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The police should not be a law unto themselves

analysis Updated: Apr 21, 2016 19:07 IST
Delhi police commissioner

The CrPC is the finest criminal code in the democratic world today. It was a piece of exquisite workmanship on the part of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who was also the author of the educational minutes of 1835(Getty Images)

When the just-retired Delhi commissioner of police was asked about violence against women, his reported response was: If the law allowed ‘us’, he would order all rapists to be shot dead! Such a mindset strikes at the root of good governance and the rule of law. All the exhortations to the civil service about good governance and service are meaningless if the enforcement arm of the state is virtually without any control or accountability.

However, it is not his fault. It is the ‘system’ that breeds such attitudes. If public servants vested with power and armed with the latest weaponry are not accountable to an external authority, they can get away with murder. In the case of a police force, it can do so literally. This, precisely, is the persistent malaise in Delhi’s police force — authority without accountability.

READ: The republic of the Delhi Police

The canker cannot be correctly diagnosed and treated unless one delves into the history of the police commissioner ‘system’. All credit to the British, who first introduced the rule of law in India, with the enactment of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) in 1860. Arguably, it is the finest criminal code in the democratic world today. It was a piece of exquisite workmanship on the part of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who was also the author of the educational minutes of 1835.

READ: The CBI today is designed to shock and awe

Under the code, the police force was given limited authority and was fully accountable to the civilian magistracy. A magistrate was put in charge of the administration in the countryside. The magistrate, as the head, was the cornerstone of the majestic edifice of the Roman Empire under ‘rule of law’. And ‘law’ was defined as a ‘speaking magistrate’. It was the birth of democracy.

The British in India, however, made an exception and placed a ‘top cop’ in the three metropolitan cities in the country — Bombay, Calcutta and Madras — because there were Europeans in these cities. They worked out an arrangement — the police commissioner system. But very limited magisterial powers were given to the police.

READ: A force that marches to its own beat

For several decades the police commissioners were civil servants who continue to be, even today, trained and experienced magistrates. It is only later that men in uniform were appointed, more to accommodate delisted soldiers after the war than on merit. The civilian magistrate as police commissioner was the embodiment of the basic principle of modern democratic governance — civilian control of the armed services of the State.

Today, the principle is being twisted out of shape. More and more cities are being brought under the commissioner ‘system’, pursuant to a Supreme Court judgment on ‘police reforms’. But the judgment was based on a petition that said the British government promulgated the CrPC in the wake of the mutiny of 1857 to suppress the Indians. A greater travesty of the rule of law is difficult to imagine. ‘Reforms’ are being carried out on the basis of claims in a false affidavit, which appears to have been examined in the home ministry with its eyes wide shut. So much for the supposed accountability of the Delhi police to the ministry.

There will be no meaningful and lasting respite till basic reforms are carried out to democratise the police force.

Ashok Kapur is a former IAS officer

The views expressed are personal