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A first step to wholesome reform

Illustration: Surendra  

Last week the Supreme Court of India made it mandatory for the police to > upload within 48 hours a First Information Report (FIR) drawn up by it suo motu or on a complaint. Aimed principally at protecting the accused who may come to know that he figures in an FIR, but has no idea of the allegations which formed its basis, this order is also a shot in the arm for activists who want to protect citizens from State harassment on flimsy grounds. In this momentous order, Youth Bar Association of India v Union of India and others, Justices Dipak Misra and C. Nagappan laid down several guidelines which could help to promote transparency and curb arbitrariness in police work.

The apex court direction, incidentally, also benefits victims of crime who have no means of getting to know whether their complaint had been brought on record or not. This is welcome because of the Indian police’s dubious record of suppressing crime. Viewed in this perspective, the court’s prescription makes it difficult for station house officers to ignore crime, a common practice adopted with a view to helping an offender or to dress police statistics up so that they conceal even a slight rise in crime.

A logical next step

Right through its history, the Supreme Court of India has distinguished itself by coming out with directions which seek to buttress the fundamental rights of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution. We need to recall how the court has been tirelessly active in ensuring that police arrests of individuals are kept to the minimum, and when taken in custody, the accused/suspects are accorded civilised treatment, including access to legal assistance. The decision prescribing expeditious uploading of FIRs on to the Internet is therefore in sync with the court’s consistent stand that human rights are sacrosanct and cannot be trampled upon out of malice or at the instigation of the political executive (read ministers). We consider this latest fiat as appropriate against continued reports from across the country of police misconduct for their own benefit or to satisfy the ruling party.

In writing its order, the court demonstrated an intense application of mind in respect of two issues: the need to protect national security, as well as the privacy of a citizen; and the technical feasibility of implementing its directive that FIRs should be uploaded within 48 hours of their registration. According to the order, there will be exemption from the directive when the alleged offence is sensitive, such as sexual violence or one in which there is an angle of national security, insurgency or terrorism. We endorse this exception, because we are living in times when both privacy and terror issues matter greatly.

The uploading of FIRs will also not be mechanical and as a simple rule of thumb. The order visualises a circumstance in which the authorities could sometimes decide against uploading on grounds of security. The court however laid down that such decisions could not be taken unilaterally by a single police official. First, such decisions cannot be taken at a level lower that a deputy superintendent of police. Second, such a decision is appealable by an aggrieved party to a committee to be set up by a district superintendent of police or a commissioner of police.

The court also provided for the possible objections of a technical nature that could be raised by vested interests — both policemen and the political network — who did not want FIRs to be publicised through the Internet.

Issue of logistics

One principal negative response to the order points to existing modest police resources, especially in the rural areas, that could hinder easy implementation of the court directive. Many police stations, especially those in remote areas, may have a computer, but may not necessarily be connected to the Web. Taking cognisance of this logistical problem, the court permits the latitude of extending the deadline for uploading FIRs from 24 to 48 hours, or even to 72 hours, under special circumstances arising from the remote location of a police station. Such relaxation of the time limit for uploading would be related only to connectivity difficulties, and nothing else.

We suggest that where there is a connectivity issue, the solution would be to hand deliver expeditiously a hard copy of the FIR to the district police headquarters — where connectivity may not be a problem — through a special messenger. An alternative would be for the State Crime Branch CID at police headquarters to act as the repository or nodal agency to undertake the task of uploading of FIRs. Most States are small and transmission of FIRs even to the CID by special police messengers is practical. We estimate that each State may, at the maximum, have about 100 FIRs each day to upload to the Net. In our view, the Supreme Court order is therefore eminently practical.

If you ignore these minor logistical difficulties in the way of its quick implementation, the order should be welcome to every honest, apolitical citizen as one that carries few uncertainties and gives no room for anyone in authority to intimidate the police into gross impropriety. In a country that still has a substantial population which is unlettered and is befuddled by the complexities of our legal system, this new arrangement should come as at least a partial antidote to the misdeeds of a law enforcement machinery that lapses into corruption and high-handedness at the drop of a hat, especially in rural India.

A telling cynicism

Talking to officers across regions, we however found a measure of cynicism on the practicalities of implementing the apex court’s order. We are not surprised at this, because every time courts have sought to curb police arbitrariness by clamping restrictions on the day-to-day routine, there has been furtive resentment. This is why we strongly believe that we should not permit any sabotage of the latest court order. We should work towards building public opinion which would demand implementation of the directive both in letter and in spirit. For genuine adherence to what the court has laid down here, and in several other instances, we need the stakeholders — the executive, policemen and the lay public — to not flinch from their basic duty of wholeheartedly welcoming what the court has said and spreading the message as widely as possible. Without this happening, we do not see any prospect of the directive being followed strictly.

We have not forgotten about what happened to the blueprint for police reform that the Supreme Court drew up in September 2006 on the PIL filed by former Uttar Pradesh Director General of Police Prakash Singh. Our hearts ache while recalling the tendentious dilution of all that the court prescribed on that occasion in the hope that we would succeed in establishing an autonomous and professional police force.

We would have been happier had the Supreme Court’s latest order on FIRs incidentally — by way of obiter dictum — addressed certain fundamental issues afflicting police administration. The first is one of police resources at the grass-root level being grossly inadequate. It is not uncommon for many police stations in the country to each have an effective complement of what is less than 10 staff at any point of time. This is ridiculously small. The scene is particularly deplorable in rural stations. This is explained by the fact of many States having a huge number of vacancies, a state of affairs that can be solved mainly through systematic annual recruitment. It is scandalous that many States are woefully negligent in this respect. A judicial direction that makes annual recruitment mandatory would go a long way in alleviating this ill.

A more painful fact is the extent of graft that prevails at police stations in many regions of the country. There are very few police stations where a citizen can get his complaint registered without greasing the palm of the station house officer. This goes unchecked because of the graft at supervisory levels. Choice of officers to head districts police forces is often on the basis of their political leaning and pliability, rather than on their professional competence. As long as this situation remains unchanged, prescriptions such as transparency in FIR-related matters may end up being purely cosmetic.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director. D. Sivanandhan is a former Commissioner of Police, Mumbai and a former DGP Maharashtra.

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