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Challenges Before The Police In India

Updated: July 9, 2011 11:24 am

The most surprising feature of the contemporary Indian police is that its activity remains so largely colonial in mould…. Of greater importance is the persistence of behaviour patterns and philosophy. The primary function of the police continues to be containment of trouble once it occurs—whether it be mob violence or individual criminal activity. It reacts to threats to law and to government, but it does not actively seek to serve the peculiar security needs of individual citizens. From the citizen’s point of view, the police are largely a passive force, difficult to energise, bureaucratic in working, impersonal and off-handed in operations.

David H Bayley, ‘The Police in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, Nov 6, 1971

David Bayley’s analysis based on his intensive field research that resulted in the first and one of its kind classic study The Police and Political Development in India, sums up the nature of the Indian police and its organisational and behavioural problem. The above analysis is relevant four decades hence. This also clearly suggests that the police in India is in need of a complete overhaul, rather than piecemeal reform without which it is not in a position to undertake the challenges it faces.

            The latest decennial census of India (2011) puts the headcount of the world’s second largest country at 1,210,193,422. India’s 2 million plus strong police forces, highly diverse and decentralised, face 1,210,193,422 multi-faceted problems, which comes to less than one police person per 1,000 people. Crime in India, an annual publication of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, in its latest edition (2009) gives the ‘actual strength of civil police (including district armed police) in 28 states and 7 union territories in India as 1.56 million against a ‘sanctioned’ strength of 2 million police personnel. The armed police at 342,447 constituted over one-fourth of the total strength. Seven central police forces—Assam Rifles, Border Security Force, Central Industrial Security Force, Central Reserve Police Force (including Rapid Action Force and Commando Battalion for Resolute Action acronymic CoBRA), Indo-Tibetan Border Police, National Security Guard and Sashstra Seema Bal—had 528,000 personnel in 2000. The 2010-11 Annual Report of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, does not give total strength in absolute numbers, it gives organisationwise battalion strength. The total strength of the Indian Police Service (IPS) officers, the elite leadership cadre recruited by the Union government on the basis of an all-India examination and personality test conducted by the Union Public Service Commission and allotted to various states, was 4,720 on December 31, 2010. Obviously, a decade hence the police strength has risen, but not in proportion to the population. Moreover, the strength of the civil police for day-to-day law and order duties has not increased sufficiently. Nearly one quarter of the police strength continues to be of the armed police

            The Indian police guards 28 states and seven union territories (UT) and an area of 32,87,782 sq kms some of which is not easy to access. While the country’s 14,000 kms of land border with six countries—including uncomfortable coexistence with two and numerous operational problems with three—and a coastline of 7,517 kms are guarded by the defence forces and specialised central police organisations, the police of the states concerned too come into the picture for micro management of public security. Add to all these David Bayley’s comment of 1971, which has not lost its validity four decades hence, the police in India face challenges arising out of historical (colonial origin and persistence of organisational culture then developed), organisational, socio-political and contemporaneous factors.

The Legacy and Its Shadow

Like all administrative systems, police administration too evolves with political systems and societal needs, many a times societal needs as perceived by a political system at a particular historical juncture. Police, which has evolved across the world with both social and political norms in a society, represents a widely accepted need for public security and despite police and policing evolving and perceived as states’ hand for the use of legitimised violence, it also represents social consensus on security. Indeed, that also means a tacit acceptance of Hobbesian philosophy.

The police in post-Independence India drew their legacy from their colonial origin. The development of the colonial police organisations since the grant of diwani, or revenue rights, in the Bengal to the East India Company in 1765 after the Battle of Buxar (1764) was an amalgam of the use of the existing structures and their requirement based innovations from time to time in different parts of the country. The Indian Police Act 1861 coming in the wake of the revolt of 1857 that ended a century old rule of the East India Company and transferred power to the Queen-in-Parliament, laid the foundation of the present day police organisation in India. Supported by Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Indian Evidence that came soon after, the modern Indian police came into existence as part of the colonial criminal justice system. The intent and purpose of the creation of the new police force in India was clear not only from the political exigencies arising out of the consequences of the revolt, but also of the new requirements of the colonial government that was to be controlled directly by the British Parliament and government. Much of the intentions of the government that emphasised a low cost control, keeping the police miserly paid and turning a Nelson’s eye to corruption and brutality at the cutting edge and intermediary levels, despite the Fraser Commission (1902) pointing out dangers of this policy, shaped the police organisation. Foundations were thus laid for a police culture not desirable for a democracy. Further, since the government of British India ran on a model of decentralised centralisation, the provinces of British India and the princely states had their own police organisations. This point is central to our argument later regarding the location of the police in independent India.

