Make police reforms a national mission
Even the British government thought of taking another look at their Police Act, 1861, after 40 years. The Frazer Commission of 1902 devoted an entire chapter on corruption, efficiency, popular opinion, oppressive conduct of the police and reforms in its 205-page report. A century and quarter later, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi raised the same issues: Calling for advanced training, attitudinal changes, induction of technology, and imbibing new skills. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs has also come out with its report on police training, modernisation and reforms.
But the question neither the PM nor the House committee addressed is why earlier recommendations by a plethora of committees on police reforms have not been implemented. What are the impediments, and how can they be removed? This exercise, perhaps, would have been more meaningful since the proposals for reforms refer to the same issues.
Just after Independence, while the Constitution was being written and instruments of democracy being strengthened, police reforms remained low on the priority list. This, despite the bloodbath witnessed during the Partition and the need to put law and order and crime control on a sound footing. Great confidence, surprisingly, was displayed in the old rent-seeking system run by thanedars and tehsildars, instead of revising the Police Act, 1861, and devising afresh a police regime for free India.
The biggest impediment to reform is that police is a state subject, and chief ministers (CMs) are not inclined or under any pressure to effect significant changes in the system. Police valour or atrocity is a peripheral matter during elections. CMs are more concerned about transfers of police officers and perturbed over complaints against the police reaching state capitals. Other politicians ensure that their trusted officers are posted as superintendents of police (SPs), deputy superintendents of police (DSPs), and station house officers in their areas. The threat of transfer to a police officer impedes his unbiased judgment of a situation and consequent (in)action. Thus, any case with even a remote connection with the powers that be impacts investigations adversely, and also the image of the police.
Recognising the deep malady, and to ensure a degree of autonomy, Supreme Court-directed reforms in 2006, laid down rules for police transfers. But this is being circumvented by the state authorities. Even transfers and postings of directors-general of police (DGP) are mired in politics. This remains an intractable issue with the constant tussle between laid down norms for transfers and political choices.
Strong and visionary police leadership, an enabling secretariat and political sagacity are three major ingredients for police reforms. But such harmony is rare. Over the years, from the Dharma Vira commission to the Ribeiro committee recommendations, none has been fully implemented.
In 2005, PM Manmohan Singh launched the National Police Mission. The mission subsumed seven micro missions with objectives of enhancing the skills and competence of police officers at the grassroots level. From attitudinal changes, modernisation to gender-based crimes, every aspect was covered. The ministry of home affairs (MHA), responsible for implementation, supervised it for three years and then handed it over to the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD). The latter pursued it zealously, but the micro mission projects could never clear the MHA. Whether the mission collapsed due to the intransigence of bureaucrats or politics is a matter of inquiry.
A bulky, unwieldy secretariat, lacking the requisite expertise or enabling attitude, does no good to the police. Perhaps the most important deliberations on critical police issues occur in the annual DGP conference, culminating in recommendations. Unfortunately, these again await the ministry’s nod for years.
The present MHA lacks the professional skills and will too. The only answer is an internal security ministry carved out of the present one and helmed by a rank professional. The central police chiefs entrusted with the leadership of millions can undoubtedly be trusted with all the financial and other powers of supervision.
There are two aspects of police reforms. The first deals with autonomy, police structure, accountability, resourcefulness, lying within the realm of the political executive, and the second dealing with skills, competence, technology and attitudinal changes. It’s the second that lies squarely in the domain of police leadership.
The choice of police leaders has also left much to be desired. Many police chiefs have not given BPRD’s studies on internal reforms due attention due to a lack of professional skills or preoccupation with other matters. Police leaders must question the value added to the investigation and prosecution by various supervisory levels, and check who allows the use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or sedition cases in an indiscriminate manner. The present police regime, therefore, is characterised by individual acts of brilliance by committed Indian Police Service officers, while large swathes of the country witness an average to below par performance.
Police reforms languish because of the lack of political will, weak police leadership and an inefficient bureaucracy. Therefore, PM Modi would be well advised to do the following: First, take the lead by enacting the Model Police Act 2006, drafted by Soli Sorabjee, in Union Territories and at least in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), while making an appeal for other states to follow suit. Second, appoint a rank professional in the Prime Minister’s Office to oversee and ensure implementation of all the recommendations of various police commissions and DGP conferences. Police reforms must be another critical national mission to be accomplished before the next general elections in 2024.
Yashovardhan Azad is chairman, Deepstrat, a former Central Information Commissioner, and a retired IPS officer who has served as secretary, security, and special director, Intelligence Bureau
The views expressed are personal