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Cops and Rubber Stamps

In recent months we have seen increasing focus on a succession of internal security crises. These have brought, sometimes sympathetic, attention to bear upon the capacities of the police force, and the conditions under which they work, over the past decades. The prime minister himself has remarked on the need to bring the humble “beat constable” into the “vortex of our counter-terrorist strategy”. All this has occurred against the backdrop of decades of class libel against the police, often led by the judiciary, that has provoked a crisis of confidence in, indeed hatred against, the force among large sections of the public.

Given this, any proposals for police reform are greeted with loud hurrahs from the uninformed, and the latest Supreme Court direction to states and the Union government to establish sweeping structural transformations in police administration “on or before 31st December, 2006” has excited much enthusiasm. Apart from the unrealistic deadline set, the “reforms” recommended can only enthuse the armchair administrator, and will do little to improve the operation and efficiency of either the beat constable or his superintending officer.

This should be entirely unsurprising. What is surprising, in fact, is the measure of public faith that is invested in the capacities of the courts. With due respect to the judiciary, an organisation that takes decades to complete a trial is hardly in a position to advise other branches of government on efficiency.

The judgment makes interesting reading. Wherever a problem is perceived, we discover the ubiquitous committee, that hideous parody of governance that produces nothing beyond paralysis and a dispersal of responsibility. The judgment reads like a proposal for the re-employment of superannuated judges, bureaucrats and political hangers-on. A vast bureaucracy in the form of statutory committees is to be set up in each state and at the Centre to monitor and control virtually the entire spectrum of policy and administration that should, rightly, vest in the police leadership.

It is not clear where the money to support the recommended armies of the superannuated is to come from, especially when the police have been chronically starved of funds, and police capacities (in terms of manpower, population ratios, training, facilities, infrastructure , and so on) remain inadequate, well below international norms. The court conceptualises the problem within a context of unlimited resources, but the crisis of the police is that it is short-staffed, ill-equipped and ill-trained.

Cursing the ‘colonial’ Indian Police Act of 1861 has become a standing cliche, but the many reforms being suggested are not based on a specific critique of this act but remain academic exercises entirely divorced from its content and ground realities. As a superintendent of police for over 13 years, I had the power, under this reviled act, to transfer my inspectors and sub-inspectors, to recruit constables, send them for training and retraining, organise promotion tests, and preside over such promotions. If an officer acted fairly in this, the men were willing to risk their lives for him. If he acted unfairly, the force would disaggregate. I was sent from district to district where the force had deteriorated into a rabble under poor command — and this is the state of the police force in much of the country today. But given the authority under the Police Act, a good commander had the capacity to recover the force. This was my experience in command after command, right up to Punjab, where the police (at one time thought to be completely subverted) led the finest counter-terrorism operation in India’s history. The failure was not in the act, it was in the quality of training and command. The Punjab Police succeeded because I simply restored the powers that existed under the 1861 legislation.

What will happen under the proposed committee system controlling all transfers, postings and promotions? The loyalty of the men will find no object to fix on. Even today, constables are taking SPs and director generals of police to court — and the courts are welcoming their petitions. When the system of incentives and deterrents is given over to committees, what instruments of command will remain with the SP?

The judgment also rails against political interference — and is right to do so. But just as the court misunderstands the nature of leadership, it appears equally to misunderstand the constitutional scheme that has placed the political executive at the apex of the system. You cannot divorce law and order management from politics. And while we must find some constraints on the more arbitrary abuses of political power, divesting the political executive of control over the police will only deepen the crises the nation confronts — particularly, though not exclusively, in areas afflicted by terrorism. Much of current “interference”, in fact, goes well beyond the mandate of the 1861 legislation.

There is also the proposal to separate the investigative function of the police from law and order management, in order to “ensure speedier investigation, better expertise”, etc. But the delays and increasing incompetence of police investigations are unrelated to the problem of separation of functions. They relate to the fact that the ratio of investigating officers to cases is simply unmanageable. That takes us back to police-population ratios and facilities.

The touchstone for defining the utility of proposed police reforms must be whether any such reforms would improve the experience of a citizen when he enters the police station. There is not one recommendation in the judgment that meets this criterion.

There have been many police commissions and many judgments on the failings of the police. There has, however, not been a single study to determine whether the police are, in fact, being administered in conformity with the Indian Police Act of 1861. If we cannot implement that act in good faith, what gives us the illusion that we will do any better with a new act, or under the new court directives?


(Published in Indian Express, September 25, 2006)





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