Importance of People’s Police
By Ajay K. Mehra *
Too Important To Neglect And Too Urgent To Delay
The discourse on a people’s police has been revived. From the Sixties to the early Seventies, several States had tinkered with the issue of police reforms, but the matter remained largely unaddressed. The Dharam Vira Commission (1980), appointed after the Emergency and shelved on political considerations, had resumed the debate, which intensified in the Nineties.
Responding to an appeal by NK Singh and a former police officer, Prakash Singh, the Supreme Court directed the Union and State governments to implement police reforms. It appointed the JF Rebeiro Committee in 1998 to recommend the reform measures based on the National Police Commission’s prescription. The judgment came a decade later and the Supreme Court in 2006 directed the governments to implement police reforms.
The Vajpayee government had appointed the Padmanabhaiah Committee and Malimath Committee in 2000 to suggest reforms in the criminal justice system. The UPA government appointed the Soli Sorabjee Committee in 2005 to draft a revised Police Act and implement the same within six months. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an NGO, began a campaign in 1998 with the slogan ~ ‘Police Reforms too Important to Neglect and too Urgent to Delay’. Yet, half a century of efforts since the 1960s appears too little to achieve what the country’s public security urgently needs ~ a people’s police.
On 22 September 2012, Prakash Singh launched a ‘Movement for People’s Police’ during a meeting at India International Centre, New Delhi. It was chaired by jurist Fali Nariman and attended by a small group of retired cops, representatives of civil society as well as media persons and academics. The meeting highlighted the deliberate neglect of this issue by the government and the entire political class. Mr Nariman called for a modest beginning in Delhi as a prelude to a national movement.
That the country needs an institutional set-up for democratic policing is unexceptionable; the question is how to achieve the objective and what are the imponderables. Certain innovative measures have been initiated recently across the country to enhance police efficacy and bring about an attitudinal change. A plethora of reports and studies on police since independence have identified the major problems - political interference/influence, organisational culture, inefficiency, lack of specialisation, low people-police ratio, heavy workload, poor working conditions, and so on.
The observations of KF Rustamji, a distinguished police officer and a member of the NPC, that despite all the criticism and condemnation, the police have maintained a certain degree of order, cannot be discounted. The government’s initiatives do focus on efficiency, lowering of stress and improving work culture. This is despite the fact that the States have not filled sanctioned posts and have even diverted modernization funds to other related heads. The former Kerala DGP, Joseph Punnoose, introduced an eight-hour shift and weekly off for the constables, without demanding additional personnel. Efficient personnel management in police stations, outsourcing non-police functions, re-orienting business and processes to rationalize functions are some of the initiatives that are underway. A project initiated by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs seeks to rationalize personnel usage and their deployment for optimum efficiency without increasing the numbers. The plan has been put to test in selected police stations across the country. Of course, that does not mean that police-people ratio should not improve. There is an obvious emphasis on IT to achieve these results.
On 29 September, during the institution day celebration of the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science, the Union Home Secretary, Mr RK Singh, kept aside his written speech, and stressed the need to strengthen police investigation. He regretted the inadequate support from the States in this endeavour and the MHA’s shortage of funds. Money, he emphasised, must be available to encourage the States. Lack of research support, even the disinclination of the Union and State governments to encourage research on police weaknesses, figured at the meeting. However, if the Union Home Secretary’s signal of intent is made integral to the government’s agenda, it will help improve policing.
Much as the Home Secretary’s appeal is timely, a movement for a people’s police cannot be launched on the streets. For optimal results, the complexity of the police, the State and society will have to be factored in. Policing as a system is essential for collective safety and surveillance. The police as an entity was appropriated by the State; it evolved over centuries to symbolize what is perceived to be “legitimised use of violence”. Over time, the police became handmaidens of States and rulers without accountability.
Traces of the feudal-colonial origins of the State system are manifest even 65 years after Independence. Social schisms (religion, caste and region) persist and can affect the State, its institutions and political processes; the democratic journey incorporates privilege-based social values. These together make the uniform, the stars on epaulettes and baton symbols of fear. Those who have the authority, wield it and flaunt their status symbols. Why else should the personal vehicles of government officials have ‘Govt of X’ or the status of the official inscribed? Why is the beacon light so widely misused? There is a pervasive culture of defiance of, rather than compliance with, the rules. There is a degree of opposition to any symbol of authority unless you succeed in getting close to it and reap the benefit. The police being the most visible symbol of State authority, the awe it generates has mixed responses.
Coming back to police and society, why has the system of Special Police Officer (SPO) failed? Why has the use of the SPO clause led to distortions, such as the creation of Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh? Police reform in India has never had either a popular or a large elite-based constituency; it has been the concern of the few who think that the people deserve a democratic police organisation. But for a mention in the 2009 Congress manifesto, the subject is not on the agenda of any political party. Even the corporate sector hasn’t raised this question. Therefore, the first steps on thin ice as it were must be cautious, firm and result-oriented. Otherwise, it will not be possible to sustain the movement.
The issue can well be taken up with the people, who should be enlightened about the necessity of police reforms and how essential it is for the citizenry, society and polity. Indeed, involvement of the people would be an innovative step, one that deserves extensive support. Its success will depend on how people react and respond.
* Dr Ajay K. Mehra is Ford Foundation Professor, Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is also the Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida, near New Delhi. This article was first published in The Statesman.