The monopoly on violence in India is increasingly held by an inefficient and politicised police force. With everyday reports indicating rising incidents of brutality, extortion and other crimes committed by police personnel, police custody increasingly has a macabre tinge.
According to the home ministry, in 2014, 47,774 complaints were received against the police across India – of these, just 2,601 were converted into criminal cases, and just 1,453 police personnel arrested, while 20,126 complaints were declared false. Of the 108 cases filed in 2014 on human rights violation by the police, 62 were declared false while just three state policemen were convicted. While 93 deaths were reported in 2014 in police custody, 25 judicial enquiries were conducted and 26 policemen chargesheeted. Not a single one was convicted. While crime grows (Pending IPC cases – 948,073; New cases: 2,851,563), so do lathicharges (383 cases registered in 2014, with 262 injured or dead).
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, charges the Indian police, particularly in Bihar, with “animal behaviour”, given their lathicharge on protesting teachers, predominantly women.
Post the 1857 Mutiny, the Police Act (1861) was passed to establish an authoritarian, partisan, police force to support colonial governance.
According to Section 3, the superintendence of the police throughout a general police district was declared to be vested and to be exercised by the relevant state government, while the administration was conducted by the inspector-general of the police, the local district magistrate and other district superintendents. Section 7 allowed the inspector-general and DGPs could appoint and dismiss “inferior officers”, ingraining India’s feudalistic outlook in police hierarchy.
The district superintendent could utilise the police force to oversee the “conduct” of political assemblies and religious processions on public roads and if necessary, “stop them”.
Post-independence, the police system remained unaltered. While various state police acts were passed (Bombay Police Act 1951, Kerala Police Act 1960 etc), they were all patterned on the old 1861 legislation; ignoring the requirements of democratic policing, without any safeguards to prevent partisan misuse of the police force. By 1979, the National Police Commission was set up to report on policing, producing eight reports, multiple topic specific recommendations and a Model Police Act – none of these were adopted.
The Supreme Court delivered its verdict, on the Prakash Singh case (2006), ordering states and union territories to comply with seven binding directives: insulation of the force from illegitimate political interference, transparency in the appointment of the DGP, separation of the law and order and investigative functions and the establishment of a complaints authority are the more important among them. Compliance on these seven steps, as ever, is still tardy.
To depoliticise the police force, we need to reconsider organisational structure. With transfers and promotions within the police up for sale and subject to “qualifications”, influence peddling and patronage retains its allure, creating uncertainty and demotivating staff.
Institutional independence, with a focus on separating police force resourcing, from its execution, remains necessary to curb patronage practices. Consider the UK, where the Metropolitan Police is funded by the British government, but operational control lies with locally-elected police and crime commissioners. In India, selection for senior posts should be made on service length, the experience and service records of candidates, with a minimum tenure offered of at least five years.
Such criteria would help provide job stability to senior officers, giving them time to understand their jurisdiction, its “broken windows” and evolve responses to it. Promotions should be made through an objective selection process, after passing specially designed pre-promotion courses.
According to public surveys, the police is perceived to have little accountability, with performance evaluation against a set of predetermined criteria, remaining non-existent, with performance evaluated only by checking whether crime rates have decreased within a police station’s limits. With a cue to simply suppress crime statistics to get good ratings, police evaluation has been corrupted leading to the practice of refusing to register cases. The worldwide trend is to set up complaint mechanisms under law, with resources and authority invested to guarantee independent and fair investigations into public complaints against the police.
The US has set up Civilian Complaint Review Boards, independent non-police civilian agencies, empowered to receive, hear, investigate, make findings and recommend action on complaints against police officers.
The Supreme Court directed the creation of a new Police Complaints Authority, at both state and district levels, with a mandate to look into public complaints against police officers in cases of serious misconduct (death, grievous hurt, rape in police custody, extortion etc).
Implementing this, would replace the internal disciplinary inquiry, boosting confidence in the police governance mechanism. The police force remains overburdened and under-resourced. Consider investigations, which are often poorly designed, slow and conducted by inadequately trained and unspecialised stuff. With manpower often deflected into other pressing law-order and political duties, investigations can take decades. To improve overall performance and encourage specialisation, a separation of the investigative and law and order divisions is necessary.
According to the bureau of police research and development, India lags significantly in police strength (For one lakh population, sanctioned police force – 181.47, actual police force – 136.42), compared to other low crime countries (USA – 223.6, Italy – 549.9, Japan – 199.8; UNODC 2010).
As recommended by commonwealth human rights initiative (CHRI), any police station should have its jurisdiction limited to 150kms in rural areas while investigating police officers should not be overburdened beyond 50-60 cases, while an All India Police Institute should be created (governed by a proposed central police committee).
The “Peelian Principles”, mostly implemented in abeyance in India, call for a strong and centralised, albeit politically neutral, police force for the maintenance of social order, to deter urban crime and disorder. An idealised police force in this age would overreach simple law enforcement duties to embrace public health concerns, urban planning and surveillance of prices. Aspiring to this would strengthen our democracy, while increasing confidence in our governing systems.