ACCOUNTABLE, EFFICIENT POLICE-PRE CONDITION FOR EFFECTIVE INTERNAL SECURITY
- Madhu Purnima Kishwar*
India is facing unprecedented security threats from our hostile neighbours as well as from a whole range of home bred terrorists operating, not just in the Border States but also in large parts of heartland India. The US State Department has listed India “among the most terrorism affected countries” and noted that the archaic police system makes India ill equipped to meet the challenge. This is the first time that the failure of our Intelligence and security agencies and the dysfunctionality of our police in dealing with the situation became a major election issue. It is a welcome sign that the very first “solemn promise” made by the Congress Party in the “Work Programme for 2009— 2014” in the Manifesto released before the General Elections of 2009 underscores the priority the Party will give to Internal Security:
“We will guarantee the maximum possible security to each and every citizen.
Our policy is zero tolerance towards terrorism from whatever source it originates. We have already initiated the process of equipping our police and other specialist security forces with the latest weapons and technology to meet terrorist threats. This process will be taken forward vigorously. More specialist battalions will be raised and positioned in key locations across the country.” The Party thereafter lays down the principles it will follow in implementing police reforms, which is listed as its third “solemn promise”, after assuring citizens that it will ensure “a high level of defense preparedness.”
“The Indian National Congress recognizes the imperative of police reforms.
A clear distinction between the political executive and police administration will be made. The police force will be better provisioned especially in the matter of housing and education facilities; the police force will be made more representative of the diversity our population; and police recruitment will be made more effective and training professionalized to confront new and emerging threats. Accountability of the police force will be institutionalized.” [Emphasis mine]
It is significant that the Manifesto does not spell out “accountability” to “whom”?
Even under the existing Police Act of 1861 vintage, policemen are indeed accountable—but only to their political and administrative superiors. The hallmark of effective policing in functional democracies is “accountability to citizens”, who have effective, institutionalized powers of oversight over those entrusted with the job of providing a safe environment for them. The Government of India has appointed numerous Commissions and Committees to chart out the road map for Police Reforms. Despite several valuable recommendations made by some of these Commissions, especially by the Committee that drafted the Model Police Bill of 2006, all of them define “accountability” in terms of answering to some “higher up” authority. None of them provide a radically new framework for policing because they have not made adequate and effective institutional provisions for accountability to citizens in their proposals for reform. A detailed discussion on this follows later.
Moreover, the use of the term “police force” is in itself unfortunate.
Most countries that take their democratic commitment seriously have brought about a basic change in their vision of the role of the police, which is also reflected in the change in nomenclature from “police force” to “police service”. The term “force” connotes a coercive organ at the service of the State rather than an institution to provide security of life and property to citizens.
“Nation” Cannot be Secure if Nation’s Police Make Citizens Insecure
If “national security” is viewed in terms of providing safety of life and constitutional rights of India’s citizens from internal and external threats, the dysfunctionality and large-scale criminalization of our universally feared and hated police force poses the biggest security threat to India as a nation State and its citizens—rich and poor alike. The poorly paid, poorly trained, poorly equipped, politically manipulated, thoroughly demoralized and universally despised police force in India lacks the capacity even to enforce traffic laws honestly and efficiently, leave alone be effective in combating serious crimes. Even a cursory look at the miserable working and living conditions of police personnel at the level that matters most—namely at the local police station level, the absence of basic amenities to perform their responsibilities with a modicum of efficiency, distorted relationship between the elite IPS officers and lower ranking policemen, absence of coordination between its various wings and the unholy political pressures under which they operate, are enough to show that they are not meant as instruments of law and order. The widespread proliferation of gated communities whereby the wealthy citizens are organizing their own parallel security arrangements amounts to a declaration of “No Confidence” in the police.
This is not to deny that there are numerous honest and highly competent police officers at all levels. But those who manifest integrity and commitment to their professional duties and refuse to yield or compromise with unlawful demands end up being marginalized and often rendered ineffective by frequent postings and being systematically undermined by their administrative and political bosses. The existing police system often punishes those who value their professional integrity and rewards dishonesty, sycophancy and pliability.
Terrorists thrive in a situation where ordinary citizens deeply mistrust and fear the police while criminals feel confident of buying their cooperation and patronage.
