(Published in the Statesman Kolkata and Delhi as The Reformed Police on 24 November 20013
The much hyped 2006 Supreme Court directive on police reforms is yet to take off. While reforms remain the crying need of the hour these cannot take care of all the ills plaguing our society and polity. Police is not an island in itself. Its personnel are drawn from society and bear its stamp. If they are corrupt and amoral they merely reflect the breakdown of moral values in society. True, they swear allegiance to the constitution and to rule of law but so do our legislators, judges and many others. Temptations galore and societal pressure will be more effective than fear of being caught and punished. Will the police reforms change the society and its non-police members?
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. Besides, the apex court, and the National Police Commission before that, tried to tackle the issue of police reforms in isolation. Police cannot function independently of the criminal justice system which too continues to be colonial and needs an overhaul. Importantly, reforms in police have to go in tandem with electoral and judicial reforms. Until then a ‘reformed police’ will only remain on our wish list.
The Supreme Court’s 7-point directive includes, inter alia, the setting up of State Security Commission 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. Law and order being a state subject, the state governments could not have been expected to let go of their prerogative without a fight. After some legal dilly-dallying the states either implemented it in a heavily diluted form or ignored it altogether. In the Bihar Police Act 2007, for example, there is no mention of a State Security Commission. The Act empowers the Chief Minister to make and unmake field officers from DGP down to SHO and falls short of being a progressive legislation aimed at giving the public a professional police independent of political control.
If and when a State Security Commission is in position its composition will be heavily weighted in favour of the Chief Minister. The Commission will have the CM as the Chairperson with his DGP as the ex-officio Secretary. His Chief Secretary would be there by his side as one of the members. The judicial members will mostly be indifferent. So, he will have only the Leader of the Opposition to manage with some quid pro quo. In practice the Commission will not be meeting very often and it will be left to the CM as the Chairperson and the DGP as the Secretary to carry on the day to day business of the Commission. Between them they will take all decision s in the name of ‘urgency’ as law and order issues cannot wait. He will have the final say in the selection of the DGP out of the three names suggested by the Union Public Service Commission. As the Minister-in- charge of police he will have the DGP look up to him for assorted favours for himself and the force.
From a reading of the S.C. directive the main object of the mandated police reforms seems to be to insulate the police machinery from ‘political interference’ which expression has been left unexplained. It is the legitimate duty of an elected representative or a political activist to bring to the notice of the District SP or the SHO the problems of the public and seek their redress. Surely every such instance cannot be seen as ‘interference’ When an NGO or a Women’s Self Help group approaches the police functionary regarding a case of domestic violence or a case of dowry crime we do not treat that as ‘interference’. In both instances police will be expected to respond suitably as per law. What is one to make of the recent blatantly discriminatory missive from Union Home Minister Shinde to all Chief Ministers to ensure that Muslim youth are not arrested or harassed during communal riots? Whatever may be his intention it will no doubt leave the police leadership in a quandary. Does this not amount to political interference? Would the Home Minister have behaved differently had the State Security Commission been in place? Doubtful.
All political parties, at one time or another, try to ‘use’ the police by cajoling it or browbeating it. It may have to deal with arrest or release or to connive at some nefarious activity No wonder they all unite to oppose any move at police reforms. Political pressurization should be accepted as a fact of life; it will not cease police reforms notwithstanding. If the unity among the political parties in their opposition to the Supreme Court judgment about convicted legislators and bringing the parties under the purview of the Right to information Act is any indication things are going to get only worse for the police. Police reforms can have at best peripheral impact in a land where a sizable number of elected representatives, irrespective of their political hue, are convicts or stand trial for heinous crimes.
The public expect a police officer to be strong enough to withstand pressure brought upon him by vested interests for extraneous considerations. If he is sure of his ground the worst that can happen to him is an unwanted transfer or in rare cases a temporary suspension as happened recently to the lady IAS officer in UP. Judicial redress is available as a last resort. Sadly, every service has black sheep. My experience of many decades in the police service has been that we often invite political interference by appearing too willing to oblige. Most politicians do not mind if they are talked to nicely and explained how their request is unreasonable and cannot be entertained. If the officer has the reputation of being fair and honest the politician in question goes back satisfied that if his demand can’t be met then his opponent won’t be able to score either. In spite of police reforms and a State Security Commission, when in place, the officer will have to take the final call and use his tact and patience.
Occasionally cases of police-politician and police-criminal nexus are reported in the media though they are far fewer than the instances of politician -criminal and politician-bureaucrat nexus. Police must maintain a distance from mafia elements, criminal or political; any incipient bonhomie should be viewed with suspicion and nipped in the bud. There is nothing in the proposed reforms which can curb this nexus. The judiciary, the RTI, the Human Rights Commission and the departmental channels are all there to deal with the transgressions of the police. It has to be the departmental hierarchy, the media and, above all, public opinion which have to act as watch dogs and keep the police from straying. The contemplated Police Complaint Authority will only make the system more cumbersome.
An opinion has been expressed that had the police reforms been in place the recent communal riots in Muzaffarnagar could have been prevented or at least contained. That is taking a simplistic view of the problem. Communal divide which had been an accepted social reality earlier has lately been exploited for vote garnering by all political parties. That being so it does not absolve the police from its constitutional and legal responsibility to prevent loss of life and property through the enforcement of laws of which we have aplenty. No law ordains the police to wait for a nod from its political masters. Police ‘failed’ to act in Muzaffarnagar not for want of reforms but out of sheer cowardice and lack of effective police leadership. The reforms, as and when they come, will no doubt give the police a greater functional autonomy and transparency but it will be naïve to expect that they will unshackle it from the control of the government, read the ruling political dispensation. Police reforms can at best give limited returns if targeted in isolation.
(Sudhir Kumar Jha)
The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar.