a people's police
Could Nandigram have been averted? Could the Gujarat riots of 2002 have been prevented? We may never know for sure. But one thing is certain — even if these were indeed unavoidable, their gravity, and the severity of pain which accompanied these unfortunate incidents, would have been much less if the executive did not have a stranglehold over the police.
Police reforms have been discussed periodically. In a landmark judgment on September 22, 2006, the Supreme Court tried to unshackle the police. It demolished in one stroke the colonial police structure of the preceding 145 years. The Police Act of 1861 was designed by the British to raise a force that would be politically useful. The Revolt of 1857 had shaken the foundations of British rule and it was felt that the police should uphold the interests of the imperial power.
After independence, with the imperial power gone, our political masters should have restructured the police and made it accountable to the people. Unfortunately, that never happened. As the years passed, successive governments found it convenient to misuse and abuse the police for their own partisan political ends.
In 1977, the government appointed the National Police Commission (NPC) as it felt that though radical and far-reaching political, economic and social changes had taken place since independence, there had not been a comprehensive review of the police system to match these. The NPC submitted eight detailed reports during 1979-81, with comprehensive recommendations covering the entire gamut of police work.
The central government’s response to the core NPC recommendations was unfortunately lukewarm. In 1983, when the reports were forwarded to the state governments, they were asked merely to take appropriate follow-up action, specifying, ‘At some places in the 2nd Report, the Commission has relied on the observations and findings of the Shah Commission to arrive at certain conclusions. Government strongly repudiates all such conclusions. At several other places… the Commission has been unduly critical of the political system or the functioning of the police force in general. Such general criticism is hardly in keeping with an objective and rational approach to problems and reveals a biased attitude. Government are of the view that no note should be taken of such observations.” With this brief, it was not surprising that the state governments put the major NPC recommendations in cold storage.
These recommendations were resurrected only in 1996, in a PIL before the Supreme Court. At the time the petition was filed, the Supreme Court’s attention was drawn, among other things, to two major tragedies that had shocked the nation and which had taken place because the police had failed to uphold the rule of law: the Delhi riots of 1984 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid (the ‘disputed shrine’) in Ayodhya in 1992. The Justice Nanavati Commission, which inquired into the 1984 riots, recommended that ‘there should be an independent police force which should be free from political influence and which is well equipped to take immediate and effective action.’ The Liberhan Commission on Ayodhya is yet to submit its report.
While the PIL was in court, another tragedy befell the country because the police acted in a partisan manner: the Gujarat riots of 2002. The National Human Rights Commission, which inquired into the riots, said: ‘The Commission is of the view that recent events in Gujarat and, indeed, in other states…underline the need to proceed without delay to implement the reforms that have already been recommended in order to preserve the integrity of the investigating process and to insulate it from extraneous influences.’
It is significant that while this PIL was pending before the Supreme Court, three committees were appointed by the government to deliberate on the question of police reforms: the Ribeiro Committee in 1998, the Padmanabhaiah Committee in 2000 and the Malimath Committee on the Criminal Justice System in 2002. All three broadly came to the same conclusions and emphasised the urgent need for police reforms in the context of newly emerging challenges. The reforms, however, were never carried out because of the combined opposition of political parties.
After allowing the government sufficient time to take suitable steps for police reforms, the Supreme Court finally went ahead with its judgment. It said, ‘having regard to (i) the gravity of the problem; (ii) the urgent need for preservation and strengthening of the rule of law; (iii) pendency of even this petition for over ten years; (iv) the fact that various commissions and committees have made recommendations on similar lines for introducing reforms in the police set-up in the country; and (v) total uncertainty as to when police reforms would be introduced, we think that there cannot be any further wait, and the stage has come for issue of appropriate directions for immediate compliance so as to be operative till such time as a new Model Police Act is prepared by the Central Government and/or the state governments pass the requisite legislations.’
The Supreme Court ordered the establishment of three institutions at the state level with a view to insulating the police from extraneous influences, according functional autonomy and ensuring accountability. These were:
A State Security Commission to lay down broad policies and give directions relating to the preventive and service-oriented functions of the police.
A Police Establishment Board, comprising the Director-General of Police and four other senior officers to decide on all transfers, postings, promotions and other service-related matters of officers of and below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police. The Board was also tasked with making appropriate recommendations to the state government regarding the postings and transfers of officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above.
A Police Complaints Authority at the district and state level to look into allegations of misconduct by police personnel.
In addition, the apex court ordered that the Director-General of Police should be selected by state governments from the three senior-most officers empanelled for promotion to that rank by the UPSC.
It further stipulated that the DGP should have a prescribed minimum tenure of two years. Police officers on operational duty in the field, like the Inspector general (IG) Zone, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Range, SP in charge of a district and Station House Officer (SHO) should also have a minimum tenure of two years. Transfers had become an industry in the states. Every time there was a change of regime, officers were moved en masse. If the Court’s orders are followed, such administrative reshuffles on political grounds would be history.
The Court also ordered the separation of the investigating police from the law and order police to ensure speedier investigation, better expertise and improved rapport with the people.
The Union government was also asked to set up a National Security Commission for the selection and placement of heads of central police organisations, upgrading the effectiveness of these forces and improving the service conditions of the personnel.
The Soli Sorabjee Committee also drafted a Model Police Act and submitted it to the government on October 30, 2006. This Act conforms to the fundamental principles enunciated by the Supreme Court, though there are slight differences in nomenclature and detail. Thus, what the Court refers to as ‘State Security Commission’ is termed as the ‘State Police Board’ by the Sorabjee Committee, while ‘Police Establishment Board’ finds mention as ‘Police Establishment Committee’, and ‘Police Complaints Authority’ is packaged as ‘Police Accountability Commission’. The Supreme Court and the Sorabjee Committee have similar views on fixed tenure for police officers and the need for separation of investigation work from law and order responsibilities.
The reforms, it needs to be understood, are not for the greater glory of the police. The reforms are for better security and protection of the people of the country, for upholding their human rights and generally for improving governance. The present generation of police officers will have to rise to the occasion to fulfil the expectations of the people.
The transition, however, is not going to be smooth. Only ten states (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Uttaranchal and Goa) have wholly or almost wholly complied with the directions of the Supreme Court. But most states are dragging their feet. The worst offenders are Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. Maharashtra has taken the stand that the Supreme Court’s directions are “inconsistent with statutory provisions in existence.” Tamil Nadu has argued that “courts have no power to pass directions by way of judicial order to affect the legislative autonomy of the state.” Uttar Pradesh has set up a Police Reforms Commission to draft a bill that can be passed by the legislature.
Moreover, nine states have passed laws or ordinances to circumvent the implementation of the Supreme Court’s directions. These are: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Rajasthan. The Bihar Police Bill 2007 is particularly perverse.
Unfortunately, civil society is not being taken into confidence before passing any Police Bill. It is necessary to mobilise public opinion to mount pressure on the non-conforming states.
The Supreme Court’s orders, if sincerely implemented, should have far-reaching
implications. They would change the working philosophy of the police and
transform what has been a ‘ruler’s police’ into a ‘people’s police’.
Prakash Singh was the petitioner in the Public Interest Litigation that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark judgement on police reforms. A Padmashree awardee, Singh has served as Director General, Border Security Force, the world’s largest paramilitary force, and Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh and Assam. He is widely respected as an expert on internal security. He lives in Delhi