An insider's view - from the outside

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

On the achievements, and failures, of the Indian Police Service.

FOR quite some time, I have been wanting to write on the Indian Police Service (IPS), its achievements and failures, and its raison d'etre. I had shied away from this delicate exercise all these days because, as an insider, I was liable to be accused of biases. Now that I am out of the Service, I presume I am less likely to leave myself open to that charge. Also, I can bring a certain amount of candour to what I pen, a freedom that was not available earlier. I am conscious that even now I can be roundly criticised for indulging in needless pontification and saying things which I should have said while I was still in the IPS. These pitfalls notwithstanding, I have now mustered enough courage to analyse the IPS without pulling any punches. This is actuated by the expectation that it will trigger a much-needed debate on an elite class of civil servants who are required to play a crucial role in the Indian polity.

The IPS is successor to The IP (Indian Police or Imperial Police, as it is sometimes referred to), just as the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is to the Indian Civil Service (ICS). The first direct recruits joined in 1948. There were a number of distinguished officers who were part of this august group, including C.V. Narasimhan who headed the batch and ultimately rose to be Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). We have since then had more than 50 batches. The number picked up each year has varied - dropping to an average of 50 in recent years - and the profile of the recruit has also undergone perceptible changes. We have now graduates in management, medicine and engineering. Another refreshing development is the growing number of women opting for the Service. As in other All India and Central Services, the rural component has also become stronger. The average citizen cannot ask for a more balanced group that generally reflects the profile of our population. The pertinent question however is whether this broad-based composition has helped to raise the quality of policing.

It is easy to be critical and to sound pessimistic. Accusations against the IPS of meek surrender to political authority and a lack of financial integrity are too many to be ignored. The temptation to build an assessment based on such popular impressions is great. I would like to resist it. I consider it more appropriate to opt for a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, which is a fairly objective tool given to us by modern management science. This is in the hope that a fair assessment of the Service is placed on record.

THE IPS is a unique assemblage of young men and women who had distinguished themselves in academics and made the grade through a stiff all-India competition. Very few countries have this advantage of such highly qualified supervisory ranks in the police. I remember my mentor, Prof. David Bayley of the State University of New York (SUNY), Albany, who is an international authority on comparative policing, introducing me to his graduate students several years ago as a member of a force that had no parallel in terms of intellectual abilities and which conferred an unusually high level of responsibility on its officers at a very early stage of their career. This was flattering, and I look upon this attribute of the IPS as one of its major strengths.

Being an All India Service, the IPS is invested with a cosmopolitan character that provides an ambience conducive to objectivity and neutrality. These are qualities essential for a country of enormous diversity and in a polity which actively promotes rabid religious, caste and linguistic feelings capable of endangering social harmony. The conscious decision to have half the number of slots in each State cadre filled by persons from outside that State was also meant to free a substantial section of officers from the influence of local political and casteist ties. IPS recruits are, thus, encouraged to arrive with no baggage that will subsequently burden them in the discharge of their duties.

The authority that IPS officers enjoy right from the start of their career is derived from legal statutes such as the Code of Criminal Procedure and manuals such as the Police Standing Orders (PSO). In effect this means that such authority is not given to them by way of charity for which they are obliged to the political executive. It also implies that their accountability is to the law, a position fortified by Article 311 of the Constitution of India, which gives them security of tenure and protection against capricious administrative action that sometimes seeks to penalise even bona fide acts done in the discharge of duties to uphold the law. This is an unrivalled position of strength not shared by many in the civil service who do not enjoy anything more than the benefit of Article 311.

PERHAPS a weakness that contributes substantially to the lack of courage and a readiness to buckle under political pressure is the enormous discretion that the political executive enjoys in planning an IPS officer's career progression. First is the wilful denial of positions of importance to an unbending officer. It is easy for anyone to say that an IPS officer should not hanker after specific jobs and that he should accept whatever is given to him. Only an IPS officer will be able to convey how repeated assignment to jobs which offer just an hour's work of no consequence each day can kill the spirit and soul of an officer.

Secondly, the wanton geographical displacement of an officer from a location at frequent intervals destroys an officer's morale. The political executive indulges in this pastime with absolute delight and courts have generally declined to interfere in such administrative matters. The untold suffering of families of officers so dislocated in these days of high costs cannot be adequately described. The fear of transfer saps the officers' energy and erases any desire to stand up to unreasonable, if not sometimes downright illegal, requests from the powers-that-be. While all civil servants are exposed to capricious shifts of station, my feeling is that an IPS officer is the most affected because it is his placement, more than that of his counterparts in other Services, that attracts greater political attention.

