Lawless... in uniform

The average person's perception of the police is that they are at best a bunch of bully boys, at worst culpable criminals. And the police give people adequate cause for their views. Anjali Mody on the need for reform.

ANSAL PLAZA, New Delhi. Police kill two men they claim are Lashkar-e-Taiba militants preparing for a terror attack at the shopping mall. An eyewitness contradicts the police, the media questions the police version. Jhajjar, Haryana. Five Dalit men are lynched by a mob outside a police station. Police say they were skinning a live cow. FIRs are lodged against the dead men for cow slaughter. The cow is sent for a post-mortem. Families of the dead say that the problem began when police demanded a bribe which they had refused to pay. Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Police kill Samir Khan Pathan who they claim was plotting the assassination of L. K. Advani and Narendra Modi. He was killed trying to escape from custody while surrounded by half-a-dozen armed policemen. The FIR says nothing about the assassination plot, but claims he was linked to the Akshardham attackers.

In the controversy which has followed the Ansal Plaza "encounter", Neeraj Kumar, Joint Commissioner of Police, was asked on national television how the law dealt with `false witnesses'. He said there were limited legal provisions but that the police "have ways of dealing with them". It is the "ways" that the police deal with false or real witnesses, alleged criminals, complainants, victims, that have over the years left them derided as the least credible arm of the state.

There is little dispute that there is a need for police reform. And yet there has been no "reform". The system continues as before. The average person's perception of the police is that they are at best a bunch of bully boys, at worst culpable criminals. And the police give people adequate cause for their views by refusing to register complaints, being corrupt and brutal, using intimidation and threat, filing false cases against innocent people, rarely catching the real criminal and even more rarely investigating a case to achieve a conviction.

Successive Governments have set up commissions, committees and sub-committees. All of which, apart from the last one appointed by the current Government, have submitted reports with recommendations that have been praised for their prescience. Not one has been properly implemented. (See box). The Centre's main defence of itself is that police is a state subject. But the fact is that the single most important reason for the lack of police reform is that it does not suit those in power.

Governments have been content to offer sops to the police by way of improved service conditions, pay scales, petrol allowances, modernisation of equipment. But on questions of any real change, which would give the police functional autonomy, there is only the prospect of more committees. Within the police too, there is resistance to root and branch change. The primary concern is with service conditions and the fact that they are a "misunderstood" lot who get little appreciation from the people for the "constraints" under which they operate.

They point to the fact that policing in India is governed by a law promulgated in the 19th century. The Police Act, 1861, is a colonial act created after the 1857 Mutiny and designed to keep down the `natives'.

Lawless... in uniform

The adversarial people-police relationship of this colonial arrangement has continued as all post-Independence State Police Acts are based on it.

Every commission and committee, since the National Police Commission of 1977, has recommended a new law so that the police are made accountable to the people and preserved from the capricious control of the Government of the day.

But the lawmakers are still making excuses. Mr. Advani, who in 1977 accused the police of "crawling" when their political masters asked them to "bend", says he is waiting for the report of the committee his Government appointed. The fact is that it was also his Government that appointed the National Police Commission in 1977. Reformist police officers say political control — over postings and transfers — is the major disincentive to good policing and to reform. This system promotes politically pliable policemen and sidelines and victimises honest ones. Prakash Singh, former Director-General of the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Uttar Pradesh Police, said a police officer who did the Government's bidding would do well and one who did not would be "dumped with inconsequential assignments".

The recent instance of cases being filed against rebel BSP and BJP MLAs in Uttar Pradesh is, according to Mr. Singh, "political exploitation of the police in the crudest form". Only a pliant police officer will comply with such illegal political demands. Only a pliant police officer is likely to get the top police job in a State, as the Chief Minister has absolute discretion in his appointment. Mr. Singh believes that this trend has left a leadership vacuum at the top of the police forces which is reflected down the line. This was an issue much discussed during the communal violence in Gujarat. The Ahmedabad Police Commissioner, Pandey, absolved himself of the responsibility for the city police's participation in the communal attacks saying they reflected the society they were drawn from. However, officers serving under Mr. Pandey vehemently disagreed with this explanation. They said that it was the knowledge, in police stations across the city, that the Police Commissioner was happy to take his operational orders from his political bosses and that the Gujarat Director-General of Police, K. Chakravarthy, would not call him to account, that explained the impunity they enjoyed.

Those who support reform say it is at the top that the checks and balances must be imposed as good leadership will deliver a good police force. The most important check, according to successive committees and most police officers we spoke to, would be limiting the discretion of the Chief Minister in appointing the Director-General and stipulating a fixed term of office for senior police officers such as the D-G to avoid arbitrary transfers.

But the problems of political control and pliant police officers are easy justifications. The fact is that there is no reasonable explanation for the sorts of problems ordinary people face in their dealings with the police. Take the police's refusal to register complaints which amounts to refusing a citizen a chance to seek justice. What drives the police here is not a directive from a political master but how they view their jobs. At a seminar on police reform in the capital recently, Kiran Bedi said a major problem with policing was the "pressure of statistics" — the need to improve crime detection figures year after year. This leads to a greater emphasis on arbitrary arrests (to show that they are dealing with crime) and the refusal to record complaints (to show that there is a reduction in crime).

The pressure to perform is explained as `political'. The Government of the day has to be seen to be dealing with a major concern of the citizenry. This may be so. But the fact is that policemen are not idealistic servants of the people, they are as concerned as the next man with promotions and rewards. Rewards are based on performance as reflected in the statistics of the Crime Records Bureau, not in the quality of criminal investigation or the number of convictions achieved. The need is to "complete investigations". This apparently "forces" policemen to use extra-legal means, such as detention and torture, to extract `information' from the accused. The number of `successful' investigations that lead to charges being framed may win the policeman a medal and even a promotion. If the case falls apart at the trial stage it does not matter, because it does not reflect in the statistics for the year in question.

Attitudes among police officers tell a much larger story. A recent survey of police officers, of ASI and IP rank, conducted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative found that that the majority of them believed that use of the third degree — torture — was perfectly acceptable; that it was necessary to liquidate what they called "hardcore criminals" in fake encounters and that it was absolutely necessary to make arbitrary arrests and detentions to control crime.

These attitudes are not only acceptable but also encouraged. Senior serving and retired police officers we spoke to shared these views in varying degrees; and there was almost a consensus that there was no alternative to using torture. No wonder then, that the Home Minister speaking on police reform last month cautioned against looking at the issue from what he termed "a human rights perspective". This, he said, amounted to "putting the police in the dock". That is exactly where many people would like to put the police. This is reflected in the fact that the vast majority of complaints received by the National Human Rights Commission relate to the police — from their failure to take action to deaths in custody.

But, those who go to the NHRC can at best expect compensation and a recommendation that the police take action against the guilty officers. For, protected by the political establishment, the police are effectively above the law. Even complaints against the police are investigated only by the police. Police officers say there is "no fallback" for those of them who might want to stand up to the "constraints" under which they work. The fact is that the citizens they are supposed to serve have no "fallback" against them.

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