The lesson from the Muzaffarnagar riots is that the law enforcers have to be more accountable to the people

The Muzaffarnagar riots represent a problem of over-centralisation, a lack of initiative at the local level and disconnect with the local people. The origins lie in the evolution of the police and policing in India. Two influences — the British army and the French Prefecture system — have shaped the structure and practices of the Indian police. During British rule, army captains were seconded to the police to work as police superintendents of districts. Even today, the army source code continues to guide police operating procedures, such as the prevalence of multiple ranks, a strong vertical hierarchy and little horizontal monitoring. Citizen engagement is limited to listening to people, as therapists do, in order to give them a good feeling because real empowerment will, in some way, impede effective and efficient police operations.

History and models

Second, the Indian police was modelled after the French Prefecture system in which the predominant role was given to prefects. While introducing the Police Act, the British had two models to choose from: the London metropolitan model and the French Prefecture system. Naturally, the British opted for the Prefecture system, with magistrates replacing prefects, because the London Metropolitan model would have meant acceding real power to the local people. On the other hand, the Prefecture system led to retention of power with government appointed and controlled magistrates to regulate, among other departments, the police, also. Independence led to new and unexpected challenges for the police. Post-1947, the hold of magistrates was naturally weakened, largely due to democratic politics and other legal changes, such as the complete withdrawal of judicial powers from the executive during the early 1970s. While this was a positive development, the accountability of the police to people did not increase concomitantly.

On ‘rules’

As a result, the space vacated by the magistracy was filled, by default, by a variety of individuals, groups of people and interest groups pursuing their own goals and using means that they thought were most likely to achieve their goals; consequently, public interest became the interest of the most “politically” influential. Importantly, the unique Indian culture gave great opportunities to game the police and influence policing. Politics is not unique to India. In the United States also, politics continues to significantly influence decision-making. However, Indians, unlike the Americans prefer social convention to rigid rules and the distinct culture, traditions and political economy lead to decision-making, largely, in the deregulated system. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, in her studies of the less-developed nations, noticed the reliance of local communities on “rules in use” to decide, as opposed to “rules in form” handed down from the top. The facility to oscillate between rules in use and rules in form rendered open law to multiple interests and interpretations, thereby creating a distinct logic of resource allocation, accumulation and authority depending on the goals and means available to influential actors and organisations.

Service to community

The challenge presented by the Muzaffarnagar riots, therefore, is to somehow democratise police administration that makes it accountable to the people. One way of adding a direct line of accountability to people, in order to generally control and monitor provision of goods and services, is to establish what political scientist Vincent Ostrom calls, “democratic administration.” In democratic administration, the power to oversee provision of goods and services is devolved on multiple “communities of interest.”

The trick is to link the type of service to the community of interest existing at multiple levels (e.g. ward, village, block and district), which requires a complete re-evaluation of the political and bureaucratic control on the police. Here are some illustrative principles. First, delivery of police services has to be disaggregated at several levels, for example, basic patrol is delivered at the locality level; investigative service at the local or State or national level; and forensic labs at the regional or State level. Second, the community of interest has to be linked to the type of police activity relying on the principle that people or organisations benefiting from the service, or required to maintain more effective control, should control and monitor their provision. Third, the way control is being exercised has to be assessed and redesigned in order to make the community of interest the key actor so that the police become collaborators with active citizens in which control is exercised through observation of rules in form, not rules in use.

The result will be an active society, as conceived by Israeli-American sociologist Amitai Etzioni, in which people are empowered and accountability is through more effective, though not necessarily more numerous, means of control. Effective control allows first, peoples’ demands and preferences to count in a way that they develop a direct stake in outcomes and, second, to mobilise and deploy the constant oscillation between the rule in form and rules in use to construct an interest of the “publics,” in contrast to the prevailing deregulated environment in which the interest of a few individuals and groups only matter.

(Sameer Sharma is a civil servant. The views expressed are personal.)

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