“Animal behaviour,” was the unusual language the Supreme Court deployed recently. The context for the cryptic remarks was the gruesome lathi-charge on protesting teachers, predominantly women, engaged on contract by the Bihar government, and the attacks on a woman who sought police intervention in a case of assault. The police carry a long and ignominious record of resort to indiscriminate force to quell peaceful protesters, which peaked in the public outrage over the Delhi gang-rape and the death of a journalist in Manipur in 2012. Often, the aims of the political masters the police serve are diametrically opposed to the public interest they are duty-bound to protect in a democracy. The judges were perfectly justified in ventilating their impatience, having issued notice after notice in the past to Chief Secretaries and Directors General of Police for greater accountability. In a landmark 2006 verdict, the Supreme Court came out with its now famous seven steps to police reforms. Insulation of the force from illegitimate political interference, transparency in the appointment of the DGP, separation of the law and order and investigative functions and the establishment of a complaints authority are the more important among them. They still remain on paper. Most of these recommendations have been the sum and substance of the eight reports of the National Police Commissions constituted by successive governments over the years. They were further reiterated by two committees set up in the 1990s on police reforms and embodied in the Model Police Act proposed to replace the colonial law of 1861.
Court hearings on compliance with the seven steps were met with requests and more requests for extension of deadlines, ultimately leading to contempt proceedings against some State governments. It is noteworthy that regional parties which have been repeatedly elected to office over the past few decades have demonstrably failed to live up to their avowedly federal and democratic credentials. Since police and law and order are subjects under the Constitution’s State List, the responsibility devolves upon the States. Thus, the prospects for the enactment of a modern police law nearly seven decades after independence hang in the balance. Genuine lessons from the dark record of Emergency rule, encapsulated in the Shah Commission findings and the reports produced by the National Police Commissions of the late 1970s, have not been drawn. This is the bitter truth, one that no political party is willing to admit nearly four decades since the so-called restoration of democracy in India.