The crisis of the IPS

Print edition : February 02, 2002

ONE read with interest R. K. Raghavan' s rapid appraisal of the Indian Police Service (IPS) in Frontline (December 21, 2001). Following the management approach of his mentor Professor David Bayley, Raghavan makes a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. He does not question the structure, relevance and utility of the Service in the overall politico-administrative context. Rather, he identifies a few threats within the existing arrangements and would like some improvements. Given his management approach, Raghavan, in his earlier columns published in Frontline, also perceives no connection between terrorism and politics. He supports the U.S. line in the fight against global terrorism and the 'legislative terrorism' of the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) in India. He even goes to the extent of advising the Government of India to learn from Israel, which has 'won universal praise for its decisive thrusts against terrorism unleashed by religious fundamentalism'.

While a SWOT analysis is often useful, it is not sufficient to explain the crisis of the IPS today. The IPS is not an isolated management structure. It functions within the larger historical context of a crisis-ridden politico-administrative structure, in which the 'violence of politics' has led to an increasingly aggravating 'politics of violence'. A historical approach, relating the experience of the IPS to the experience of its key sister service, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), is required to understand the issues involved. The experience of the historically evolved police organisational structure over which the IPS presides also needs to be related. Thus, a brief historical exploration may be in order.

The IPS of today is the top rung of an organisational model that was originally devised by the British for the Indian police in the 19th century. This model was "unashamedly foreign in inspiration and design". The British selected the model of the colonial Irish Constabulary rather than that of the London Metropolitan Police for their Indian colony. The Irish Constabulary was a centralised paramilitary force. Its chief officer was called an Inspector-General, an apt designation for the chief of a colonial paramilitary force. The Inspector-General was directly subordinate to the Chief Secretary. Answerable solely to the government, the Irish constabulary was untrammelled by local authorities.

Although the colonial Indian police was organised along provincial lines, the central government played a role of supervision and regulation. The Police Commissions of 1860 and 1902 made significant attempts to standardise and reform the police structure on a national basis. The trend towards centralisation of departments such as intelligence and paramilitary police became evident towards the end of the Raj and laid the basis for the further strengthening of these departments after Independence.

The uprising of 1857 fundamentally affected the administrative development of India. The earlier period of experimentation with police reforms was brought to an end. The Government of India Act of 1858 was enacted. The recommendations of the Police Commission of 1902 were intended to strengthen the police so that they could take over the army's responsibilities and thus maintain internal control and counter the nationalist opposition. At the time of Independence, the Indian police displayed several multiple and interdependent features: strict subordination to the civilian administration despite the increase in relative importance of the armed police and the Special Branch; unaccountability to the public and their elected representatives together with an express role as state servants rather than public servants; coercive strength and disposition and frequent use of state violence; institutionalisation of a paramilitary wing; an 'eyes and ears' function on behalf of the government directed against the people; and close identification with the propertied interests. The Indian rulers in 1947 retained this colonial repressive structure.

After Independence, one national-level and several State-level Police Commissions were set up but they attempted only cosmetic changes in the colonial organisation model. No fresh conceptual exercises such as parliamentary democracy, federalism and development administration were taken up in the light of the special features of the Indian Constitution. After the Emergency and the Shah Commission Report, a National Police Commission (1977-81) submitted eight reports. These reports envisaged no basic structural or legal changes. The recommendations remained unimplemented and the crisis of the Indian police system remained unresolved. David Bayley of the State University of New York, Albany, an interested authority on comparative policing, visiting India during the 1980s, was pessimistic about the situation. There was an atmosphere of desperation in relation to public safety and security and a loss of faith in the ability of the police and the courts to contain disorder. Mounting group violence rather than individual criminality had become the main concern. IPS cadre Superintendents of Police were devoting 80 per cent of their time to deal with riots and demonstrations. Substantial increases in the numbers of armed police personnel, distortion of deployment patterns and a decline in professionalism, efficiency and the morale of the police were the other features of the situation.

Developments during the 1990s made matters worse. Some 60 per cent of all the arrests made by the police have been found to be unnecessary and unjustifiable. The power to arrest has become a major source of corruption. Extra-judicial killings, summary executions and false encounters have become an established pattern. Atrocities on Dalits, the minorities and women have increased. In a major state in the country, a Dalit woman is raped every 60 hours; an offence under the Indian Penal Code (other than murder, rape, arson and grievous hurt) takes place every four hours; a Dalit is murdered every nine days; a Dalit house or property suffers an arson attack every five days; and yet the chances of the perpetrators being punished are low given the massive bias the police have against the rural poor. Conviction rates are as low as 3 per cent. The upper-caste police structure says that these cases are grossly exaggerated or false; the idea that ordinary people, the poor, the weak and women are liars is deep-rooted in the police hierarchy.

Today everywhere in India poor people have to fight pitched battles in order to secure their minimum human, social and legal rights under the Constitution and the general and specific laws of the land. Development-related struggles by the poor for land, wages, social justice and fair implementation of the limited rural development projects and schemes, often bring them into conflict with the inherited regulatory administrative and police structure, which has links with the power structure - both rural and urban. Serious human rights violations are the result.

A command structure rather than a demand structure and poor institutionalisation of the service concept vitiates the functioning of the police. Further, the rapid change and extreme complexity of social movements has eroded the limited organisational capacity of the police. The training of IPS officers, which is basically management-oriented with a strong regulatory element, prevents IPS officers from having a clear understanding of the overall historical background of this structure, which has become seriously malformed, dysfunctional and over-centralised. While public order is a State subject according to the Constitution, there has been a massive growth of centralised police forces which are increasingly being deployed in localised conflict management. The situation is unviable.

THE public order scene has been complicated by an increase in communal violence against the minorities throughout the 1990s. Those who profited by the communal mobilisation are in public office and are not in a mood to relent. The IPS hierarchy, eulogised by Raghavan for its alleged educational attainments, has become increasingly corrupt and inefficient and presides over a situation that can only be described as anarchy, plus a policeman. The IAS and the IPS, intended to be complementary services at the district, State and Central levels, have drifted apart.

The need of the hour is to carry out far-reaching administrative reforms to bring about flexibility, transparency, accountability, responsiveness and decentralisation. The IAS and the IPS need to be downsized. The achievements of the two services are considerable. However, a realistic assessment of their record is called for. One should not counterpose one service with the other in a partisan manner as Raghavan seeks to do when he states that the IPS has stood up better to political pressure than its perceived rival, the IAS, which is far from the case.

Briefly, a thesis which may explain the administrative crisis today in India is that of a fundamental contradiction in the Indian polity between the historically evolved, regulatory structure of the two main All India Services, the IAS and the IPS, and the basic features of our republican Constitution involving parliamentary democracy, federalism and development administration. In this light, the study of the bureaucratic system is as important as the study of the party system on which much energy has been invested. Scholars have sometimes used the concept of a 'passive revolution' to understand the nature of the politico-administrative transition that took place in India around 1947. An adequate discussion of these issues is needed to facilitate far-reaching administrative reforms in the country. Raghavan's approach to the IPS appears too managerial and superficial to make this possible. n

K.S. Subramanian was a member of the IPS and was Director-General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development, Government of Tripura.