POLICE REFORMS IN INDIA – A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Prakash Singh

The police organization in India in its present form is based essentially on the Police Act of 1861, which was legislated “to re-organise the police and to make it a more efficient instrument for the prevention and detection of crime”. It constituted a single homogenous force of civil constabulary for the performance of all duties which could not be assigned to the military arm. The management of the force in each province was entrusted to an Inspector General who was assisted by Superintendents of Police in each district. The superintendence of the police was vested in the state government.

The Indian Police Commission of 1902-03, which reviewed the working of the police, found that the system had failed because the importance of the police work had been under-estimated and responsible duties entrusted to un-trained and ill-educated officers recruited in the lowest ranks from the lower strata of society, that supervision had been defective, that the superior officers of the department were insufficiently trained, and that their sense of responsibility had been weakened by “a degree of interference never contemplated by the authors of the system”. It concluded that “the police force throughout the country is in a most unsatisfactory condition, that abuses are common everywhere, that this involves great injury to the people and discredit to the government, and that radical reforms are urgently necessary”. This was the first time that a responsible body talked of police reforms. Ironically, the battle for reforms continues even after more than a hundred years.

Independence – Status Quo continues

At the dawn of independence, it was expected that a new role, a new philosophy would be defined for the police, that its accountability to the law of the land and the people of the country would be underscored in unmistakable terms. But that was not to be and “the relationship that existed between the police and the foreign power before independence was allowed to continue with the only change that the foreign power was substituted by the political party in power”.

For some years, however, there was no problem, thanks to the quality of political as well as administrative leadership. The politicians were men of great stature, endowed with vision and committed to pursuing the national interests. The administrators were also thorough professionals, keen on playing their role in the independent India. The politicians drew from the professional experience and expertise of the civil servant who, in turn, benefited from the politicians’ commitment to democracy and secularism. There was mutual respect for each other, give and take in the pursuit of common objective of taking the nation forward on the road to progress and modernity.

As the years rolled by, however, there was unfortunately a qualitative change in the style of politics. The fire of idealism which had inspired the first generation of post-independent politicians and civil servants started getting dim. Power became an end in itself, and gradually a symbiotic relationship developed between the politicians on the one hand and the civil servants on the other. Vested interests grew on both sides and, as commented by the National Police Commission, “what started as a normal interaction between the politicians and the services for the avowed objective of better administration with better awareness of public feelings and expectations, soon degenerated into different forms of intercession, intervention and interference with mala fide objectives unconnected with public interest”.

It was around mid-sixties that the political leadership injected the concept of ‘commitment’ in administration. It caused havoc. Officers were selected and given key placements in consideration of their affinity and loyalty to the ruling party and its political philosophy. Their intrinsic merit and administrative qualifications were given secondary importance. The disastrous consequences of this were seen during the Emergency (1975-77) when, as observed by the Shah Commission in its interim report, “…the police was used and allowed themselves to be used for purposes some of which were, to say the least, questionable. Some police officers behaved as though they are not accountable at all to any public authority. The decision to arrest and release certain persons were entirely on political considerations which were intended to be favorable to the ruling party. Employing the police to the advantage of any political party is a sure source of subverting the rule of law. The Government must seriously consider the feasibility and the desirability of insulating the police from the politics of the country and employing it scrupulously on duties for which alone it is by law intended.”

In its third and final report (1978), the Shah Commission warned that “If a recurrence of this type of subversion is to be prevented the system must be overhauled with a view to strengthen it in a manner that the functionaries working in the system do so in an atmosphere free from the fear of consequences of their lawful action and in a spirit calculated to promote the integrity and welfare of the Nation and the rule of law.”

The suggested overhaul was, unfortunately, never taken up. The Bureau of Police Research and Development, in a paper Political and Administrative Manipulation of the Police, published in 1979, warned that “excessive control of the political executive and its principal adviser over the police has the inherent danger of making the police a tool for subverting the process of law, promoting the growth of authoritarianism, and shaking the very foundations of democracy.” The warning went unheeded.

State Police Commissions

Several State Police Commissions, at different period of time, suggested structural reforms in the police and emphasized the need to insulate it form extraneous pressures, but their core recommendations were never implemented by the executive. The Kerala Police Reorganization Committee (1959) said that “the greatest obstacle to efficient police administration flows from the domination of party politics under the state administration… the result of partisan interference is often reflected in lawless enforcement of laws, inferior service and in general decline of police prestige followed by irresponsible criticism and consequent widening of the cleavage between the police and the public.” The West Bengal Police Commission (1960-61) found that there were frequent allegations that investigation of offences was sought to be interfered with by influential persons highly placed in society or office. The Punjab Police Commission (1961-62) deplored that “members of political parties, particularly of the ruling party, whether in the legislature or outside, interfere considerably in the working of the police for unlawful ends”. The Delhi Police Commission (1968) observed that political interference was a rich source of corruption. The Tamilnadu Police Commission (1971) stated that the problem of political interference had grown over the years in spite of the most explicit public declarations made by the successive Chief Ministers. Observations on similar lines were made by the Police Commissions of Bihar, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Andhra Pradesh also.

National Police Commission

The Government of India appointed a National Police Commission in 1977, as it felt that “far reaching changes have taken place in the country” since independence but “there has been no comprehensive review at the national level of the police system after independence despite radical changes in the political, social and economic situation in the country”. It was felt that “a fresh examination is necessary of the role and performance of the police both as a law enforcement agency and as an institution to protect rights of the citizens enshrined in the Constitution”. The NPC submitted eight detailed reports between 1979 and 1981 which contained comprehensive recommendations covering the entire gamut of police working.

In the first report, the National Police Commission recommended that the existing system of working of the constables, who constitute more than 85% of the force, be radically changed. They should be so recruited and trained that they could be deployed on duties involving the exercise of discretion and judgement. The Commission also suggested machinery for redressal of grievances within the police organization.

The second report of the Commission stressed that the basic role of the police is to function as a law enforcement agency and render impartial service to the people. It expressed grave concern on the misuse of police, interference by illegal or improper orders or pressure from political executives or other extraneous sources. The Commission recommended that the power of superintendence of the state government over the police should be limited to ensuring that the police perform their duties in accordance with the law. To ensure this, it recommended the setting up of a statutory body called the ‘State Security Commission’ in each state and also that the chief of police should be assured of a minimum prescribed tenure.

The third report dealt with the procedural laws and the evils of suppression of crime by non-registration of cases. It also examined the role of police in dealing with the weaker sections of society. The Commission emphasised that the posting of officers in-charge of police stations should be the exclusive responsibility of the district Superintendent of Police and similarly the selection and posting of Superintendents of Police should be the exclusive responsibility of the Chief of Police.

The fourth report emphasised the imperative need of co-ordinating the functioning of the investigating staff with the prosecuting agency and suggested reforms in procedural laws with a view to facilitating judicious conduct of investigations. On the subject of enforcement of social legislation, the Commission laid down the parameters of police involvement.

The fifth report dealt with the recruitment of constables and sub-inspectors and laid emphasis on their proper training.

The sixth report recommended police commissionerates in large cities with a population of five hundred thousand and above and also in places which had witnessed rapid industrialization or urbanisation. It also recommended certain measures to improve the police handling and investigation of cases of communal riots.

The seventh report dealt with the internal management of the police force and emphasised that this should be entirely under the purview of the Chief of Police.

The eighth report recommended that the State Security Commission should be provided with an independent cell to evaluate police performance in both qualitative and quantitative terms.

The Commission even drafted a model Police Bill which could be enacted. Its recommendations, however, received no more than a cosmetic treatment at the hands of the Government of India. The political leadership was just not prepared to give functional autonomy to the police because it had found this wing of the administration a convenient tool to further its partisan objectives. As for the bureaucracy, control over the police was - and continues to be - an intoxicant they have become addicted to and are just not willing to give that up. And so, the Act of 1861 continues to be on the statute book even after nearly 150 years – a millstone around the police neck.

