A Quest for a New Khaki Narrative for India
As 2018 dawns and the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century is only two laps away, the question of police reforms that was first felt a necessity in early 1960s, continues to be a perplexing issue that does not interest the political class in the country. Seven decades after independence and 67 years after the enactment of the constitution, the Indian police remains the most misused and reviled institutions of all. This is despite the fact that several state police commissions and one National Police Commission (Chairman Dharam Vira, 1980) and several committees have submitted their recommendations for police reforms. As India enters 2018, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has completed over three and half years and the seventeenth general election – last one before the third decade of the millennium dawns – is due in less than eighteen months. It is high time the BJP looked at its 2014 election manifesto that to a great extent helped it achieve a spectacular victory. It included police reform in its agenda for governance for the first time and did it with some serious thoughts.
Agenda for Police Reforms BJP’s manifesto promised governance in the framework and spirit of cooperative federalism. On police reforms too, it recognised the need to ‘work with the states’. Promising to raising the ‘Indian Police at par with international standards’, the party emphasized training, modernization of equipment and technology, ‘networking of police stations across the country for intelligence sharing and crime control’ (it already exists as Zipnet), strengthening investigations, overhauling intelligence and its coordination, modernize prison system and correctional dimensions, developing common national standards and protocols, preventing cyber-crime, strengthening marine policing and community policing for building bonds of trust and friendship with the people. It recognised the need to give special emphasis for improving the working conditions and welfare of police personnel. The BJP, thus, had taken care to list the details of reforms in their micro and macro dimensions; also mentioning the emerging challenges to policing in India that have in recent years exposed the chinks in the police armour.
In the meantime, the party has also been electorally successful enough to spread its tentacles in eighteen of the twenty-nine states, which includes most of the big states. There are other states where the regimes are favorably inclined towards the NDA regimes. This makes the operation and management of cooperative federalism easier for the Modi government. Even on a contentious issue such as police reforms, bringing the allies and other parties may not be difficult. Yet, these three and a half years have not witnessed any substantive move on police reforms by the Narendra Modi government. An initiative on cooperative federalism platform during these years had greater possibility more particularly because the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party too had mentioned police reforms as a crucial issue to be attended in their manifestos for the sixteenth general election. In fact, the Congress was persuaded by voluntary network Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to include police reform in its manifesto for the fifteenth general elections (2009). Thus, the Congress poll manifesto in 2009 promised to ‘accelerate the process of police reforms’. One paragraph in the manifesto spoke of making a clear distinction between the political executive and police administration, better housing and provisions for the police, greater representation of Indian diversity, ‘effective’ recruitment, more professionalized training and institutionalization of accountability. However, the UPA-II and state governments led by various parties remained indifferent to this issue, though law and order and police are state subjects. In fact, some of them flaunted federalism when the Union Government invited discussion on setting up a federal investigating agency.
In its 2014 poll manifesto too the Congress was brief. Committing to continue ‘police modernisation’, which is not necessarily reform, it ‘will ensure that our police forces are well-trained and sensitive to the needs of the citizens.’ Without going into any detail, it promised to make the police sensitive to ‘the poor and the weaker sections of society’ and carry forward the proposals for reform made so far, including by the judiciary.
The AAP too presented an agenda for ‘ensuring accountable and humane policing’ within its overall concept of ‘swaraj’ by aiming at greater accountability of the police to the people, professionalization and autonomy from political misuse, separation of powers within the police and better training and working conditions for police force. To transform this ‘colonial institution’ as ‘people friendly’, the party spoke about ‘Implementation of the Supreme Court judgment on Police Reforms giving the police greater functional autonomy from the misuse by the political executive.’ It intended to separate maintenance of law and order and investigation. The novel features in its proposals are that the party proposes to take away the power of the custody from the police, making all custody to be judicial, and any interrogation to be done in judicial custody only, to make the police accountable to the local Gram Sabha (Mohalla Sabha) and making refusal to register an FIR by any police personnel a criminal offence. The AAP’s proposals reflected a distrust of the police it had shown in its brief brush with power in the NCT of Delhi in 2013. In fact, attempting to create a political space for itself on an anti-corruption agenda, it ended up condemning the police as the ugly, violent and corrupt face of the Indian state deserving censure. Arvind Kejriwal’s appeal for support mentions that the police stopped accepting bribe during his regime and have begun doing so after he demitted office. Thus, its accountability mechanism proposed to take away the power of custody from the police, making it judicial. Police accountability to the local Gram/Mohalla Sabha is in tune with the party’s emphasis on ‘swaraj’, but under current highly politicised atmosphere, it calls for circumspection, discussion and greater detail.
