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A leadership lacking in adequate vision

Police reforms or the manifest lack thereof, are a favoured subject of declamation, not only for the Press, the judiciary, social activists and the 'human rights' lobby, but also for the senior officers within the Police services and concerned departments of government. A few contemporary themes that enjoy unprecedented popularity (sourced from a burgeoning literature from the West) include 'community policing', 'sensitisation' and, of course, 'human rights'. As a result, from time to time, groups of (less than willing) officers are trooped in to well intentioned 'workshops' on these subjects, where they are harangued mercilessly by self-righteous orators who subject them to a second-hand wisdom that contains no suggestion of a familiarity with the situation on the ground, or the status of the terminally sick criminal justice system in the country.

On the other hand, preliminary results of an enormously edifying study by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D), indicate that those we seek to reform feel that they do not need to be reformed, that everything is quite all right with them, and that the failures of other systems and institutions of our political and administrative structure are simply being ascribed to the Police. This attitude is extends across the constabulary to officers at the highest levels. Indeed, though the BPR&D study does not look into the wider issue, this is the attitude that afflicts all our institutions, none of which are functioning at adequate or even acceptable levels of integrity or efficiency.

There is, very clearly, a problem here. I do not belong to the camp that believes that the Police is in no immediate need of reform. Indeed, I think that the need is dire and urgent. However, I also believe that the debate on reforms is focusing on emotive, entirely peripheral and irrelevant issues, many of them defined nearly two decades ago by the National Police Commission - whose report has matured to inconsequentiality in the forgotten labyrinth of the government's archives.

No amount of tinkering with the Police Act, or of motivational, orientation or sensitisation programmes, is going to substantially change the functioning of the police, unless it is realised that the ills - predominant among which is the violence and supposed 'brutalisation' of the Force - are structural. More radically, I would propose, the violence of the Police is not - as is widely propagated - the consequence of an excess of power, but of a systematic and gradual deprivation of all effective power to secure the objectives for which the Force is constituted and which its personnel are sworn to - and in overwhelming proportion, against all odds, do - strive for. This is not, as is again widely believed, the result of 'political interference' and 'corruption', or of competing management or organisational alternatives between the Commissioner and the IG system over which so many debates have raged, but a consequence in large part of a failure of concepts and of doctrine.

The case of the arrest in London, on charges of being "drunk and incapacitated", of the 16 year old son of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is interesting in this context. If such a thing happened in India, the outraged parents would ensure that the police officer was immediately transferred and would probably engineer the complete ruination of his career over time. Indeed, far lesser 'VIPs' - petty local politicians, administrators, illustrious members of our Fourth Estate, businessmen, socialites, mafiosi - in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, certainly and frequently in Chandigarh, would regard the arrest of their uncouth and ill-bred offspring, even on very serious charges, a personal affront to be avenged by every possible abuse of their authority, wealth and power. Sadly, they would be backed by their 'contacts' in the establishment. The problem extends well beyond the kith and kin of the well heeled and well connected, to every malefactor that can secure or purchase their support; and if these fail, there are still the torpid judicial system and the simulated passions of the 'human rights' lawyer to exploit. The fact is, the Police is crippled in its activities by a socially and politically licentious regime in which there is no space for a willing obedience to the law, and where compliance can be secured only through the threat or the use of overt force. This is the conclusion the beat constable in the streets is compelled to arrive at, and it expresses itself in various forms of violence - rudeness, assault and mindless brutality in the Police Station. The result is, the Police is feared but not respected, and obeyed only under compulsion.

This is immensely significant at the emotive level, but it is far from the core of the problem. The emasculation of the police force goes much deeper, and comprehends a complete failure to anticipate and adapt to the challenges and galloping transformations that have consumed the last half-century. Indeed, even today, with the mounting disarray on every theatre of the law and order front, the limited orientation for reform remains firmly fixated on the past or, at best, on present failings, and the substantive (as opposed to the purely rhetorical) response, to mere fire fighting.

But our current problems are not a consequence of our current failings. They are rooted in the inability of the police and political leadership of our past to anticipate entirely predictable transformations, and to initiate the requisite responses two, three, even five decades ago. The fact, today, is that whatever doctrine the police is working on - if any - is utterly wrong, inappropriate and inadequate. The police system is based upon antiquated systems and ideas of crime control, and has neglected the opportunities of systematic methods and technologies of crime analysis, of scientific investigation and documentation, of information processing, and of law and order mapping, projection and prediction. The sheer gap between contemporary policing practices in the West, and those that prevail in India is astonishing. The volume of resources that would be required to bridge this gap at this juncture is prohibitive - but had the changes been planned out over the decades, would not have been unaffordable. Primitive policing practices are reflected in poor rates of conviction, in deteriorating efficiency and effectiveness, and consequently in a declining respect for the law. This is the essence of the malady - police brutality and corruption, while they are enormously distressing, are only the superficial symptoms of the loss of control.

Worse, even if efforts are initiated to cover the existing gap - and there is a burgeoning body of literature advocating this approach - by the time these are translated into effective measures on the ground, emerging and radically different challenges will condemn them to irrelevance, and the police to sustained levels of ineffectiveness. In the entire body of the rhetoric of Police reforms, where is the discussion on emerging challenges and the imminent threat of 'hyper-terrorism', of multinational organised crime syndicates, of the widening arc of economic offences, of cyber crimes and cyber-terrorism, to take just a few of the obvious examples?

Even if there is an absence of 'political will', or an excess of 'political interference', what prevents the police leadership from initiating programmes, or creating a separate body (or using existing institutions and infrastructure) to study present trends and anticipate and define emerging challenges with a view to plan and implement, well in advance, the doctrines, the systems and the character of the Force that will be required to counter these threats when they are realised, as most of them inevitably will be. As the Force is progressively empowered to meet the challenges of the future, it will automatically improve its capabilities to deal with the problems of the present. All this is entirely possible within the institutional constraints and parameters that currently exist. It must, however, be regretfully conceded that the police leadership itself has failed - not necessarily in its day to day tasks and duties - but in its thinking and in evolving an adequate vision.

(Published in The Pioneer, July 8, 2000)





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