Other Committees

Apart from the National Police Commission, several other bodies were constituted from time to time to go into the question of police reforms. These were:

  1. Gore Committee on Police Training (1971-73)
  2. Ribeiro Committee on Police Reforms (1998)
  3. Padmanabhaiah Committee on Police Reforms (2000)
  4. Group of Ministers on National Security (2000-01)
  5. Malimath Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System (2001-3)

The Gore Committee was constituted to review the state of police training in the country and suggest improvements. The Ribeiro Committee was set up by the Supreme Court while it was deliberating over the Public Interest Litigation filed for police reforms; the Court wanted the Committee to examine if the National Police Commission’s recommendations, which formed the core of the PIL, were still relevant or that any modifications were called for. The Padmanabhaiah Committee examined the requirements of policing in the new millennium. The Group of Ministers examined the reports of various Committees which were set up in the wake of Pakistan’s aggression in Kargil, including the one dealing with internal security, and suggested comprehensive measures to strengthen the internal and external security apparatus. The Malimath Committee made far-reaching recommendations to reform the criminal justice system. It was of the view that the present Adversarial System could be improved by adapting some features of the Inquisitorial System, and recommended that ‘Quest for Truth’ should be the guiding principle of the entire criminal justice system. The Committee suggested significant changes in the Criminal Procedure Code to expedite the disposal of cases and in the Evidence Act to facilitate securing of convictions. Unfortunately, the recommendations of the Malimath Committee were trashed because of the chorus of protest from the human rights lobbies.

Judicial Intervention

The core recommendations of the National Police Commission were resurrected through a public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court in 1996. The petition argued that “the present distortions and aberrations in the functioning of the police have their roots in the colonial past, the structure and organization of the police which have remained basically unchanged during the last nearly 135 years, and the complete subordination of the police to the executive – an arrangement which was designed originally to protect the interests of the British Raj but which unfortunately continues to this day”. It drew attention of the Court to the misuse and abuse of the police in the following forms:

  • Frequent postings and transfers,
  • Recruitment procedures vitiated through political recommendations
  • Promotions influenced
  • Investigations tampered with
  • Unlawful directions to police
  • Intelligence apparatus utilized for political purpose

The petition requested the Court to re-define the role and functions of the police, frame a new Police Act on the lines of the Model Bill drafted by the National Police Commission, and direct the states to constitute State Security Commissions to insulate the police from extraneous pressures, lay down a transparent procedure for the selection of Police Chiefs, and separate the investigation work from the law and order responsibilities of the police.

It was forcefully argued during the pendency of the petition that the continuance of the colonial pattern of policing had contributed to disasters at the national level. In 1984, there were anti –Sikh riots in Delhi in which about 3,000 persons were killed. The Delhi Police, barring some honourable exceptions, remained a mute spectator to the carnage because the rioters were instigated by politicians of the ruling party. In 1992, the disputed shrine in Ayodhya was demolished notwithstanding the presence of state police forces and the formidable presence of central paramilitary forces. These forces were immobilized because the political masters were not keen on preventing the karsevaks (volunteers) from vandalising the structure. In 2002, during the riots in Gujarat, the politicians played a dubious role and are alleged to have instigated the rioters at certain places. Police officers who tried to uphold the rule of law were punished by the executive. The National Human Rights Commission, which enquired into the incidents, recorded that “there was a comprehensive failure of the State to protect the constitutional rights of the people of Gujarat” and urged that “the matter of police reforms receive attention at the highest political level, at the centre and in the states, and that this issue be pursued in good faith, and on a sustained basis with the greater interest of the country alone in mind, an interest that must overrule every extraneous consideration”. It emphasized that “the rot that has set in must be cured if the rule of law is to prevail”.

The writ petition was heard by the Supreme Court over a period of ten years. The dilemma before the Supreme Court was whether it should wait further for the governments to take suitable steps for police reforms. However, as recorded in the judgment, “having regard to (i) the gravity of the problem; (ii) the urgent need for preservation and strengthening of Rule of Law; (iii) pendency of even this petition for last 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 a new model Police Act is prepared by the Central Government and/or the State Governments pass the requisite legislations”.