            The founding of the modern Indian police followed, inter alia, the founding of the Indian National Congress in December 1885. Though promoted by the British—Allen Octavian Hume, a retired British civil servant worked tirelessly to create a platform for the Indian urban intelligentsia to vent their feelings so that events of 1857 kind were not repeated—it became the corner stone of the Indian national movement and later the party system. From a democratic perspective, this was the beginning of political challenges for civil and police administration in India that was initially led entirely by British officers drawn from the army and personneled almost entirely by Indians. The police have had a mixed record during the national movement as well as during the partition. The riots, preceding and following partition created tough moments for the police; they emerged with mixed records out of it.

            The framing and enactment of the Constitution of India on January 26, 1950 was the first major democratic milestone that impacted all the institutions, including the police. The republican constitution following the Westminster model parliamentary democracy described India as an indestructible ‘Union of States’ (Article 1) and followed what has been described as ‘strong-centre’ federalism. Relevant for the discussion here is division of powers in the Constitution that located public order and police as the responsibility of the States of the Union (Seventh Schedule Item 1, List 2, which deals with powers of the states). However, the Union government maintained its own police organisations for specialised functions. It strengthened its constitutional responsibility of intervening in grave situations of public security by 42nd constitutional amendment in 1976, i.e. during the state of emergency controversially declared by Mrs Indira Gandhi by adding item 2A in List I (Union List), which empowered the Union government to deploy ‘any armed forces of the Union’ in any state ‘in aid of the civil power’.

            Naturally, when the government turned its eye on the police administration following the reorganisation of states in 1956, the spotlight was on the states to take initiatives in this direction. There is no evidence to suggest that there was any prodding from the Union government, but given the existing Congress system till the fourth general election in 1967, whereby both at the national and state levels there were governments by the Congress party, a consensus on leaving the initiative of police reforms to the states appears to have existed.

            As a result, between 1960s and 1970s most of the existing states appointed a police commission to suggest reforms. However, one impact of this was that the critical question of a break from the colonial Indian Police Act 1861 and remodeling of the police with a new organisational structure with democratic culture was not even thought of. The state police commissions did go into critical issues of police reforms, but without questioning the colonial foundation, and each one of them suggested a wide range of measures to enhance efficiency through better training, rationalising the existing organisational structure and improving service conditions of various ranks. That not much improvement came out of it was a result of two factors. Most Commissions consisted of police officers and administrators recruited, trained and organisationally accultured by the colonial government. Hence, though they were all for improvement in the police administration in their respective states, but they did not think out of the box to break free from the colonial mould.

            The Union government first turned its attention towards the police in the country in 1971 when it appointed a committee chaired by noted Indian sociologist M.S. Gore to review police training. The committee found several professional constraints in the existing methodology of police training and suggested several ways of improving it. However, the Government of India could only have recommended it to the state governments and taken some measures to develop consensus and used it for the training of the police leadership as well as of personnel in its own police organisations, which were not into day to day grassroots policing. Obviously, though alive to the challenges that the police faced in independent India and the critical role that training played in it, this was another government report since independence that was cold-storaged. No wonder, in less than one decade, the experience of the role of the police during internal emergency imposed by Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1975 and post-emergency dilemmas arising out of the questions of accountability of the police and administrative systems, a new government led by a new coalition of old political parties named Janata Party appointed a National Police Commission (NPC) chaired by a widely respected civil servant Dharam Vira in 1977. The NPC report came when the political clock had turned full circle and Mrs Gandhi had returned to power in 1980 after a disastrous faction-ridden performance by the Janata Party government. Obviously, indictment of her administration during the emergency was unlikely to be liked by her; the report met predictable fate of being cold-storaged.