Why Honest Citizens Fear to Act as “Eyes and Ears” of the Police
A major factor essential to the success of anti terrorism operations is the willingness of law abiding citizens to act as the “eyes and ears” of the police. Unfortunately, today, it is mostly unsavoury characters who act as “police informers”—a term almost always used pejoratively. Not surprisingly, the ability of the police in gathering. Intelligence is seriously compromised. Therefore, there is urgent need for institutional reforms, to combat the increasing criminalization of the police force, as manifest in the following symptoms:
Since our police force has been constituted in a top down manner and lacks accountability to citizens, it is conditioned to respond only to two signals: A kick from above and a bribe from below. Even a casual time utilization audit of the police station level staff will show that most of their time is spent on collecting hafta and sniffing new opportunities for making the extra buck often in cohort with criminals. Gathering pointed and reliable information on terrorists and gangsters requires focus, expertise, sensitivity, and the trust of citizens who should not feel vulnerable after disclosing information regarding criminal mafias. Since their expertise is so focused in one direction, most policemen lack both the skills as well as the motivation to track down terror networks.
Policemen openly talk of “sookhi / geeli/ malaidar postings.
” The geeli postings are those that provide opportunities for regular bribes and payoffs while sookhi postings are devoid of such privilege. The biggest bribes predictably come from patronizing those engaged in unlawful activities – peddlers of drugs and pornography, flesh traders, local thugs, land grabbers, corrupt builders and political mafias. Even in sensitive areas like J&K, one hears stories from knowledgeable people how our police and security forces are known to have sold off seized guns and ammunition to the very same terrorists from whom they were recovered.
1) Even in cases of murderous assaults, it is common for the police to take money from the accused and force the victim into accepting a “compromise”—a euphemism for unconditionally withdrawing the complaint. It is not uncommon for the police to harass and threaten the victims if they dare persist in registering complaints against those who have bought favours with the police, as happened in Nithari. The more serious the crime, the more money the police make for overlooking it or for actively collaborating with the crime perpetrator in terrorizing his victims.
2) Today the vast majority of policemen consider the extra income as their legitimate due because promotions, prime postings do not come without political patronage and/or hefty bribes to those in charge of promotions and posting. Therefore, being part of extortion rackets and patronage of political bosses has become a necessary component of survival and a prime means to career advancement. In many states, recruitment as police constables is openly purchased through pay offs.
3) It has become a fairly common practice for the police to implicate in false counter cases those few who dare challenge the activities of criminal mafias enjoying police and political patronage. Today, even educated upper middle class citizens fail to get their complaints registered unless they are willing to pay off. Most of us fear inviting the wrath of the police by reporting on criminals, for fear of being implicated in false counter cases, as happened with Bina Ramani.
4) An increasing number of police are not just aiding and protecting but actively engaging in outright crime ranging from dacoity, supari killings, land grab operations and smuggling of contraband goods. Dawood Ibrahim could not have become so invincible without having a number of policemen on his payroll. Who in their right senses will risk their lives by volunteering information to the police regarding suspicious or criminal elements, if they see the police routinely connive with criminals? Expectedly, the information provided by our Intelligence agencies is even less reliable than our weather department forecasts!
5) The frequency of people being tortured and/or killed in police custody, including those who are brought to the police station on allegations of petty crimes, shows that our policemen are ill trained to carry out even routine investigations and the system turns many of them into sadists.
6) Crime rate is much higher in those cities with a high concentration of police and villages that are close to police stations and government offices. By contrast, remote villages which rarely see the sight of a policeman are much safer and relatively crime free. Most atrocities in villages take place at the hands of castes and communities that can count on police support. Ordinary citizens fear any contact with the police. A Bengali saying sums up the perception of the ordinary citizens very well: Baghe kater 16 ghav, police kater 32 ghav. (If a leopard attacks you are likely to end with 16 wounds, but one who is targeted by the police will end up with at least 32 wounds). Not surprisingly, the entry of police in villages and neighborhoods evokes fear rather than a sense of security.
7) Cases of innocents being dubbed as terrorists after being killed in false encounters in order to “show results” or win awards and promotions, with several “encounter specialists” turning blackmailers and becoming part of underworld gangs, shows the dangers of giving immunity to the police in their methods of dealing with terrorists or gangsters.
