POLICE REFORMS: INVOKING ANNA HAZARE
(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.)