            However, it would be fair to say that the NPC had underlined comprehensively the challenges faced by the police, not only politically and organisationally, but also in terms of issues such as communal and collective violence, widely prevailing custodial crimes and new facets of crime that had begun emerging by then. Though very few of the recommendations of the NPC, mostly of routine organisational or procedural nature, were implemented by some states, it has continued to be the rallying point for a comprehensive reform. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by two retired police chiefs—Prakash Singh and N.K. Singh—in 1996 to the Supreme Court of India too emphasised implementation of the NPC recommendations. In due course the Government of India appointed two committees to suggest concrete steps for police reforms. The Supreme Court in 2006 directed the governments at the centre and in states to comply with its order on police reforms and appointed a monitoring committee to look into the matter. Later a draft Indian Police Act as suggested by the NPC was also drafted.

            However, the Indian police, despite some small changes and expansion through the years continues to remain a shadow of its colonial design organisationally. This is the fundamental challenge that the police in India face. Resistance to change is visible equally in the political and police leaderships. Its capacity to meet the rest of the challenges is dependent on police reforms.

Incongruities Within

As mentioned, beginning with its origin and through out the colonial rule the police was deliberately left to grow with incongruities. Two of the major incongruities emerging from the foregoing discussion are corruption and brutality. Indeed, both are within the realm of police reforms discussed above, but their specificities need to be underlined.

            Corruption in the police has generally been described as extortion of bribe, petty and big, at the cutting edge levels as well as intermediary levels. Extortion of bribe, it could even be offered by citizens either to distort a process in one’s favour or to gain favour, comes in the process of enforcement duties. Registration of First Information Report (FIR), essential in registering any case, comes at a cost, reports of investigations could be distorted in favour of a bribe payer, traffic violators could be let off on a consideration.

            These, however, are becoming increasingly smaller aberrations. David Bayley in his classical study Police and Political Development in India (1969) had referred to involvement and intervention of the police in politics with both their active persuasion and passive behaviour. He later asserted in another writing that the police in India play larger role beyond law and order. He has pointed out cases of non-enforcement when criminal sanctions involved or in responding to calls for general assistance. Over the decades larger dimensions of this problem have emerged that manifest in policing aberrations in several ways. There are alleged nexus of the police with local politicians on the one had and commercial and business interests on the other. Real estate in big cities and metropolises is a multi million rupees sector. Practically each year in one city or the other incidents emerge that indicate nexus between builders, city corporators and the police. Such a nexus between the police, district administration and local contractors have been reported in cases of labour troubles too.

            These emerging nexuses, inter alia, have been rooted also in politicisation of police over the years. The ugliest manifestation of this emerged during the emergency years June 1975-April 1977. Yet both the ‘use’ of the police to serve political purposes and police officers at different levels carrying favour have been prevalent and has become more acute due to increasing competitive politics in the country.

            Police brutality has been a catch phrase in India since the colonial rule. This has generally been reflective of a wide range of organisational behaviour against the people, particularly the under-privileged, manifesting in rudeness to people in the course of day to day policing, functioning at the behest of the rich and powerful against the dispossessed, custodial crimes such as torture, death and rape and partisan behaviour and use of excessive force during collective and communal violence. We will return to the last one later.

            The rude behaviour of the police towards citizens has been discussed since independence. Some research during the 1970s by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion have pointed out that those who have had interaction with the police have carried better opinion of them. However, there is no turning away from the fact that such an impression exists and is widespread. This also points toward a poor police-community relations in the country. Yet, efforts have been made to attend to this at the level of police training and the report of the Committee on Police Training referred to above has been very useful.

            Custodial crimes in India have been reported regularly since independence. The government reports show gross under reporting of these malpractices. It has also been pointed out that in most cases either victims do not report it for fear of reprisal, or the police avoid registering such cases to fend off blemishes on their professional record. It is a result of a mix of low level of professionalisation (police training emerges as a major lacuna in this context), lack of scientific techniques, pressures and stress of work in a situation of under staffing. Thus, in place of employing scientific techniques of investigations the police resort to ‘third degree methods’ to extract confessions. This has also led to custodial deaths. Though civil society interventions and active human rights groups have unraveled several cases of misdemeanour by the police, this continues to be an area that invites self-correction from within rather than outside intervention. Of course, accountability structures that have lately been discussed in the form District Police Complaints Authority would be useful too.