In a landmark judgment on September 22, 2006, the Supreme Court ordered the setting up of three institutions at the state level with a view to insulating the police from extraneous influences, giving it functional autonomy and ensuring its accountability. These institutions are:

  • State Security Commission which would lay down the broad policies and give directions for the performance of the preventive tasks and service oriented functions of the police;
  • Police Establishment Board comprising the Director General of Police and four other senior officers of the department which shall decide all transfers, postings, promotions and other service related matters of officers of and below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police and make appropriate recommendations regarding the postings and transfers of officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above to the State Government; and
  • Police Complaints Authority at the district and state levels with a view to inquiring into allegations of serious misconduct by the police personnel.

Besides, the Apex Court ordered that the Director General of Police shall be selected by the state government from amongst the three senior-most officers of the Department who have been empanelled for promotion to that rank by the Union Public Service Commission, and that he shall have a prescribed minimum tenure of two years. Police officers on operational duties in the field like the Inspector General of Police of a Zone, Deputy Inspector General of a Range, Superintendent of Police in-charge of a district and Station House Officer in-charge of a police station would also have a minimum tenure of two years.

The Court also ordered the separation of 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 Organizations, upgrading the effectiveness of these forces and improving the service conditions of its personnel.

Tardy Compliance

The judicial directions were to be implemented by December 31, 2006. Subsequently, the time limit was extended till March 31, 2007. There has been considerable resistance to implementing the directions. The political leadership and the bureaucracy are not prepared to loosen their stranglehold over the police. Eight states, namely, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamilnadu and Uttar Pradesh filed review petitions. However, all these petitions were dismissed by the Supreme Court on August 23, 2007. The majority of states nevertheless continued to drag their feet in implementation whereupon the petitioner moved for contempt against the defaulting states (Gujarat, J & K, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamilnadu & U.P) in April 2007. The Court was however not inclined to issue any contempt notices to the states.

On May 17, 2008 the Supreme Court constituted a Monitoring Committee headed by Justice KT Thomas to oversee the implementation of its directions in the States and Union Territories and apprise the Court about unnecessary objections or delays on the part of any respondent so that appropriate follow up action could be taken, and also examine the legislations enacted by different states to see whether those were in compliance to the letter and spirit of the Court’s directions. The Committee, in its report submitted in August 2010, deplored that “practically no state has fully complied with those Directives so far, in letter and spirit”. It also expressed its “dismay over the total indifference to the issue of reforms in the functioning of Police being exhibited by the States”.

The Union Government, at its level, has not shown the expected commitment to police reforms. It had constituted a committee under the chairmanship of Sri Soli Sorabjee, a former Attorney General, to draft a Model Police Act. The Committee submitted its recommendations on October 30, 2006 “to empower the police to enable it to function as an efficient, effective, people-friendly and responsive agency”. The Committee broadly followed the pattern already recommended by the Supreme Court. The Government of India gave assurances on the floor of the parliament that a Model Police Act on the lines of Sorabjee Committee’s recommendations would be tabled in the near future, but the promise has not been kept so far.

Present Status

Fifteen states (Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tripura and Uttrakhand) have drafted laws purportedly in compliance of Supreme Court’s directions. However, in actual fact, these laws have been enacted to circumvent the implementation of Supreme Court’s directions.

The remaining states have dilly-dallied in the implementation of the Hon’ble Court’s directions. Even where the mandated institutions – the State Security Commission, Police Establishment Board and the Complaints Authorities - have been set up, their composition has been subverted, their charter diluted or their powers curtailed. There is arbitrariness in the appointment of DGP with several states not consulting the UPSC in the empanelment of officers. Police officers on operational assignments are shunted out for all kinds of administrative reasons before the completion of two years. There is tardiness in the separation of investigative and law and order functions of the police.

Government of India has also not shown sincerity in implementing the Court’s directions. It has yet to pass a Model Police Bill.

The urgency of police reforms cannot be over-emphasized. Police reforms are essential to protect the democratic structure of the country, which is being threatened by criminal elements, and to sustain the momentum of economic progress. They are a sine qua non for improving governance, for upholding the Rule of Law and to ensure better respect for human rights of the ordinary citizens.