The Khaki Conundrum
Obviously, regimes come, and regimes go, a new party and a new leadership adds its own new pages to the annals of India’s political history, India’s KHAKI tales continue with the same old narrative – hackneyed, violent, tragic, both for the people of the country as well as for the rank and file cops. The strong arm of the state is severely weak within and the politicians want it that way; bereft of a choice, the cops take solace in venting their ‘powerless power’, where they can. Supposed to be maintaining the rule of law, they function without any rules; and who cares for the law in India in any case! And, for a country and a part of its political society trying to latch on to the ancient, the modern law, particularly the contribution of Macaulay the hated, is gradually becoming anathema, with covert and overt support from the state.
Six recent developments should make India earnestly think about police and policing and making police reform a societal demand. For, the end of 2017 means that India is knocking at the door of the third decade of twenty-first century that would have a new government, even if by the same party and leadership, in less than two years.
First, on 27 September 2017, the Union Government announced a 25,000 crore (i.e. 25 billion) three-year package, commencing from 2017-18 for ‘police reforms’ and modernization. However, a priority 10,132 crore (40 per cent) assigned to Jammu and Kashmir, the northeastern states and the states affected with Left-wing Extremism makes it contingency driven. Focused on procuring modern gadgets and weapons, the scheme is in addition to the existing Modernization of State Police Forces Scheme and a departure from the Union Government’s stance that the states should take care of their police because the Fourteenth Finance Commission has increased their share in revenue to 42 percent.
Second, confusion amongst the police administration across states on the new phenomenon of vigilante lynchings has been recently vindicated fully when the accused on Akhaq lynching were bailed out and charges against the six accused mentioned in the dying declaration of Pehlu Khan were dropped by the Rajasthan Police. A confusion among the police on vigilantes closing down meat shops in Gurgaon and Greater Noida palpably evident?
Third, the recent violence in Panchkula on the day of the trial of Gurmeet Singh that caused avoidable disturbance around and a number of avoidable deaths divided opinions sharply if the police had preventive measures in its quiver aside from deadly bullets they used to control the chaos ensuing his conviction. In the police action innocents too were killed aside from the Gurmeet devotees who went berserk. This comes a little over a year after the Haryana police’s failed role during the February 2016 Jat agitation, strongly criticized in the Prakash Singh Committee report (June 2016). A total unprofessional approach in dealing with a protest was evident also in a brutal lathi-charge on demonstrating girl students in Banaras Hindu University on 24 September 2017 by a posse of male police – from ordering the assault to its inept execution.
Fourth, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent advice to the police to ‘nudge people to achieve the goals of demonetization’. We are not sure if the rank and file of the police, who have been condemned over decades for being corrupt and inept, know what the demonetization is and if it has checked their ‘oopari amdani’. In any case, the utterly understaffed police unable to manage their basic assigned functions would do what they are not trained to do – ‘nudging’ particularly; they are trained and conditioned with the organisational culture to ‘push’! If this was not enough, the Jharkhand government has put their police on a campaign against those who defecate in the open.
Fifth, UP Chief Minister Yogi Aditya Nath in his recent appearance on Aapki Adalat on India TV announced amidst a thunderous applause of the audience that he has ordered the police to knock off those indulging in a crime (‘Jo log aparadh karenge, thonk diye jaayenge’); Rajat Sharma conducting the proceedings looked visibly impressed, as he did not question this unconstitutional and illegal assertion. Is the CM licensing a ‘dirty Harry’ syndrome? Does he know about Articles 21 and 22 of the constitution of India and ‘procedure established by law’? Equally worrying is his hinting that the spurt in crime was due to (and by) those unemployed by his initiative to stop illegal slaughtering! Clearly, mostly Muslims are in meat business.
Sixth, a recent seminar in Lucknow on police reforms on 23 September 2017, the usual concerns on whatever is wrong with the police in India were raised. Former Union Home Secretary and current Union minister of state for Home raised issues of professionalisation of the police and insulation of criminal justice system from politics. Prakash Singh was candid: ‘The government has not been able to implement police reforms, and good law and order is a prerequisite for economic development… What happened in Haryana recently (violence after conviction of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh), where property worth more than 2,000 crore was destroyed, is a clear example of lack of reforms.’ These six episodes stress everything that is wrong with the police in India – politicization, inefficiency, ineptness of the organisation and its leadership, a total disinterest amongst all the political parties and the leadership to carry out police reforms, a complete lack of appreciation of the police role as the servants of the law, the fund crunch, obfuscating ‘modernization’ for reform, the centre-state buck-passing, and so on.
India’s strong-centre federalism has emerged as the first stumbling block on police reforms. While today the centre ducks policing issues by insisting that it is a state subject, ignoring that several states are ruled by its party units and that alluding to the entries 1 and 2 of State List gets qualified by entry 2A of the Union List, a change brought about by the Forty-Second Constitution Amendment, but retained by the Forty-Fourth Constitution Amendment, indicating unanimity amongst the parties and leaders on a predominant role for the Centre in public order.
