On police reforms

Print edition : August 17, 2002

An open letter to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

Dear Mr. President,

My heartiest congratulations to you on assuming charge of the highest office in the country. This greeting is not only as one who has had the pleasure of interacting with you on a few occasions when both of us were with the Government of India, though in different capacities. I would also like to give myself the privilege of felicitating you on behalf of the Indian Police as a whole, notwithstanding the fact that I do not any longer hold a formal position in the police.

We in the police forces of the country, both past and present, look upon your election as a watershed in Indian history, one that holds out myriad promises. We pledge our wholehearted support to you in all your endeavours to strengthen India's image in the comity of nations, not merely through new excursions into the realm of science and technology, but by also working towards enhancing levels of accountability, integrity and transparency in public life. You will agree that as things stand, our standards in terms of these parameters are abominably low, and we need to push them up considerably if we are to hold our heads high among the rest of the world.

Mr. President, I may be mistaken for being irreverent and presumptuous in addressing you directly. Since you are known for your informality and dislike of protocol, I have taken this liberty. Also, I look upon this letter as a prelude to a dialogue that past police leaders like me are hoping to have with you in pursuance of a public cause, that is, bringing about the much-needed reforms in our police system. The few ideas and concepts highlighted in this column could set the agenda and tone for such a dialogue. Hence this unusual manner of briefing you on a subject that is of great relevance and interest to every citizen, a subject on which acrimonious debates till now have led to precious little action.

Mr. President, I am not sure whether you have ever interacted closely with the police at the grassroots level, and have had a chance to visit a police station. Those who have, will tell you tales of horror and disgust. While some of them may tend to exaggerate, the inescapable truth is that, if they can help it, a majority of law-abiding Indians would like to avoid stepping into a police station. Nor would they like to be visited by a policeman in public view. It is unfortunate that this is so even five decades after we became free from alien rule.

There is near unanimity among a cross-section of our opinion leaders, be they politicians, administrators, academics or members of the press, that there is something rotten with the system, and that the police will have to change radically in order to become people-friendly. The specific charges hurled by the common man are that the police are corrupt, brutal and insensitive to the poor. Perhaps the most damaging accusation is that the police are biased in favour of the majority community and do not protect the minorities when there is religious tension. The reports of a number of inquiry commissions will bear this out. You are aware of what happened in Gujarat recently and how the police there have been squarely charged with looking the other way when fundamentalists were indulging in savage behaviour. Against this backdrop, there is a widespread feeling that all the ills of the police are due to the acute politicisation of the system, and that no reform exercise will ever succeed till politicians agree not to interfere with the day-to-day operations of the police. Autonomy for the police without loss of accountability is the slogan that is raised in chorus by a chunk of the pro-reform lobby.

Mr. President, as soon as the Janata government came to power in 1977, it appointed a National Police Commission (NPC) with broad terms of reference that covered the whole gamut of policing. This decision was generally believed to be the outcome of the bitter experiences of a majority of the Janata leadership during the Emergency. The latter were convinced that the police had been badly manipulated by Indira Gandhi to serve her political needs. I would like to recall here the famous words of the Shah Commission constituted to look into administrative excesses at that time. According to Justice Shah, senior members of the bureaucracy, including the police, actually "crawled" before the executive, when what was required of them was only to "bend"! Since then there has been just a modicum of improvement in this state of affairs, while it has not changed at all in many States.

The NPC submitted eight reports between 1979 and 1981. Even as these were being examined, Indira Gandhi came back to power and this spelt doom for the reports. All NPC recommendations became suspect and motivated in the eyes of the Congress government. The non-Congress governments that followed also did not display any great zeal or political will in pushing forward the reforms outlined by the NPC. (There was a bright spot when the late Indrajit Gupta was Union Home Minister. He exerted appreciable pressure on State governments to act on the NPC recommendations, but without much success.) It thus became evident that the movement in favour of freeing the police from the all-pervasive control of the political executive had little support from law-makers both in Delhi and in the States. The NDA government has shown some sensitivity in the matter, but has been able to achieve little in the absence of support from the States, which have taken advantage of the constitutional position of 'police' being a State subject.

