“Police reforms are going on and on. Nobody listens to our orders .” This is how a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice J.S. Khehar reacted last week, while declining the plea of a lawyer demanding immediate action to usher in major police reforms in the country. The lawyer had earlier been permitted to implead himself in a pending PIL on the subject.
It is sad that the highest court of the land is so helpless in the matter. Its anguish, however desperate and well-meaning it may have been, is understandable. It epitomises the pathetic state of affairs in public administration in the country, and it can only embolden our political heavyweights to brazenly halt the few contemplated reforms.
While the National Police Commission (1977-79), set up by the Janata government that displaced the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi, kick-started reforms, the credit for keeping the debate alive and taking it to the highest judicial forum goes to a colleague of mine, Prakash Singh, former Director General of Police (DGP) of Uttar Pradesh and a former Border Security Force chief, who filed a PIL in 1996 and sought major changes to the police structure. His accent was on autonomy and more space for police professionalism by giving a fixed tenure for police officers in crucial positions beginning with the DGPs in the States.
Long road to reform
The apex court gave its nearly revolutionary directions in 2006, a decade after Mr. Singh first filed his petition. While it is easy to blame the court for such an inordinate delay, one must remember that ‘police’ being a State subject under the Constitution, the process of consultation was tortuous and time-consuming.
The SC’s directions to the States included a fixed tenure of two years for top police officers in crucial positions, setting up of a State Security Commission (in which the leader of the Opposition party also had a role, and would give policy directions to the police), the clear separation of law and order and crime functions of the police and creation of a Police Establishment Board to regulate police placements. It also mandated a new Police Act on the basis of a model Act prepared by the Union government and circulated to the States. Policemen across the country were excited over this development and believed that an end to gross political interference in police routine was in sight.
Events since 2006 have been dismaying, with several State governments devising their own means to dilute — if not wholly sabotage — what the Supreme Court had laid down. Finding that the court had stepped in mainly because there was no law on the subject, many States brought in quick hotchpotch legislation to water down the essentials of the Supreme Court direction. On the face of it, the new Police Acts appeared to be fully compliant with the judicial prescription. In fact, they were a ruse to outwit the court, without demonstrating any irreverence or defiance. This is why we still see Directors and Inspectors-Generals (IGs) being handed out a two-year tenure on paper, but given marching orders midway into their tenure on the most untenable and imaginary grounds. Nobody has protested.
A few States have made officers temporarily in charge of the post of DGP without having to obey the SC direction. Commissioners of Police and IGs (Intelligence) have also suffered the same fate. The objectives of the Police Establishment Board, conceived only to depoliticise appointments and transfers, have been set at naught by the DGPs getting informal prior political approval from the Chief Minister/Home Minister with a view to placing politically amenable officers in vital places in the police hierarchy.
Dispassionate observers have other ideas on the matter. In their view, mere autonomy to the police and job security, without upgrading the quality of recruits and ensuring dedication and honesty in the day-to-day delivery of service to the public, will be of little avail. They also dispute the popular theory that all police ills are traceable only to political interference in police routine. I am inclined to agree with this somewhat unpopular stand.
Politicians as scapegoats
Many dishonest policemen — there are quite a few in every State police — get away with accusing the local politician of preventing them from discharging their duties. The pathetic state of police stations and their culpable tardiness in responding to the common man, crying for protection from a bully, are too well known to be chronicled. Policemen either ignore complaints, or when they do take cognisance of them, side with the aggressors. We are familiar with the spectacle of perpetrators of violence being treated as witnesses, and victims of crime converted to be accused. There is not always a politician energising the police to act blatantly against canons of ethics.
I recently took up the cause of a junior worker in the IT industry, who was beaten black and blue by a few policemen on duty in a public resort for absolutely no fault of his. He was further deprived of a gold chain he was wearing at the time of the outrage. I took up the matter with the District Superintendent who, in turn, directed a young IPS officer to inquire into the unconscionable conduct of the police. Several months have passed by with no relief for the victim. In a more recent instance, the plea from a senior IAS officer, who retired as secretary to the Government of India, for additional traffic lights and related restructuring of vehicular flow at a busy junction, which had caused accidents, remains unanswered. Despite my taking up the matter purely in the public interest, there has not even been an acknowledgement of the request.
Such callousness towards the common man’s simple, legitimate and uncomplicated requests, be it the rich or poor who go to the police on a grievance, is far too common. The excuse of preoccupation with law and order problems and inadequate manpower cannot fully explain the predilection for inaction that has become routine in our style of policing. Can you cite political interference or lack of resources as the alibi for this gross apathy? This is why the debate on police reforms sounds irrelevant and unappealing to the average citizen.
Scope for improvement
Is there hope of a measurable improvement in the quality of policing? I would like to say ‘yes’, but I am reluctant, because sections of the police leadership are not contributing enough to the cause of consumer-sensitive policing. They are either selfish or dishonest, or indifferent.
It is equally true that many young IPS officers lose their idealism early in their careers, because of fear of vengeful politicians or disloyal subordinates. They, therefore, become deadwood, which the force cannot get rid of without prolonged litigation. The fears of proactive and dedicated officers about reprisal over honest action against powerful men in society and politics are well-known.
But how long will the citizen be satisfied with a non-performing police force? This is the question we should ask ourselves while discussing police reforms. It is not as if this is a problem that has suddenly come upon the police. It has only ballooned in recent times because of growing lawlessness promoted by big money and all that goes with it. Unless there is self-correction within the police, a process initiated by the DGP and his aides, we cannot see a perceptible change in the manner in which policing is carried out in most parts of the country. Just as there are many bright spots in the police forces, there are an equal number of enlightened elements in our polity, who are willing to listen to police woes. There is here a symbiotic relationship without activating which our police forces will remain condemned and shunned by the law-abiding citizen.
R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI director