Landmark order

Print edition : October 20, 2006

A POLICE PASSING-OUT parade in Thiruvanthapuram. The reforms are aimed at making the police force honest and people-friendly. - C. RATHEESH KUMAR

The Supreme Court's historic judgment on police reforms is our best bet to transform the way our police force functions.

THE Supreme Court has again created history. In a momentous order passed on September 22, 2006, it struck a decisive blow for reforms that could greatly transform the way the police in India are organised and controlled by the polity. The order vindicates the stand taken by a group of enlightened police officers led by former Director-General of the Border Security Force (BSF) Prakash Singh who had filed a public interest litigation (PIL) 10 years ago praying for a direction from the Court to the Union of India "to frame a new Police Act on the lines of the model Act drafted by the [National Police] Commission in order to ensure that the police is made accountable essentially and primarily to the law of the land and the people".

I am pained that the reaction to the Supreme Court's historic direction has been generally muted. It looks as if it has been treated as a victory solely for the petitioners and not for all those who were screaming to make our police force honest, transparent and people-friendly. It is this kind of apathy that has been the undoing of many vital service agencies in the country, which have been not only stagnant but have also adopted a style that smacks of hostility to consumers.

I strongly feel that the Court order should be given wide publicity in the media, especially in the vernacular press, with a view to galvanising public opinion and ensuring that the Supreme Court's pronouncements on the future of policing are not allowed to be sabotaged by vested interests. Leading newspapers should reproduce verbatim the Court judgment so that the common man gets a chance to form his own opinion on how the police are currently organised and what direction the highest court of the land wants them to take in the future.

The National Police Commission (NPC), the first of its kind in post-Independence India, was constituted in 1977 by the Janata Party government following the defeat of the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government. This was a reaction to the abuse of the police system to serve partisan interests, especially during the Emergency declared in 1975. Former Cabinet Secretary and Governor of Karnataka Dharm Vira was made its Chairman, and the members included former BSF Director-General K.F. Rustamji and Justice Krishnaswamy Reddy. The Commission had the singular fortune to have C.V. Narasimhan, a distinguished police officer who headed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) as its Secretary. His incisive mind, deep knowledge of policing in the field and his appetite for work were all amply evident in the eight comprehensive reports the NPC submitted between 1979 and 1981. The reports are a masterpiece.

Unfortunately, even as the first few reports of the NPC were being taken up for implementation of their recommendations in consultation with State governments - because `police' is a State subject - the Janata government was voted out of office. Nothing could have been more calamitous for police reforms.

The NPC was looked upon with great disdain by the Indira Gandhi government, all because it had been set up by the previous rulers, and action on its recommendations was nearly frozen. Since then, police reform has had a chequered history. It will not be fair to indict the Congress alone for the appalling indifference. Even when that party was not in power, the others who were at the helm of affairs during 1996-2004 did not exactly distinguish themselves in the matter of making the police more professional and people-friendly. This was a real tragedy against the background of growing police misdeeds, seen no doubt amidst phases of sterling performance in the area of counter-terrorism.

Vexed with the unabashed lack of political will to reform the police on the lines suggested by the NPC, Prakash Singh and others saw no alternative but to approach the apex court. Since then, there have been three committees to examine the subject. One of these was the J.F. Ribeiro Committee, formed at the instance of the Supreme Court and whose report has been submitted to the Court. Another was the K. Padmanabhaiah Committee, which came out with a tidy set of recommendations taking into account the NPC reports. The latest has been the Soli Sorabjee Committee, which is working on a draft Police Act to replace the 1861 Act. (The NPC had pleaded for a new Act and had even given a brilliant draft, which is gathering dust in North Block.) It should be said to the credit of the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Home Affairs that they have generally done well in taking action on the three reports. What they lacked perhaps was political backing, which would have imparted greater momentum to the whole exercise. The Ministry has certainly been hamstrung by the relative lack of enthusiasm on the part of State governments. The greatest cause of the apathy is, however, the assessment by all political parties that they have nothing much to gain from sweeping reforms that would free the police from political control and caprice. It would not be very wrong to equate this to the overall attitude to stemming corruption. No party stands to benefit from ending corruption.

On the other hand, there is a perceived stake in perpetuating corruption. Similar is the unconcealed desire to keep the police as submissive as possible to the ruling party. A party in Opposition that lashes out against the ruling party for misusing the police just bides its own time, and the moment it gets a chance to rule, employs the same police machinery illegally to fix its political foes. It is against this backdrop that one has to analyse the latest Supreme Court ruling.

It is not anybody's case that the NPC reports have been brutally ignored. At the same time, one should not allow oneself to be hoodwinked by those in the bureaucracy who reduce the issue to an arithmetical proposition, saying that 95 per cent of the recommendations had been carried out and there is no room for fault-finding. I wish the problem were as simple as they make it out to be. The cruel fact is that the admitted 5 per cent shortfall is the one that contains the most crucial reforms, without which the Indian police will remain an unprofessional tool in the hands of street-level politicians who have a highly dubious agenda. The Supreme Court has displayed an amazing understanding of the situation and, in its September 21 order, has sought to tackle this in a clinical manner.

Till such time as the public gets to read the full version of the Supreme Court's order of September 22, 2006, I thought it my solemn duty to reproduce its salient features in the Court's own language. Wherever possible, I have given my own comments.