Mr. President, if you ever ask for a status report on the NPC reports, you will get impressive but deceptive statistics. You will be told that more than 90 per cent of the NPC recommendations have been implemented. What you will not be told is that three of the most crucial ones are yet to see the light of day. The first of these relates to the setting up of a State Security Commission that will not only evaluate the performance of the police but also entertain representations from officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above against being subjected to illegal or irregular orders. Such a Commission - headed by the Minister in charge of the police and in which one of the six members will be from the Opposition in the legislature - could greatly reduce the frequency of wrongful and unethical directions to officers, either by the police leadership or by the political executive. The second is choosing the Director-General of Police of a State through a clinical process and conferring on him a mandatory tenure of four years. Finally, the NPC recommended the replacement of the Police Act, 1861, with a new Act that takes care of the current times when we need a swift-acting police that is not hampered by an obstructive Executive Magistrate, especially during major law and order situations. The NPC actually went to the extent of drafting a model Police Act, which plugged several lacunae in the old Act and submitted it for government acceptance. The mandarins in North Block have been dragging their feet over this since 1981, obviously because the new Act makes the police mostly free from the Executive Magistrate and the political executive.

While the first two recommendations need action by State Chief Ministers, in respect of the third, both Parliament and the State legislatures are competent to bring forward a Bill that could become the new Police Act applicable to the whole country.

Mr. President, I am not suggesting for a moment that the NPC recommendations are a panacea for all the ills of the police. Police leaders, present and past (like yours truly), have no doubt failed to bring about an ambience in which the executive could have been convinced of the need for reforms. The gulf of a lack of trust between the two remains unbridged. But this is no argument for stalling reforms. The silent majority in the country needs the reforms badly.

Mr. President, nearly 90 per cent of the police forces in the country is comprised of the constabulary. Unlike in the past, more and more educated men and women are voluntarily joining the police at this entry level, in expectation of a satisfying career. This precious resource will have to be protected. This is not possible under the existing state of affairs, where obedience and servility to the senior officers and the political masters are the main criteria for advancement and placement in meaningful jobs within the police. If professional excellence has to be nurtured, even at the level of the much-maligned constabulary, we owe them the right working conditions in which they can give of their best. Such an ambience cannot come about without implementing the most crucial NPC recommendations that are gathering dust in North Block and in State Secretariats. Meanwhile, we have had a report on the subject, prepared by Julio Ribeiro, that has been submitted by the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Supreme Court, which is looking into a public interest petition demanding implementation of the NPC recommendations.

Mr. President, we in the police strongly believe that you can play a decisive role in persuading State governments to implement the NPC reports in toto. Whenever a Chief Minister calls on you, you can possibly raise this issue and impress on him or her the benefits, in terms of professionalisation, flowing from such a course of action. Even if half the number of States respond favourably, it will be a great leap forward. The other States will follow suit.

Mr. President, there is another matter pertaining to the police that should be of even greater interest to you. There has been fair use of science and technology by law enforcement agencies in the country. While this is a matter of satisfaction, it is felt that there has to be a sharper focus. The Home Ministry has generally been positive and has ordered an incredible increase in the allocation of grants (Rs.1,000 crores annually) under the police modernisation scheme. It is a matter of gratification that the Honourable Prime Minister himself, with the most positive support of the Honourable Deputy Prime Minister, took the initiative in the matter. It is hoped that police forces will take advantage of this and not fritter away this money by merely buying vehicles or weapons.

Police leaders will have to make criminal investigation more science-aided so as to bring down the incidence of third degree methods during interrogations. DNA testing is the new tool that has revolutionised crime investigation in most parts of the West. While such testing is a costly proposition, funds should not stand in the way of expanding the facility available for this. We have only a few laboratories in the country undertaking this work. In the area of communication, the ambitious project of linking all police stations through the Polnet is still to be implemented in full. Like these, there are several other projects that can transform policing and render it a really state-of-the art professional service.

What we now need is a vision and a new level of dedication to the task of upgrading police skills and morale. A brainstorming session chaired by you, in the presence of the Home Minister and past and present police leaders, should help generate ideas that could impart new dimensions to police reforms. This is the best thing that can happen to the Indian Police.

Mr. President, eyebrows may be raised if you seek a role in changing the face of the police. The government may politely tell you that the task of raising police professionalism is already receiving its attention. We in the police, however, believe that with your amazing technology background and your penchant for innovation, you can complement the role of government without causing offence to anybody. My proposal may be unconventional. However, you know, the heterodoxies of today become the orthodoxies of tomorrow, and they ultimately serve to benefit humanity.

Mr. President, we expect great things from you. The police is a neglected area where the stranglehold of past practices and the executive's unconcealed desire to use it against political opponents stifle the germination of new ideas. The stock of the police is so low that new experiments can only improve its image and not cause any further damage. A helping hand from you will be hailed by all sections of society if it can, even marginally, make the police more people friendly. Regards.

Yours sincerely, R.K. Raghavan
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