8) Instead of nurturing high quality professionalism in our police force and creating adequate incentives for honest functioning for police personnel, our ruling establishment has created too many perverse incentives and systematically crippled the ability of the force to act as guardians of the life and liberty of citizens. For example, the in-charge of a police station that registers a higher number of criminal cases is pulled up for poor performance. Therefore, they have figured out a simple way of bringing down the crime graph: just don’t register cases! That not only earns the thana a “good record” but also earns the goodwill of powerful vested interests and local mafias. Officers who turn a blind eye to unlawful activities and protect the perpetrators from prosecution, become wealthy and influential and those few who dare stick to their professional duties often pay a heavy price.
A police force that is universally feared and despised for its lawlessness, a force that has not learnt to handle the already available copious provisions and powers bestowed by the IPC and Cr.PC, is not likely to produce magical results with “more stringent laws” like POTA, TADA or the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or yet another over arching law in the name of strengthening National Security. By merely adding “latest weapons and technology” and raising more “specialist battalions” as promised in the Congress Party Manifesto, or by creating yet another organization like the National Investigating Agency, as has been already done, the Government cannot “meet terrorist threats”.
Under the current regime, there is no way of ensuring that another federal agency for crime detection or internal security will improve the situation. On the pretext of combating terrorism and insurgency in J&K and the Northeast, our Intelligence agencies, paramilitary and armed forces have been given a free hand bolstered with draconian laws. Far from producing enduring peace and stability, they have facilitated increases in human rights abuses, and brutalization of ordinary citizens. The people’s consequent estrangement from and mistrust of the Government along with marginalization and demoralization of the local police due to excessive reliance on the armed and paramilitary forces in these states has made it far more difficult for security forces to gather intelligence and isolate terrorists.
Similarly, the politicization of the existing Intelligence agencies, such as Research and Analysis Wing, the Intelligence Bureau, the Central Bureau of Investigations and the veil of secrecy adopted by them for remaining unaccountable, allow them to indulge in devious turf wars, function at cross purposes to undermine each other and tailor the Intelligence they provide to suit the whims of their political bosses. Similarly, the fate of the National Security Council and the utter irrelevance of the National Security Advisory Board points to the danger of creating multiple agencies whose functioning is neither clearly defined nor its performance put under regular scrutiny. A new Internal Security apparatus will work well only if the existing ones are rigorously revamped and merged under a unified command with full responsibility— its performance carefully monitored on the basis of clear guidelines and objective criteria.
However, it can never be over emphasized that an efficient, well trained, well equipped, well paid, highly motivated and self respecting police service accountable to citizens — through carefully worked out mechanisms of checks and balances — manning every police station in the country — is the bedrock of internal security.
Inadequate Accountability Mechanisms in the Model Police Bill of 2006 Our erstwhile colonial masters have in recent decades introduced far reaching changes in the very conception and role of policing in their own society. It is a disgrace that our political establishment has allowed many more perversions to creep into India’s police system instead of outgrowing their addiction to using the arbitrary powers bestowed on it in the archaic Police Act of 1861, which was meant as an instrument of subjugation of our people.
The least we could have done is to keep pace with the process of democratization of the British Police in recent decades. Nor have the various Police Commissions and Committees tried to incorporate in full measure systems of accountability and transparency institutionalized in recent decades in formerly colonized countries like Ireland and South Africa.
All these countries have started with the premise that in a democracy police cannot merely act as the executive arm of the state within the given boundaries of law. They must make a special effort to safeguard activities that are essential to the exercise of democracy. The process to make police function as an essential instrument of democracy must start with serious, in depth consultations with a wide range of citizens’ groups, especially with the poor and marginalized groups who at present bear the brunt of police high handedness, to understand their legitimate grievances and expectations from the police. None of the Commissions and Committees so far appointed for charting a road map for police reforms has made a serious attempt to involve citizens in defining the role and functioning of the police. Each of these Commissions was a closed door affair involving retired or serving police officers and bureaucrats with at best token representation of civil society. Therefore, in each case “accountability” got defined in terms of creating some “higher” oversight body.
However, the Committee for drafting the Model Police Bill headed by the former Solicitor General, Mr. Soli Sorabjee, did well by including Maja Daruwala, Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative as a special invitee. The positive contribution of CHRI is visible in several aspects of the Bill which begins on a very welcome note by promising a Police Service which will have “respect for and promotion of the human rights of the people, and protection of their civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights”, and be trained to believe that their primary duty is to uphold “the Rule of Law.” It recognizes that “it is the constitutional obligation of the State to provide impartial and efficient Police Service safeguarding the interests of vulnerable sections of society including the minorities, and responding to the democratic aspirations of citizens”. It asserts that, “such functioning of the police personnel needs to be professionally organized service oriented, free from extraneous influences and accountable to law”. It also envisages “redefine[ing] the role of the police, its duties and responsibilities, by taking into account the emerging challenges of policing and security of State, the imperatives of good governance, and respect for human rights.”
