The Struggle for Police Reforms in India (Rupa, 2022) narrates the story of former IPS officer Prakash Singh’s ten-year litigation in the Supreme Court for the implementation of the National Police Commission’s (NPC) recommendations (1979-81).
From the Police Act of 1861 to the present, police policy in India has been highly centralised despite the Constitution stating that public order and the police are State subjects. Independence did not bring any major changes because the “transfer of power” to Indian hands only meant a continuation of colonial systems of governance and policing.
In the 1970s, India opted for Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) at the district, State and Central levels. While this may have been an opportunity to decentralise police administration, the PRIs were confined to development activities alone.
The Janata Party, which was voted to power after the Emergency (1975-77) was lifted, set up the NPC in 1977 to probe the excesses committed by the police and to suggest reforms. The NPC produced eight reports between 1979 and 1981, but the Janata Party government collapsed in 1980, and Indira Gandhi returned to power. Understandably, she was not too keen to probe her own excesses.
After his retirement in 1996, Prakash Singh filed a public interest litigation against the police with the NPC as basis. After 10 years, the Supreme Court in its judgment on September 22, 2006, issued seven major directions to be implemented by the Central and State governments.
The Supreme Court ordered the setting up of three state institutions to insulate the police from extraneous influences and to give it functional autonomy and ensure accountability:
i) State Security Commission to lay down broad policies and give directions for the performance of the preventive tasks and service-oriented functions of the police;
ii) Police Establishment Board, comprising the Director General of Police and four senior officers in each State, to decide transfers, postings, promotions and other service-related matters for officers below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police and to recommend postings and transfers of officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above;
iii) Police Complaints Authority at district and State levels to inquire into complaints of police misconduct.
The Court also ordered that the Director General of Police would be selected from among the three most senior officers empanelled for promotion with a minimum tenure of two years. Police officers in the field such as the Inspector General of Police, Deputy Inspector General, Superintendent of Police and station house officer would also have a minimum tenure of two years.
The Court also ordered the separation of investigating police from the law-and-order police to ensure speedier investigations, better expertise and improved rapport with the public. The Union government was asked to set up a National Security Commission for the selection and placement of heads of Central Police Organisations, upgrading the effectiveness of these forces and improving service conditions.
Justice K.T. Thomas, chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee, reported in August 2010 that practically no State had complied fully with the directions of the Court. Justice Thomas “expressed dismay about the total indifference to the issue of reforms” exhibited by the States.
On the issue of police accountability, Prakash Singh seems to accept the uncritical and loosely drafted positions adopted in the 8th Report of the NPC, which said that accountability was three-fold: to the people, to the law and to the organisation.
Police accountability in India is hampered by systematic police deniability arising from the absence of records. Records of arrest and detention are not available despite the existence of National and State Human Rights Commissions.
Investigations undertaken by the police or at the behest of other agencies are hampered by an unwritten “code of silence” that deters the police from disclosing incriminating evidence.
Further, Section 197 of the CrPC provides immunity from prosecution without government sanction to all public officials. Efforts by human rights commissions have often resulted in the police investigating themselves. The 18 State Human Rights Commissions vary in terms of resources and the willingness to act.
As IPS officer Anandswarup Gupta noted, the penal and procedural codes enacted in the 1860s make it clear that suppression of the people was their primary aim. The IPC begins with a chapter on criminal conspiracy and “offences against the state” including sedition. Yet the common preoccupation of the police everywhere, the prevention and detection of offences against person and property, finds a place only from Chapter XVI and Section 299 onwards.
The Struggle for Police Reforms in India (Rupa, 2022)
In the CrPC, the chapters on security for keeping the peace and maintenance of public order, including the use of force by the police, take precedence over provisions for the investigation and trial of criminal offences.
In the Police Act of 1861, priority is given to the collection of political intelligence. Prevention and investigation of crime comes in the later sections.
The IPC, the CrPC, and the Police Act, 1861, need legal restructuring in the context of a postcolonial and democratic India. However, the NPC never examined these issues in the light of the Constitution.
The main thrust of the NPC recommendations was to create an organisational structure to prevent direct political interference in police functioning. The 2006 Supreme Court guidelines on police reforms were mainly of a “superstructural” kind, liberating the police from political interference.
The report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (SARC), though not officially accepted so far, is innovative and combines the wisdom of the NPC, the Sorabji Committee, and the Supreme Court directives. It suggests that local bodies or PRIs play a role in local police management. It seems that the Supreme Court’s directives, with their focus on curbing political interference in police work, have failed to reduce arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and deaths in police custody.
These abuses cannot be ascribed solely to political interference, although the problems are linked to the de facto impunity provided by political patronage.
The police’s facilitation of anti-minority violence is disturbing. “Encounter killings” are frequent, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Kashmir and the north-eastern region. Unofficial sanction is widely believed to exist for both practices.
The police are, in truth, a government-controlled department with no meaningful autonomy. The existing police organisation is a reproduction of the Irish colonial paramilitary police model, which was expressly designed to put down political resistance to British rule, not to serve the public by professional investigation or detection of crime.
The decentralisation and democratisation of the police in India, and the empowerment of PRIs to deal with conflict management are difficult since Members of Parliament and State Assemblies are averse to sharing power with panchayats and local bodies.
The SARC report on ‘Public Order’ (2007), which recommends that police functions and organisation be divided into three separate areas, namely, investigation, law and order, and local police, remains unaccepted.
There is a large trust deficit in India between the people and the police. Institutionalised impunity for human rights violations coexists with political democracy in India (Upendra Baxi, Police Watch: Random Reflections, 2010). Special security legislation such as the AFSPA 1958 and the UAPA are often misused.
To meet the challenge of creating a “people’s police”, there is a compelling need to implement the recommendations of the 2007 SARC report on ‘Public Order’. Police training is essential in view of police brutality in handling social conflicts. The quality of training imparted at the National Police Academy has been controversial. The training patterns, training manuals and training officers need careful examination from the point of view of social justice and human rights.