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Out of step with reality

Sustained official resistance to democratic reforms is decaying policing.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2012 22:17 IST
Devika Prasad
Devika Prasad
Hindustan Times

At a recent meeting on internal security, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged the ministry of home affairs (MHA) and the state governments to "carry forward the police reforms and modernisation to their logical conclusion". But the reality is, despite the Supreme Court's (SC) directives in 2006, not much has been done.

The story of police reforms in India is typified by the resistance to all attempts to democratise the force. The fact that a colonial law, the Police Act of 1861, is still in force at the central level exemplifies this resistance. Being a colonial law, it does not have the checks and balances that are expected in today's world.

It's not that the people in power don't know what is needed to cure bad policing. Post-Independence, we have had four commissions and committees to study and recommend the structural changes needed in police organisations, in their functioning and governance. In 1981, the National Police Commission (NPC) completed eight reports and gave its recommendations. The Centre has also drafted two model templates of new police legislation to replace the 1861 Act.

In 2006, the SC gave orders to states and the Centre to put in place six institutional and policy changes in their police set-up. In fact, the court distilled the most basic of the NPC's recommendations. Its directives were intended to stop widespread political interference in policing, beef up the accountability regime and make the force professional.

The SC also wanted that the new changes should have a legal backing. The court provided a basic framework for the reform process, putting its faith in the legislative and policy apparatus of the Centre and the states to take the reform process forward.

Unfortunately, six years later, there is little sign of democratic reforms, instead there is a blatant defiance of the SC's orders: no state or Union Territory has fully implemented the directives. The MHA, which could have led the reform process, has also been slow to act. In fact, reforms have taken a wrong turn. The maladies that the SC's directives sought to address are now being given statutory sanction, some of which is evident in the new state police Acts. At the last count, 13 states have passed new police laws since 2006. All of these states, with the sole exception of Kerala, passed them without any public consultation and debate.

The discernible trends emerging from the Acts point to the executive seeking greater - and unfettered - control over the police, while at the same time, diluting independent oversight and giving the police more powers.

More dangerously, states are using these Acts to create special security zones where the police will have absolute power. They are also legalising direct appointment of state police chiefs by the executive, doing away with checks and balances ordered by the SC; subverting the independence of new accountability bodies through direct appointments and the reduction of independent members; allowing the appointment of special police officers with the same privileges and immunities as police officers; clawing back legal safeguards in some circumstances; and in some cases, doing away with statutory tenure for key police positions.

The present reform process is dangerous for democracy and the rule of law. There are clearly no takers for impartial, non-partisan, and publicly accountable policing in the corridors of power. Sustained official resistance to truly democratic reforms has decayed policing. There is now a parallel system of policing in places that barely follows the rulebook.

Devika Prasad is consultant, police reforms programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Apr 27, 2012 22:14 IST