It acknowledges that, “it is essential to appropriately empower the police to enable it to function as an efficient, effective, people-friendly and responsive agency”. It also makes an important commitment by providing for civilian oversight of policing through the institution of a State level Police Accountability Commission as well as District Complaints Authority. However, the final shape it took does not live up to many of its promises. Therefore, even the CHRI felt it necessary to submit a note of dissent on several key aspects.
Composition & Jurisdiction of State Accountability Commission
The mandate, composition, jurisdiction and powers of oversight bodies under the Model Police Bill are circumscribed in such a manner that they thwart the very purpose for which the civilian oversight agencies have been created. The Commission does not provide a meaningful role for citizens, except as aggrieved petitioners. Jurisdiction of the State Police Accountability Commission is limited to attending to allegations of “serious misconduct” against police personnel, defined as any act or omission of a police officer that leads to or amounts to:
(a) Death in police custody;
(b) Grievous hurt, as defined in Section 320 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860;
(c) Rape or attempt to commit rape; or
(d) Arrest or detention without due process of law.
There is no provision for monitoring the routine functioning of police stations and redressing complaints regarding the routine abuse of power and common types of misconduct such as extortion, implicating people in false cases, patronizing criminal mafias, acting in a partisan manner towards vulnerable groups, dishonest investigations to protect vested interests, fabricating evidence, perjury or failure to uphold the rule of law. Its definition of “serious misconduct” does not include torture that does not lead to “grievous hurt”. Nor does it have oversight rights over ‘death in police action’ as opposed to ‘death in police custody’. For every person who dies in police custody, thousands are terrorized and blackmailed through less lethal but no less harmful methods. Unless the routine, hum drum functioning of every police station is put under thorough scrutiny of citizens of the area through well worked out mechanisms including the power to hire and fire, the fate of high powered oversight bodies at the district or state level to take cognizance only of cases of death or grievous injury will be no better than that of our ineffective Human Rights Commissions. If the day to day functioning of police stations is not rigorously monitored by local citizens, the District and State level bodies will collapse under the overload of complaints, especially since in all likelihood they will be denied adequate resources to attend to even a fraction of complaints they receive.
The Composition of the Commission dilutes the idea of accountability to citizens. Of five members—four are either serving or retired government functionaries—a retired High Court Judge as the Chairperson of the Commission; a retired police officer from another state cadre, a person with a minimum of 10 years of experience either as a judicial officer, public prosecutor, practicing advocate, or a professor of law and a retired officer with experience in public administration from another state — among these sarkari representatives, there is just one person as a representative of civil society — who could also well end up being a retired bureaucrat or a political appointee. The very idea of including a retired police officer in the oversight body defeats its purpose and will compromise its credibility because the Commission is intended to inquire into serious complaints of police high handedness and the failure of internal review and redressal mechanisms of the police.
Insufficient Powers and Limited Mandate: The Commission has not been given a clear mandate to call for evidence and relevant documents or to demand compliance of its orders or ensure that the police do not allow enquiries into cases involving vested interests drag on endlessly. It is not enough to limit its powers to merely “advising” the police to expedite completion of cases. It should have the power to investigate the cases itself and ensure compliance of its orders. It also needs to have the power to prosecute government servants without prior sanction of the Government. Minus that power, it will find itself thwarted because such permission is rarely forthcoming due to the immunity provided to government officials by Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
District Accountability Authority: a Mere Post Office for Complaints?
This body appears to have no real function or power except to forward complaints of serious misconduct and monitor them. It can at best give advice to police authorities. Therefore, it cannot live up to the promise of being an “Accountability Authority”.
The idea of having a District Complaints Authority will work only if it actively monitors the functioning of all police stations under its jurisdiction in a proactive way rather than merely act as a post office for forwarding complaints. Such an Authority will need to be created in each police district, rather than lumping a group of districts together citing lack of resources as the reason. Unless it makes a special effort to be accessible to the poor and marginalized groups, it will degenerate into yet another dysfunctional body. As with the State Commission, the District Authorities require effective local civil society representation instead of having retired judges, police officers and bureaucrats doing the job.
