The Sunday Story India's police forces are generally hostile and corrupt. They are also often brutal, as the recent beating of unarmed people in Tarn Tarn and Patna demonstrated. The Indian Police Act of 1861, a colonial relic, needs to be replaced with a law that befits a free country.

The former Border Security Force (BSF) Director-General, Prakash Singh, refers to his favourite game of ping pong whenever he has to explain the failure of the Indian political establishment to carry out much-needed reforms to establish a professional police force.

“The Union and State governments have been making clever attempts to legitimise the status quo by just passing the buck when it comes to implementing the landmark Supreme Court judgment of 2006 on police reforms,” says Mr. Singh, who has also served as police chief of Uttar Pradesh and Assam.

It was his decade-long battle, along with the efforts of some civil society groups, that led to the Supreme Court ordering a complete overhaul of the policing system. And since then, he has been campaigning hard to ensure that the court’s directions are implemented in “ letter and spirit.”

Behind the rot is the Police Act of 1861 legislated by the British after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 to impose a police force upon their subjects, which could be used solely to consolidate and perpetuate their rule, says Mr. Singh.

It has been over a century since the need for reforms was initially felt. The first Indian Police Commission of 1902-03 found that “the police force throughout the country is in a most unsatisfactory condition; that abuses are common everywhere; that this involves great injury to the people and discredit to the government; and that radical reforms are urgently necessary.”

“Several commissions and committees have strongly recommended major changes… but the political executive continues to retain its stranglehold on the police. Every successive government finds it convenient to use, misuse and abuse the police for its partisan political ends,” Mr. Singh says.

Significantly, three of the seven key Supreme Court directions in the case were — the States were to establish ‘State Security Commission’ (to insulate the police from political pressure), ‘Police Establishment Board’ (to give autonomy in personnel matters), and ‘Police Complaints Authority’ (to look into complaints of police misconduct).

Dismal scenario

A compliance report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) paints a dismal picture. It says that though most States have set up the ‘State Security Commission,’ they do not reflect the court’s criteria with regard to composition, function and powers. Andhra Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Orissa and Tamil Nadu have not complied with this directive.

Only Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, and Meghalaya are in full compliance with all the criteria laid down by the court for ‘Police Establishment Board,’ while Bihar has been non-compliant.

Ironically, no State government has established ‘Police Complaints Authorities’ at district and State levels that fully comply with the court orders. A significant minority — Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh — have completely ignored the directive.

Another peculiar case is that of the Model Police Bill, prepared in 2006 by the Police Act Drafting Committee (PADC) of the Union Home Ministry, which complements the court’s judgment. The Ministry, which controls the Delhi Police, was to enact the “Model Act” in the National Capital so that it could be implemented by other States (as law and order in a state subject), but the file has been shuttling between North Block and the Delhi government.

Noting that so far only 12 States have enacted their own versions of the new Police Act, CHRI’s Coordinator (Police Reforms Programme) Navaz Kotwal observes: “A cursory look at the recent laws shows that most of these new pieces of legislation are as regressive as — if not more than — the archaic laws that they replaced. New laws are being drafted in complete secrecy by a small lobby of police officers and bureaucrats without involving the public. They give statutory sanction to all the bad practices that existed. Worryingly, these Acts tend to reduce or dilute accountability.”

“The whole system — from recruitment to training, to performance and promotions, to transfers, appointments accountability — has got so eroded and rotten that a complete makeover is needed,” she says

The former Union Home Secretary, G.K. Pillai, says: “Today, less than 30 per cent of those recruited in police have got in through merit. It affects the functioning of the system and is the first source of corruption. The first and foremost is to ensure that those who are recruited come by a transparent merit-based system to ensure that they are not beholden to influence peddlers and have not bribed to get in.”

He further says politicians and political parties feel that the police are an instrument in their hands to further their interests. “The objectives have to change — from being a force responsive to the powers that be to the upholder of the law and human rights; and the feeling that the police are there for the average citizen.”

But Mr. Singh, who now has a website (www.peoplepolicemovement.com) dedicated to creating awareness of police reforms, has some straight questions. “Why can’t the police give a patient hearing to people? Why can’t they register cases?”

“People don’t trust the police as they are rude, badly behaved, corrupt and tend to abuse their power. They need to make conscious efforts to bridge the gap with the public,” reasons Ms. Kotwal.

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