State Security Commission: "The State governments are directed to constitute a State Security Commission in every State to ensure that the State government does not exercise unwarranted influence or pressure on the State police and for laying down the broad policy guidelines so that the State police always acts according to the laws of the land and the Constitution of the country. The recommendations of this Commission shall be binding on the State government."

(This will be a unique experiment that is expected to impart objectivity to police action. It takes care, at least partially, of the perennial complaint that the police are the handmaiden of the ruling party. The only apprehension is that when contentious matters are brought before it the Commission could become a political battlefield, which would have the unintended effect of obstructing the police from acting decisively in a serious public order situation. The experiment calls for great sagacity and maturity on the part of all its members, including its Chairman, who will be the Minister in charge of the police department.)

Tenure of DGP: "The Director-General of Police of the State shall be selected by the State government from amongst the three senior-most officers of the Department who have been empanelled for promotion to that rank by the Union Public Service Commission on the basis of their length of service, very good record and range of experience for heading the police force. Once he has been selected for the job, he should have a minimum tenure of at least two years irrespective of his date of superannuation."

(This will put an end to the present practice of favouring politically pliable officers with questionable reputations. It may not see the induction of the best available officer, but it would at least prevent the government from installing a really bad hat, who would forever be crawling to satisfy the ruling party. A fixed tenure of two years will also give greater courage to a DGP to act without fear or favour. At present, we know how DGPs are removed arbitrarily if they stand up to illegal pressures. No political party is a saint in the matter.)

Minimum Tenure of IG of Police and other officers: "Police officers on operational duties in the field like the Inspector-General of Police in-charge Zone, Deputy Inspector-General of Police in-charge Range, Superintendent of Police in-charge district and Station House Officer in-charge of a police station shall also have a prescribed minimum tenure of two years."

Police Establishment Board: "There shall be a Police Establishment Board in each State which shall decide all transfers, postings, promotions and other service related matters of officers of and below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police. The Establishment Board shall be a departmental body comprising the Director-General of Police and four other senior officers of the Department. The State government may interfere with decision of the Board in exceptional cases only after recording its reasons for doing so. The Board shall also be authorized to make appropriate recommendations to the State government regarding the posting and transfers of officers of and above the rank of Superintendent of Police, and the Government is expected to give due weight to these recommendations and shall normally accept it. It shall also function as a forum of appeal for disposing of representations from officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above regarding their promotion/transfer/disciplinary proceedings or their being subjected to illegal or irregular orders and generally reviewing the functioning of the police in the State."

(The Police Establishment Board will greatly reduce the arbitrariness of the existing process of transfers and promotions, which has become an industry in itself and which injects corruption and political interference into personnel matters. Every honest policeman will welcome this as a morale-boosting measure.)

Police Complaints Authority: "There shall be a Police Complaints Authority [PCA] at the district level to look into complaints against police officers of and up to the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police. Similarly, there should be another Police Complaints Authority at the State level to look into complaints against officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above. The district-level Authority may be headed by a retired District Judge while the State- level Authority may be headed by a retired judge of the High Court/Supreme Court."

(This will greatly inhibit a police officer in the field from misbehaving with a member of the public. Human rights activists will welcome this as they believe that their complaints are seldom looked into objectively by senior police officers, who invariably shield an erring policeman. The only danger is the possible proliferation of frivolous or false complaints against an active and straightforward policeman who is determined to strike at the underworld. I am sure the PCA will formulate sufficient safeguards to protect honest policemen.)

Separation of Investigation: "The investigating police shall be separated from the law and order police to ensure speedier investigation, better expertise and improved rapport with the people. It must, however, be ensured that there is full coordination between the two wings. The separation, to start with, may be effected in towns/urban areas which have a population of ten lakhs or more, and gradually extended to smaller towns/urban areas also."

(This separation of duties will create a corps of detectives who will be able to give their undivided attention to investigation, undistracted by demands to perform routine law and order duties. Supervisory police officers could however say that this compartmentalisation is impractical and unrealistic in the context of growing disorder in some sensitive pockets of the country. A massive expansion of police forces in big cities may therefore be called for if this direction should become a reality.)

National Security Commission: "The Central government shall also set up a National Security Commission at the Union level to prepare a panel for being placed before the appropriate Appointing Authority, for selection and placement of Chiefs of the Central Police Organisations (CPO), who should also be given a minimum tenure of two years. The Commission would also review from time to time measures to upgrade the effectiveness of these forces, improve the service conditions of its personnel, ensure that there is proper coordination between them and that the forces are generally utilised for the purposes they were raised and make recommendations in that behalf."

(The Home Ministry should set an example to the States by acting quickly on this. If it drags its feet, the States will do likewise and such a situation could invite the frown of the apex court, besides diluting the whole objective of police reforms.)

In the final analysis, the Supreme Court has rendered signal service to the country by giving the above landmark directions. I hope that the Centre and States will respond positively to put the reforms in place much before the December 31 deadline, instead of asking for more time to act. There are inherent difficulties in the exercise. These are inevitable in a bold experiment like this. But they can be sorted out as we go along. As for policemen, let them not treat the Supreme Court order as a victory against politicians, but let them look upon it as a bold move towards clinical policing that spurns sectarian and tribal instincts. There are no `us' and `they' here. There is only the public interest that should motivate every one of us to make the Supreme Court order a golden opportunity to transform the image of the Indian Police from a corrupt, insensitive and brutal force to one that is utterly objective, professional and people-friendly. Posterity will not forgive us if we do not respond with determination and verve.

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