenes or the political establishment has a score to settle with their adversaries. Successive governments have been dragging their feet for nearly fifty years creating an impression that there is no political will to stop the loot of public money. It was this pent up frustration that Anna Hazare exploited to build up a mass movement. We bow to Anna’s missionary zeal. His war on corruption should embrace three main areas, namely, electoral reforms, judicial reforms and police reforms. He has the first two in his sights but not the third which impacts people’s lives more directly and at the cutting edge
We invoke Anna to include police reforms in his action plan. Without these he cannot take his fight against corruption to its logical conclusion. Recurring debates about the police-politician and police-criminal nexus notwithstanding the unholy alliance thrives more than ever. If police-politician nexus is the collusive face of corruption, it is of the coercive type at the grass roots level which the aam aadmi has to suffer in silence. It will be in fitness of things for Anna to include in his movement the replacement of the anachronistic, colonial Police Act by a modern law in keeping with people’s aspirations in a democratic 21st century India.
Freeing the police services from political control should top the reform agenda. Anna’s job is not going to be easy. If police was a stooge of the government before independence it has remained so since. The political establishment, irrespective of its hue, has time and again thwarted attempts at police reforms. The Santhanam Committee set up by the Government of India in 1962 came out with several suggestions pertaining to administrative vigilance but skirted the issue of police reforms. The first bold initiative was taken two decades after independence by a non-Congress government. The National Police Commission (1977-79) made sweeping recommendations to make the police a professionally competent, people-friendly force free from political interference. There was high expectation that Charan Singh might see the reforms through but that was not to be. That successor political dispensation found the report too strong to stomach and just sat over it till it died a natural death.
In wake of the first phase of economic liberalization, more as a knee-jerk reaction, the N.N. Vohra Committee was set up to explore the dimensions of police-politician-criminal nexus. In its hard-hitting report the committee exposed the ugly face of collusive corruption and gave specific names which were never made public. The quid pro quo between the senior police officers on important posts and politicians who posted them there benefited both sides but drained the pubic exchequer. Expectedly there was no follow-up action. Once again the ‘common man’ felt let down. Public cynicism was building up. How we missed you Anna?
It was not the government but the higher judiciary which took note of the public mood. Lately the Supreme Court had been critical of the government’s reluctance in replacing/revising the outmoded Police Act of 1861. To placate the Supreme Court the central government set up the Soli Sorabjee Committee to draft a model police bill to replace the existing Act. The Committee submitted a comprehensive draft for a new Police Act. It aimed to define the new responsibilities of the police force and incorporated several measures to improve its professional efficiency while reducing political interference in its working. Nothing was done. Anna, if only you were there to twist the government’s tail!
The government would 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 setting up of State Security Commissions to insulate police from political influence, selection of state police chiefs for a fixed minimum tenure through a merit based transparent process, take away transfers, promotions and postings from the hands of politicians and entrust it to an independent police establishment board. 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. Had the directive been implemented in letter and spirit, aided by the Right to Information Act, we would have today an efficient, transparent and accountable police force free from political interference. Police performance during the elections, when they function under the control of the Election Commission, has shown that this can be done.
The state governments could not have been expected to let go of their prerogative without a fight. Law and order being a state subject resistance was not unexpected. They expressed their ‘reservations’, states were not ‘objecting’ at this stage for fear of the wrath of the apex court, on the plea of law and order being a state subject. After some legal dilly-dallying the states either implemented it in a heavily diluted form or ignored it altogether. Bihar, for example, brought on its statutes the Bihar Police Act 2007 where in the state government, read the Chief Minister, retained the power to promote, post and transfer at will field officers from DGP down to SHO, magisterial control has been tightened and some retrograde provisions continued with the result that it falls short of being a progressive legislation aimed at giving the public a professional police independent of political control. The Union government too failed to carry out their part of the bargain relating to the central police organizations. Even the contempt notice issued by the Supreme Court went unheeded.
Now is the time to make the push into a shove. We need you, Anna. Strike the iron while it is hot. With the central government on the back foot and states scared of going against the public mood the Supreme Court ought to be moved to follow up on their contempt notice and force the parties to comply. You must win this battle before you can win your war on corruption. Allow police reform to ride piggy-back on your Jan Lokpal Andolan.

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha
(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar.)