The ongoing outburst by the citizenry of Delhi is both spontaneous and widespread. Of course, the despicable crime against an innocent girl is too horrific for words. It would be too simplistic to dismiss it as a passing fury that will soon spend itself. The latest eruption in the street reflects a state of deep cumulative frustration and anger of the ordinary citizen against the ‘system’ that somehow does not deliver.
The Constitution, jurists tell us, is an inert document that needs proper systems to work it. A malfunctioning system subverts the rule of law insidiously. The shell remains intact but the core rots. The ordinary citizen, a perpetual victim of the ‘system’ loses faith over time.
The most potent and visible symbol of the ‘system’ is the police force. The capital is under the police commissioner system, if at all it can be called a system. Till the late seventies, Delhi was lucky, like the rest of the country, to inherit a system under which the police force worked under the control of the civil magistracy. The system was overturned in the late seventies overnight, quite literally. There was a fragile coalition at the Centre. Parliament was in recess, there was no debate and an ordinance was issued that virtually erased all magisterial control and accountability of the force. It was taken out of the elected local government’s control and entrusted to the home ministry. The ‘police commissioner system’ was introduced.
Today, the force is virtually without any check or accountability. It is supposed to report to the Lt. Governor of Delhi. The Constitution mandates that he shall be an ‘administrator’. At times, retired and retiring police officers use their influence with ruling politicians to get themselves appointed as Lt. Governor, in open violation of the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Once it happens, the token accountability is also removed. The first Constitutional Review Commission appointed in independent India reminded the government that civilian control over the armed services of the state is a basic postulate of democracy and the rule of law.
The Union home ministry is the last vestige of accountability of the Delhi Police. The ministry has neither the time nor the resources to enforce any worthwhile accountability. It is heavily overburdened, mandated to oversee the Union’s numerous and mammoth forces — CRPF, BSF, CISF, ITBP etc. Besides, it has to coordinate the functioning of the police forces of all the states and Union Territories.
The ministry is out of sync with the basic structure of the Union government. The Union government is basically a two-tier structure — directorates and departments. The specialised field organisations are organised into directorates — such as police. The directorates are supervised by the departments that ensure the accountability of field agencies to Parliament.
In the case of the home ministry, it is supposed to be manned by civil servants who are all trained and experienced magistrates. But in the home ministry too, police officers have been posted at the highest level. Today, it is a hotchpotch, neither a proper ministry nor a directorate. As a result, the police force is without any check or accountability. Repeatedly, in times of crisis it has failed. Its first test of baptism by fire was in 1984 in the wake of the assassination of a former PM. Hundreds of innocent members of a minority community were killed while the heavily-armed force looked the other way.
The then police commissioner, when questioned about the abject failure of the force and the police leadership, replied glibly that he had asked for military assistance that was late in coming. Hardly any police officer was held accountable. The commissioner’s public bluff was called by a fellow director general of police who, incidentally, belonged to the minority community. The DGP publicly indicted his own force. According to him, there was criminal dereliction of duty on the part of the Delhi Police.
The way the force is functioning is shocking. The primary cause of police malfunctioning is the lack of external supervision over investigation by the police. The rate of successful conviction in serious crimes, like rape, is 6%, according to a former central vigilance commissioner. Most of the investigation is either slipshod or doctored, according to a former chief justice of India.
The ultimate judgment on the local police was delivered by none other than a former PM: “Whenever I receive a complaint against a police officer, it eventually lands on his desk”. Need one say more?
Ashok Kapur, a former civil servant, is director general, Institute of Directors. The views expressed by the author are personal.