Given the reluctance of our politicians to initiate police reforms despite judicial direction, the pressure of public opinion is perhaps the best weapon

The recent gang rape incident in Delhi would appear to have stirred the conscience of the nation. There have been demonstrations in Delhi and in several other towns of the country. The Delhi Police could not have imagined that an isolated incident of rape would snowball to such an extent and lead to a demand for the ouster of the police commissioner. The political class was also caught by surprise. Actually, what is happening in Delhi represents the cumulative dissatisfaction of people against poor governance of the country reflected, in the present context, in crimes against women.

The Delhi demonstrations bear a faint resemblance to the incidents in Tiananmen Square of China in 1989, where too the students came out into the streets against the government. The Chinese government crushed the student movement ruthlessly. Mercifully, the Government of India has used only tear gas and lathis to disperse the students. Our democracy, with all its flaws, gives much greater latitude to voices of dissent.

Three core issues

The protests have thrown up three important issues: the governance of Delhi, the safety of women and the need for improved policing. The Chief Minister wants control over the Delhi police, which is presently under the Ministry of Home Affairs. What needs to be done to give better safety and protection to women is another area of concern. Besides, what are the measures that need to be taken to revamp and restructure the police so that their performance meets the expectations of the people?

On September 22, 2006, the Supreme Court of India had given certain directions in view of the “urgent need for preservation and strengthening of Rule of Law.” It prescribed the setting up of three institutions in the states: a State Security Commission with a view to insulating police from extraneous pressures; a Police Establishment Board to give autonomy to the police hierarchy in matters of transfers and postings of junior officers; and a Police Complaints Authority to look into complaints of serious misconduct against policemen. The court also prescribed a procedure to ensure transparency in the selection of the Director General of Police and gave him a minimum tenure of two years. Officers performing operational duties in the field were also given a tenure of two years. The court further ordered that investigation and the law and order functions of the police should be separated to improve the quality of investigations. The Thomas Committee, which was set up to monitor the implementation of the court’s directions expressed its “dismay over the total indifference to the issue of reforms in the functioning of police being exhibited by the States.”

The States are reluctant to implement the Supreme Court’s directions because it would mean the executive losing their grip over the police, which they consider vital for their political survival. The Delhi Police Bill has yet to be given final shape. Actually, the expectation was that the Government of India would pass what would be a model Police Bill for Delhi and that the same would, with minor adjustments, be adopted by the other States. However, that did not happen. The Delhi Administration, it appears, is not in favour of giving police the kind of autonomy visualised by the apex court. The executive has become so used to lording it over the police that it cannot think of a situation where the police would have autonomy in taking important law and order decisions. It is like a drug addict being asked to give up narcotics.

We need police reforms not for the glory of the police but to ensure that the police uphold the rule of law and the Constitution of the country. At present, they are more bothered/concerned about the wishes and expectations of the political bosses, right or wrong, lawful or unlawful, rather than acting in the larger interests of society. The reductio ad absurdum of the situation is there for anyone to see. The police are not trusted and they do not inspire confidence.

It also needs to be emphasised that police reforms are absolutely essential if India is to emerge as a great power. Economic progress cannot be sustained if we are not able create a safe and secure environment. The democratic structure may also crumble if the police continue to feel inhibited in taking action against criminals, some of whom are entering the portals of democracy.

Apart from the reforms mandated by the Supreme Court, a whole range of other measures are also called for to improve the functioning of the police. There must be substantial augmentation in their strength, apart from filling up the existing nearly 4.20 lakh vacancies; infrastructure at police stations must improve in terms of vehicles, communications, equipment and forensic support; housing facilities should be better, and working hours need to be prescribed.

It is indeed one of the ironies of modern India that while we are preparing for a mission to the moon, and there has been: a revolution in information technology; vast improvements in rail and road networks across the country; a quantum leap in nuclear science, and India becoming one of the fastest growing economies, we are still — more than 65 years after independence — saddled with a colonial police with a feudal mindset. There are more than 20,000 police stations and posts across the length and breadth of the country, and their working impinges on the life of the common man from Srinagar to Kanyakumari and from Ahmedabad to Aizwal. It is a sad commentary on our Republic that we have not been able to transform the police into an instrument of service to the people.

Internal security

Looking at the larger picture, we need a motivated and effective police force to deal with the greatest internal security challenges confronting the country. These challenges are: the threat of international terrorism, the Maoist insurgency, and the continuing problems in the north-east and in Jammu & Kashmir. If we are to tackle these problems effectively, there is no getting away from having a professional police force, well trained and equipped, and committed to upholding the unity and integrity of the country. The police are the first responders in the event of any terrorist attack or Maoist violence, and they are also the backbone of our intelligence and investigation agencies.

Corruption has become a huge problem in the country. The responses to Anna Hazare’s agitation showed how disgusted and fed up people are. The anti-corruption and vigilance organisations at the State level and the Central Bureau of Investigation at the Central level are manned largely by police officers. Hence the further need to cleanse and reform the police.

Looking at the reluctance of the political class, how do we push forward the agenda of police reforms? The pressure of public opinion is perhaps the surest weapon. The protesters need to understand that unless the functioning of the police is overhauled, the prevention, detection and investigation of crimes against women would continue to be poor. National Crime Records Bureau statistics show that there has been a steady increase in crimes against women: 1,64,765 cases in 2006, 1,85,312 in 2007, 1,95,856 in 2008, 2,03,804 in 2009 and 2,13,585 in 2010. Out of these, in 2010 alone, there were 22,172 incidents of rape, the largest number being recorded in Madhya Pradesh. Public opinion must mobilise on the issue of police reforms. The media must also lend support to the campaign. Non-governmental organisations should also pitch in. The judiciary should wield the whip against defiant States. The Central Government should mount pressure on the States to accelerate the process of reforms in the police.

The future of India, it may be said without any exaggeration, is linked to the fate of police reforms in the country. Seen from all angles — the security of the common man, safety of women, survival of democracy, maintaining the trajectory of economic progress, and dealing with corruption or combating the major threats confronting the country – we have to have a reformed, restructured and revitalised police force, a People’s Police in place of the present Ruler’s Police.

(Prakash Singh, a recipient of the Padma Shri, has been campaigning for police reforms.)

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