Problems with policing

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Police dispersing protesters in Chennai. Photo: PTI

The book examines the tensions between the States and the Centre on the role of the police and how they have contributed to the crisis of internal security management.

VAPPALA BALACHANDRAN was recruited to the prestigious Indian Police Service (IPS) in 1959 and served in Maharashtra from 1959 to 1975, when he was drafted to the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s secret external intelligence agency, which is under the Cabinet Secretariat unlike the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), which is formally under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The positions held by Balachandran in RAW are not mentioned in the blurb of the book. He, however, reveals in the text that he played a significant role in bringing about a secret dialogue in the 1990s between Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and the top leadership of the Naga separatist movement in the north-eastern region. This was an internal security function.

Balachandran retired from service in 1995 as Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat. In writing this book, he has drawn on his experiences as a police officer and as an intelligence officer.

After the Mumbai terror attacks on November 26, 2008, Balachandran was appointed to the two-member high-level committee (HLC) by the Maharashtra government to look into the police performance in response to the attacks. The other member was R.D. Pradhan, former Chief Secretary of Maharashtra. Balachandran’s findings, as also the problems and difficulties he experienced as member of the HLC, are condensed into Chapter 6, the longest and most important chapter of the book (pages 168 to 224).

Balachandran’s discussion of the problems of policing in India in several chapters of the book seems to be built around his examination of the role of the police and the administration in the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008. He argues that the crisis of internal security management in India is linked to the fragmentation of responsibility for law and order issues among a multiplicity of State police forces with no direct or substantive role for the Central government. The complicated tensions between the Centre and the States on policing are different from those in countries such as the U.S. and United Kingdom. The basic police functions of maintaining public order and investigation of cases have become complicated in India in the context of terror attacks and other serious internal security problems. The “glaring chinks” in the relationship between the Central and State governments were revealed in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The Maharashtra State police machinery was completely unprepared, and the Central government, too, despite its much larger resources, was in a fix mainly because of constitutional impediments.

Lack of trust

Balachandran is critical of the reluctance of State governments to accept the Centre’s guidelines on internal security matters because of lack of trust. The advisories of the Centre on security threats are often rejected on account of “partisan considerations”. Ironically, Balachandran considers the police department’s responsibility of implementing a variety of social welfare laws as a “burden” on them. This matter was discussed extensively by the National Police Commission (1979-81). Ultimately, the commission decided that in a developing country, the police ought to play a role in the implementation of social welfare legislation for the poorer sections of society.

Balachandran feels that India’s federal structure comes in the way of effective cooperation between the Centre and the States on key issues such as terrorism.

An examination of the origins of India’s “security woes” is followed by a report on the “overburdening of the police force”. The chapter on the role of William Henry Sleeman, the 19th century police reformer, does not appear to be relevant in the context of a book on internal security in India today.

The Emergency of 1975-77 led to partisan policing, which is confirmed by David Bayley’s observation in 1983 that the police in India had become “preoccupied with politics, penetrated by politics and were participating in it individually and collectively”.

Balachandran’s examination of the management of the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 offers many lessons for those in charge at the Centre and the State.

The concluding discussion on a national approach and policies against terrorism in the last chapter is most informative and instructive.

Balachandran’s understanding of internal security in India is basically state-centric rather than people-centric as required under our Constitution. The Indian Penal Code prioritises “offences against the state”, public order, criminal conspiracy, sedition, and so on, and downgrades the investigation and detection of cases, the normal functions of the police. The Police Act, 1861, and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1862, too, neglect the investigative functions of the police as against their state security functions.

Too Centralised

While appreciating the laudable work of the U.K. and U.S. police agencies, the author fails to note that the U.K. has 43 police forces with a tripartite system of accountability and that the U.S. has around 17,000 police forces, each under the control of its respective local government. India has only one police system spread all over the country.

The Indian police function largely under the government of the day and their accountability is non-existent. Decentralised panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) do exist, but they do not control policing. The PRIs are completely ignored by the present government, which seems to believe in centralisation of power. A single colonial police service, the IPS, and the equally colonial IAS continue to exercise control across the country. I wish the author had studied the 7th report of the second Administrative Reforms Commission on “Public Order” (2007) carefully. He does not even mention the PRIs.

What happens when the state machinery itself violates the Constitution and the rule of law, as happens frequently in India? Think of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992; the violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002; the violence against Sikhs in New Delhi and other places in 1984; and the violence against Christians in Kandhamal in Odisha in 2008. In December 1992, a huge number of Central police personnel remained posted near the Babri Masjid but were not deployed by the State government to prevent the destruction of the “disputed” mosque. This was a classic case of lack of trust between the Centre and the State government. In the north-eastern region, extensive ethnic violence has gone on against minority communities for decades.

Further, the huge problem of human rights violations must be considered in the context of internal security. The National Human Rights Commission has noted that 60 per cent of the arrests made by the police are either illegal or unnecessary. As much as 75 per cent of all complaints of human rights violations are against the police. In such a situation, how can internal security be ensured?

Maoist violence

Finally, the key internal security issue of Maoist violence, which emerged in the late 1960s and persists to this day, does not find mention in the book. In 2008, the Planning Commission produced an important report by a group of independent experts who advocated a developmental approach to Maoist violence. The report was ignored by the then Manmohan Singh government, perhaps because two top police officials submitted a dissenting note on the report.

Most importantly, since July 2016 Kashmir has witnessed extensive state violence against Muslim youth. This is a major internal security problem which the author fails to examine.

The author could have taken the opportunity to provide his considered recommendations for administrative and police reforms for internal security in India serially in the current phase of its development.

K.S. Subramanian, a former IPS officer, is the author of Political Violence and the Police in India (Sage Publications, 2007) and “Are the Indian Police a Law unto Themselves: A Rights-based Approach”, 2011, Perspective paper 3.