Efforts to implement Supreme Court directives on police reforms ‘largely regressive’

Published : September 24, 2020 15:27 IST

While 18 States have passed or amended their Police Acts following the Supreme Court order in the Prakash Singh case in 2006, not one fully matches legislative models. Here, police lathicharge youth Congress activists demanding the Higher Education Minister’s resignation, in Palakkad, Kerala, on September 17. Photo: K. K. Mustafah

From custodial violence in Thoothukudi to allegations of wrongful arrests, biased investigations and encounter killings, the police force is under intense scrutiny. But none of it can be genuinely resolved without addressing reform in policing, which still remains distant.

A start had been made in that direction 14 years ago through a Supreme Court judgment in Prakash Singh vs Union of India where seven practical measures were laid down towards genuine police reform.

After his retirement in 1996 as Director General of Police, Prakash Singh filed a Public Interest Litigation petition, on which the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment in 2006. It gave specific directions to the Central and State governments to carry out structural changes in the police department to insulate it from extraneous pressures and make it accountable to the people.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) revisited the measures to find that efforts at implementing reforms remain slow, piecemeal and largely regressive. Not even one State is fully compliant with the apex court directives, and the majority of States are non-compliant with most of the directives. While 18 States have passed or amended their Police Acts in this time, not one fully matches legislative models.

Not a single Union Territory is compliant with the directives, signalling the Central government’s non-compliance. The failure to comply with the directives reveals the extent to which governments are resisting police reform across the country. The checks and balances that the directives seek to bring in order to make policing more professional and accountable are being stymied in multiple ways, according to the CHRI.

The seven directives were – setting up of State Security Commissions (SSC), fixing the tenure and selection of the DGP, a minimum tenure for the Inspector General of Police, separation of investigation and law and order functions, setting up of Police Establishment Boards, creating a Police Complaints Authority and forming a National Security Commission.

Of these, only six States provide security of tenure for their police chief, only seven States provide for independent shortlisting of candidates in the process of appointing police chiefs (everywhere else, the heads of the police continue to be handpicked by the State government), only 13 States have instituted an internal mechanism to enable the police leadership to make decisions on transfers and postings of State police officers without political interference, only eight States retain an impartial selection process to appoint independent members to the State Police Complaints Authority (PCA), only five have an impartial selection process for district PCAs, and only two States provide SSCs, which are to be independent police oversight bodies. Besides, the CHRI found that serving police and government officers are adjudicating members on police complaints bodies even though these are to be for the public and independent of the police department.

State Security Commissions

The purpose of an SSC is to ensure that the State government does not exercise unwarranted influence or pressure on the State police. It is designed to be a buffer between the political executive and the police through its policy-making role and wide membership. In short, it is to ensure that the political executive has ultimate responsibility for providing the public with efficient, unbiased and accountable policing while retaining its legitimate authority over the police.

The CHRI found that 26 out of 28 States have constituted an SSC either through Police Acts or government orders. While Telangana and Odisha are the only two States that have not established SSCs on paper, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are the only States that make the recommendations of the SSC binding. Other States either do not include any provision on binding recommendations, or make it subject to broad terms like “only to the extent feasible” (Meghalaya and Himachal Pradesh), or “unless... the government decides to disagree with findings of the authority” (Delhi). Absence of a categorical articulation of the SSC recommendations being binding on the government weakens the body and reduces its role to being merely advisory, rather than policy-making, as intended by the Court.

In designing the SSC, Maharashtra and Rajasthan stand out for demonstrating efforts towards social inclusion. While Maharashtra requires representation of at least one woman and one member of the Backward Class (defined to include Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, De-notified Tribes, Nomadic Tribes, Special Backward Category, Other Backward Classes) among non-official members of the SSC, Rajasthan mandates inclusion of a member from “weaker sections”.

The Police Establishment Board (PEB) is intended to bring crucial service-related matters largely under police control. Notably, the government’s role lies in appointing and managing senior police leadership. Service-related matters of State cadre ranks should be overseen internally within the department, as laid down in police manuals and service rules. Experience in India shows that this demarcation is absolutely required in practice to decrease corruption and undue patronage given the prevailing political interference in decisions regarding police appointments, transfers and promotions.

The court’s intention in this directive was to bring this internal decision-making firmly to the police leadership. Continued non-compliance with this directive will only further undermine the authority of the police leadership, affect the morale of officers and blur accountability, according to the CHRI.

As many as 22 States have constituted State Police Complaints Authority (SPCA) on paper, while 17 have constituted District Police Complaints Authority (DPCA) on paper.

Andhra Pradesh stands out as the only State to comply fully with the directive in constituting State and district PCAs. However, the compliance remains on paper only. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha have designated the State Lokayukta to function as the PCA. The CHRI considers this a total violation of this directive in that it does not establish a full-time, dedicated, independent PCA. Some States have refused to set up PCAs. Uttar Pradesh claims it has enough forums to handle complaints and will result in multiplicity of forums creating confusion in the minds of the public. Jammu & Kashmir moved an application before the Supreme Court for suspending the implementation of this directive based on the security situation in the State. In a brazen violation, Tamil Nadu has constituted an SPCA headed by the Secretary, Home, and includes the Director General of Police and the Additional Director General (Law and Order) as the members of the authority.

“Government failure to adhere to the directives can only be cured by the Supreme Court’s continued monitoring,” said Sanjoy Hazarika, CHRI’s international director, urging the apex court to vigorously monitor the implementation of police reforms in order to guard against further noncompliance.