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In India People Love to Despise Police

Paper No. 5259                              Dated 25-Oct-2012

By A.K.Verma

Ever wondered what lies at the roots of this oxymoron? The seeds of the mystery are buried in the deep history of the British Raj, so deep that the modern narrative on the subject hardly ever brings it under scrutiny.

The original culprit is the Police Act of 1861 which laid the foundations of the current police systems in the country. The Act was a creation to safeguard the Raj and its officialdom anDated not the interests of the people. The Act, among other measures, established the rural police to control crime and law and order in the villages of the country. The rural police who were expected to patrol the villages were not provided funds for transportation or food while on tour. They were expected to live off the ground. The practice grew into the ‘hafta’ habit, overlooked by the administration on one hand but treated as unwarranted imposition by the people at large.

1947 when India emerged as an independent nation saw no change in the Act or the practices it had spawned. The new executive infrastructure continued to exercise the same absolute control over the police through the mechanism of superintendence enshrined in the law. The systems were not altered to bring them in line with those in other democracies of the world that all preferred to give their police an autonomous status for it to function in an independent accountable fashion. Only autocratic or despotic dispensations like to keep their police structures under their thumb. For the Indian Police passage of India from colonialism to independence only amounted to change of masters. Instead of the earlier Raj agenda, the police were now constrained to support party and personal briefs. Whims and fancies of the ruling classes now defined what needed to be done or avoided. The interests of the Aam Admi were never the prime consideration of the powers that be. The Aam Admi in independent India also started believing that police was no friend of his.

The Indian Evidence Act added to the miseries of the police and enhanced the distrust which the society had for the police.   This law stipulated that no confession made before a police official would on its own constitute valid evidence in a court of law irrespective of his rank. In other flourishing democracies of the world the word of a policeman has the same value in a law court as that of any other government functionary.

The constitution of the country also handicaps the operational objectives of the police. When it makes police a subject within the exclusive jurisdiction of the States, it automatically denies the Centre any rights to constructive deliberation on police issues. This has resulted in numerous problems since the police remain at the mercy of the state executive. The magnitude of the resultant harm is glaringly evident in the way terrorism and Maoism, arguably the most sinister threats to national security, are being handled in the country. No national policy to tackle them can be evolved. There is no national coordination. No effective single national instrument to deal with them holistically can be created. The menace is forever enlarging and advancing into new regions but the central or state rulers remain helpless to find effective remedies.

This results in a cognitive blackout in the minds of the people. They remain unaware that the resulting law and order problems or their sense of insecurity are not all because of police failures but because of a structure of laws and the vested interests of its beneficiaries that make such failures inevitable. Disgust against the police naturally soars

Such an unfortunate predicament of the police is well recognized since long by the well wishers of the police. Numerous commissions at the central and state levels after deep scrutiny of all the factors have suggested a slew of reforms to convert police into a people friendly effective, accountable and transparent institution. A committee under the eminent lawyer Soli Sorabjee drafted a new Police Act to replace the Act of 1861 but the state or central administrations have shown almost total indifference to the recommendations. Their attitude proclaims that let the people suffer or the police have a damaging image but they cannot let go of their powers of superintendence over the police as otherwise their freedom to use police any way they want will get curtailed.

Seeing no other way out some activists finally took the matter to the Supreme Court in 2005 through a PIL. In 2008 the Supreme Court gave mandatory directions which would make police autonomous in investigations, guarantee them at various levels a minimum tenure of posting and free the appointments of Director Generals of Police from the benumbing control of the executive heads of the governments. A mechanism was also provided to look exhaustively into complaints against the police. Sad to say the mandatory orders of the Supreme Court have not been implemented by any one and none has been held accountable. One wonders if the reluctance of the Supreme Court to move speedily into the matter reflects a cultural bias of the judiciary against actions against the political class where issues could be seen as  infringing on the personal privileges of this class. Be that it may, this much remains certain, the infirmities of the police and its consequential impact on the sensitivities of the people will stay as they are, for long years to come if such a mindset continues.

The conflicts between political assertiveness over the police and simple needs of people for security and stability lead to many legal, moral and philosophical conundrums. The police under no circumstances should cross the red lines of law and human rights but the state fails to provide them with alternatives to operate effectively and decisively in Maoist affected environments without causing alienation among people.

The criminal justice systems of the country and societal fault lines worsen the police image, making policing a democratic society a thankless job. Rampant corruption among bureaucrats, politicians and judiciary has made crime a low risk and high profile business. The judicial system gives no joy to the people because of its bullock cart speed. Under trials constitute the majority population in jails. The police public ratio in India is about 113 per lakh (hundred thousand) of population when it should be around 232 -245 according to international standards. The police are simply unable to cope with its various burdens and its image plummets.   

The nature of the Indian society throws up constantly big challenges for the police. Its linguistic, ethnic and religious divisions often create confusing scenarios for the police. Local loyalties and prejudices make short work of the larger commitments which a citizen must be presumed to hold for his country. In the cross fire between narrow interests and abiding values the police turn out to be the ultimate losers.

A society gets the police it deserves. If the society will not rise to higher values, neither will the police. In UK the police are now a well loved institution.  Police in India should be given the same pedestal that the judiciary enjoys. This can only happen if all the stake holders here do their bit.

Shri.A.K.Verma is a former Secretary of R&AW.