The Centre’s role in police reforms, with the first non-Congress government, came in only after emergency excesses and an unprecedented countrywide police strike in 1979. The states, assigned with the responsibility after independence, constituted police commissions 1960s onwards, but ignored the recommendations; the police had become an important political tool. The first National Police Commission (1980) in independent India chaired by Dharam Vira did a commendable job, only to be ignored by states – unfortunately, federalism apparently became the villain, though political parties as usual considered police reform unconducive to their interest.
The tale of neglect and prevarication continued through the Julio Rebeiro Committee (1998), the Padmanabhaiah Committee (2000) and Soli Soarabjee Committee on Police Act (2005). Though the nudge by the Prakash Singh PIL to the Supreme Court in 1996 came to a push by the judgement in 2006, the states remained recalcitrant. The Supreme Court eventually threw its hands in despair in July 2009 to a persistent Prakash Singh plea to compel the states to police reforms: ‘Not a single state government is willing to cooperate. What can we do?’ Obviously, policy and executive decisions by the apex judiciary has its limitations.
Civil society groups have attempted to put police reforms on political agenda. In 2004, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative convinced the Congress to include police reforms in its manifesto. But the UPA did not go beyond appointing the Soli Sorabjee Committee. In 2009 and 2014, the Congress briefly promised ‘police modernisation’, not reforms. The BJP’s manifesto in 2014 promised police reforms in the framework of governance and cooperative federalism. Promising to raise the ‘Indian Police at par with international standards’, the BJP took care to list the details of reforms in their micro and macro dimensions. However, the BJP-led NDA government has totally ignored police reforms and the signals arising out of the states it has ruled is just the continuation of the trends of the past seven decades.
There are five aspects to police reforms. First, the colonial police Act must be replaced by states and the new Act must be a progressive one. Second, the intensely hierarchical structure deserves to be changed that reduces the rank and file as serfs of the leadership. Third, in keeping with this, service and living conditions of the constabulary must be improved, bringing them out of dehumanised
living by giving them family quarters. Fourth, police training, particularly at the cutting-edge level, must be designed to sensitise the recruits to democratic norms to be observed in policing a plural society such as India. Fifth, accountability structures must be created in a manner that the police are answerable to the law and the people they serve, not their political masters; meaning disentangling the police from politics.
The model Police Act has been adopted by Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tripura and Uttarakhand since 2007 and they have initiated marginal reforms. Some of these are still reported to be regressive in nature. While seventeen states have remodelled their police acts, twelve states and seven Union Territories have not done it; obviously the Union Government too has been remiss in not bringing in the model act in the UTs.
The Supreme Court of India in its judgement on 22 September 2017 had issued seven directives that include accountability mechanisms and structures – (i) constituting a State Security Commission; (ii) selection of the Director General of Police of the State from amongst three senior-most officers of the Department empanelled for promotion to that rank by the Union Public Service Commission with a minimum tenure of at least two years irrespective of his date of superannuation; (iii) minimum tenure of two years for the police officers on operational duties; (iv) separation of investigating and law & order police in a prescribed phased manner; (v) setting up of a Police Establishment Board in states for inter alia deciding all transfers, postings, promotions and other service related matters of officers of and below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police; (vi) constituting Police Complaints Authorities at the state and district levels for looking into complaints against police officers; and (vii) a National Security Commission at the Union Level to prepare a panel for being placed before the appropriate Appointing Authority, for selection and placement of Chiefs of the Central Police Organisations, who should also be given a minimum tenure of two years. Needless to say, these have been ignored with impunity by both the Union and state governments. All the parties in power stakes in India are to be blamed.There is no assessment available of police training in states for various levels of recruits. However, performance of the police at police station level does not give much cause for optimism.
Obviously, the Khaki narrative in India seven decades after independence continues to be as grim as ever. The boisterous political competition and consequent changes in states and at the Raisina Hill has made little difference to the same old narrative. The problem is rooted in political leadership of all hues and, with a few notable exceptions, in the police leadership. The optimism generated by a Chief Minister moving from a state capital to the South Block as Prime Minister of India, first since independence, has not made any difference to the sombre narrative. However, in thirteen years as the chief minister of Gujarat he did not introduce even a single measure of police reform in the state!Given only seventeen months left for the seventeenth general election, for which the BJP is gearing up already under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the party must take bold steps to initiate police reforms by bringing other political parties and states on board. The Inter-State Council, under Union Home Ministry is one of the most underutilized bodies of the Union Government, which was created for the purpose of cooperative federalism. The government should take urgent measures to revive it and bring all the states on board to undertake measures of police reforms. The NDA ruled states can at least take initiative that would become compulsion for other states too. Otherwise the responsibility of changing India’s Khaki narrative would fall on citizens.
By Ajay k. Mehra