            Prevalence of custodial rape is indeed a continuation of the trend we have discussed above. This reflects both the organisational incongruities we have talked about and larger gender question in Indian society. Another dimension discussed is that for a large number of the personnel at the cutting edge level, i.e., the constabulary, postings are in non-family stations and situations. Thus, though unpardonable, the root of the problem lies in larger social and organisational anomalies.

Collective and Communal Violence

Collective and communal violence is an old and complicated problem in India. While collective violence, rooted mostly in social stratification prevailing in India, encompasses communal violence, mostly between majority Hindus and the largest religious minority Muslims. The process of partition of the British India into India and Pakistan in 1947 left a trail of beastly communal violence, which found manifestations in independent India too. Though in most cases communal riots have been rooted in specific local problems, they did have political ramifications that dragged the police into controversy not only for their indiscretions, but also for their proclivity and vulnerability to be used by the powers that be.

            Asghar Ali Engineer (1994) an activist-scholar who claims to have visited all the communal riot affected places since 1960s, has listed some of the problems with the police role:

■          Police do not come to the rescue of the minority community despite complaints.

■          The police have been instrumental in killing members of the minority community; not only rioters amongst them, but also innocents, many a times in blatant fashion. In many a cases they dragged out people from homes, took them to a desolate spot and killed them.

■          The police led the mob in looting and killing of members of the minority community. Curfew orders were discriminately applied.

■          The police also misused powers and displaying partisanship arrested innocent persons from the minority community and tortured them in custody.

■          The police not only turned a blind eye and deaf ears to requests and wails for protection, they in fact encouraged the perpetrators against the minority community.

In cases of collective violence aimed at the poor of the lower castes in the Hindu hierarchy, the police have mostly sided with the higher castes (develop this point further).


Terrorism has now acquired a dimension that requires specialised handling by specially trained security personnel the world over. However, when it surfaced in India, the police were the first line of defence. In the north eastern states, where insurgency has been raging since independence, the insurgents began using terror techniques since the 1970s. Though there is large scale army deployment in those states due to their location on borders with China and Myanmar, who have been traditionally fighting insurgency, the police have not only been the targets of the terror groups, they have also been the first line of defence. Needless to say, most of them are not equipped either with training, or weapons to deal with the situation.

            In the 1980s India experienced the politics of terror in the state of Punjab. Rising unemployment drew youths to separatist politics in search of an independent nation of Khalistan for the Sikh community. Situated on the border with Pakistan, there were sufficient evidence to suggest instigation from the across the border. Since this was just the beginning, the discourse on the police role in terrorism had not even begun. In a situation of a complex social dynamics, it was the Punjab Police led by its chief KPS Gill led operations to obliterate terrorism, which it did. However, several human rights questions have been raised subsequently. On human rights abuses, when many police officers were judicially indicted, a proposal to give amnesty to them was mooted and challenged too.

            The rise of the politics of terror in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir since December 1989 too has involved the police aside from the army and other security forces. There too the police have been in the dock for human rights abuses as well as inefficient and insensitive handling of the situation.

            The 26/11 terror attack in India’s commercial capital Mumbai in 2008 laid bare police unpreparedness. However, this was just one of a series of terror attacks, much of which has been alleged to have been orchestrated by Pakistan.

The Challenge of Maoist ‘Revolutionary’ Politics

Maoist ‘revolutionary’ politics in India, that first began in 1946, but took roots since 1967 and got consolidated in the present form and scale since 1990s, poses enormous challenge for the police in a variety of ways. It encompasses within it political violence, social mobilisation for its brand of targeted ‘revolutionary’ violence, the politics of terror, a challenge to India’s democratic politics and constitutionalism, delegitimisation of representative government and the civil administration in the affected states, and so on. Obviously, not only are the police the first line of defence, they are also the first targets of attack. Though under attack for incompetent handling of this enormous challenge from time to time, the police are severely constrained by political nature of the Maoist presence and engagement. The Maoists also hobnob with the mainstream politics as a strategy of survival; needless to say, it would be an unwritten rule for the police to gauge the mood of the political bosses.


The Indian police thus face multifarious challenges from organisational weaknesses to several emerging challenges. Indeed, the governments in India will have to take initiatives, but the police too needs to develop institutional mechanism of situating itself as an instrument of India’s democratic architecture.

By Ajay K Mehra

The writer is Director, Centre for Public Affairs, NOIDA

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