The dual control over the All India Services is something unique to the Indian bureaucracy. While the Union government appoints an officer in the first instance, it is the government of the State to which an officer is allotted that plays a prominent role in his career planning. This is an unsatisfactory though a necessary arrangement in the context of our quasi-federal Constitution. This worked quite well until a few years ago, with a spirit of give and take dominating the impulses of both governments. With the worsening of contentious and personalised politics fostered by governments with competing interests, the management of the IAS/IPS cadres has become highly arbitrary. As a result, some highly rated officers have been denied honours which they richly deserve. They have been unwittingly identified with political parties, with disastrous consequences to their career advancement. One fall-out of this is the building of divided loyalties that weakens the fabric of administration and even impairs national integration and the supremacy of the Constitution. My belief is that the IPS officer, more than his IAS counterpart, has borne the brunt of such political crossfire.

WE now live in stressful times. The basic tenets of civil society are under attack everywhere on the globe. This was brought home to us in the most savage manner on September 11. We had more than a dose of it in the shape of the Mumbai blasts of 1993. Happenings in Kashmir are a daily reminder of how a spiteful government across the border can inflict unbearable pain on a peace-loving population. These happenings are not a mere political challenge crying for political solutions. They actually test the mettle of the police leadership and its capacity to bolster lawfully elected governments. This is an opportunity of enormous dimensions. The ability to conceptualise how to take the sting out of the terrorist, and subsequently liquidate him through purposeful action, does not come naturally. It calls for skill of a high order. The reversal of a hopeless situation in Punjab by leaders such as Julius Rebeiro and K.P.S. Gill highlighted the enormous opportunity available to the IPS to set right a situation that sometimes defies a political solution.

New forms of crime pose a major threat to economic activity and seek to diminish the pace of mankind's progress. Cyber crime offers a challenge that sharply erodes the unbelievable benefits of computerisation. This form of crime defies all imagination, and much to our dismay, it has kept pace with the march of technology. Unless tackled quickly and effectively, it is going to acquire menacing proportions. The IPS has the brain power to understand its nuances and chart out a strategy that frustrates cyber criminals. This is an opportunity for the Service to impress on the community that it has the savvy to neutralise new forms of crime, even if these are technology-oriented.

Finally, what are the threats that the IPS faces? The chief threat is the widespread perception that the Service has pushed 'service' to the common man to the realm of low priorities. The feeling is that the IPS officer is more concerned about how to keep his political masters in good humour rather than explore how to improve his sensitivity to the demands of the common man. The seemingly excessive preoccupation with VIP security - a charge that is sometimes blind to the need to protect policymakers from the evil designs of the terrorist - is cited as the reason for the lack of interest in offering even the basic services to the community. As a result, public confidence in the police's ability to look after community needs is fast eroding. We see neighbourhoods resorting more and more to private security agencies, a development that runs counter to the desire of the police to have a greater say in criminal justice policymaking. If this trend continues, we can visualise greater privatisation of security chores at the cost of the police.

The IPS also faces a threat from within. The cutting-edge levels of the police are fast losing faith in their leadership's capacity to look after their welfare needs. This is, however, not a new phenomenon, and several generations of IPS officers have exposed themselves to this charge of neglect of man management. The impression that has gained ground is that an average IPS officer is content with nursing his own interests while disregarding those of his subordinates. Against the backdrop of increasing politicisation of the police forces, this spells doom for the chain of command. It should further fuel the desire of the lower ranks to seek political patronage, even if it be at the cost of discipline. This is a trend that works against maintaining motivation in a quasi-military organisation such as the police.

THESE are random thoughts on the IPS. They emphasise the need for introspection by every member of the Service so that he or she strives unceasingly towards fulfilling the objectives for which the IPS was set up. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had visions of how the Service will help to maintain stability in society. His dream has only been partially fulfilled. The IPS has no doubt many successes to its credit. However, it has a long way to go before it can rest on its laurels. Achieving political neutrality is no doubt essential. More than that, every IPS officer should aim at how he can become more accessible to the citizen, who demands quick and efficient service. The ultimate test is whether the latter looks upon the police as his friend or a mere tool in the hands of the political executive. Unfortunately, the latter perception is the most dominant in the present situation.

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