Uninspiring Track Record of Newly Created Police Complaints Authorities: The Model Bill provides that an independent selection panel and not the government will nominate members of the above-mentioned Commission and the Authority. However, the few state governments that have set up a Police Complaints Authority, following directions of the Supreme Court, have appointed handpicked members of their choice rather than let independent panels select them. The well-entrenched tendency of our political establishment to capture all such institutions through pliable political appointees is evident in the composition of all these bodies. Almost all these state level Authorities are ill equipped, poorly staffed and starved of resources. Not surprisingly, none of them are functioning as effective watchdogs as per the mandate of the Supreme Court. If this is the fate of Police Complaints Authorities constituted under the watchful eye of the Supreme Court, one can well imagine the fate of the entire top heavy accountability structure once the “business as usual” attitude takes over.
Special Police Officers or Official Touts?
The concept of Special Police Officer is provided for in Section 17 of the 1861 Police Act. It enabled the police to enlist members of the local community in special cases of disturbance to peace in an area. But this was intended for extraordinary circumstances, with the permission of the magistrate and the assent of the local residents of the area. But Section 22 of the Model Police Bill makes it a regular feature, without requiring evidence of any special disturbance in the area and without seeking the involvement of the local community.
The institution of SPOs has earned enough disrepute. It is well known that every thana patronizes the most unsavory elements in any neighborhood to act as informers and touts. They work as go betweens between citizens and the police for the purpose of collecting bribes and for “controlling” citizens. These touts usually enjoy the backing of local, state or even national level politicians. It is through them that the politician–police nexus turns so lethal. The power to appoint “Special Police Officers” has therefore been widely misused in favor of such touts. During the decade of separatist terrorism in Punjab such SPOs created widespread resentment because of frequent abuse of power instead of acting as links with civil society.
Unfortunately, the Model Police Bill has lent further legitimacy to this practice. The Superintendent of Police is given the power to appoint “any able-bodied and willing person,” aged between 18 to 50 years, that he considers fit to be a Special Police Officer to assist the Police Service. This SPO appointed under Section 22 would have the same powers and immunities as ordinary police officers, without the obligation or opportunity to get the comprehensive training a regular officer is made to undergo. We need more rigorous selection norms for selecting wellqualified officers and invest far greater resources into providing them world class training than we do at present. The institution of SPOs will further compromise standards, which are already appallingly low. Quality policing is too vital a matter to be subject to cutting costs in this manner. Rural Police System: Vast Scope for Abuse
The Model Police Bill introduces the concept of Village Guard for each village. He will be provided with an honorarium and treated as a government servant. There will also be multi Village Defense Parties consisting of about 15 members who will be given a modicum of training and provided identity papers. They will be paid nominally for their expenses. The duties of Village Guards and village Defense Parties will include:
a) Preventive patrolling;
b) Securing and preserving scenes of crime;
c) Remaining alert and sensitive to any information about any suspicious activity, or movement of suspicious persons or development of any conspiracy in the village, that is likely to lead to a crime or breach of law and order, and promptly passing on such information to the police;
d) Making arrests and handing arrested people to the police without delay.
This is another cost cutting measure that has vast scope for abuse. These provisions would amount to every village being infested with police agents with the power of arrest. Given the shoddy track record of our supposedly trained policemen in “preserving and securing crime scenes or in preventive patrolling” one can well imagine the level of expertise Village Guards are likely to be provided.
But they will have sweeping powers with ample scope for settling personal scores, extortion and blackmail. Who decides who is a “suspicious person” or “suspicious activity”? Authorizing Village Guards to arrest and hand over a suspect to police without the requirement that this takes place within twenty-four hours of arrest will make them even less accountable than the regular police. The politically dominant caste groups are bound to corner all such posts leading to further bolstering of their power and likelihood of abuse. Surprisingly, the Model Bill does not have any role for elected panchayats at the village level. Today’s sarkari panchayats function poorly because the bureaucracy and the politicians lord over them. If we create yet another powerful body located right in the village to lord over the panchayats as an extension of the local police station, this will make panchayats totally ineffective. Village policing ought to be brought within the purview of the elected panchayats with due safeguards rather than have police appointed Village Guards become empowered tyrants.
Licensing Powers and Good Behavior Bonds
Sections 92-97 grant police special powers in metropolitan and major urban areas under the Commissionerate system, including powers for licensing or even prohibiting the keeping of a place of public entertainment; licensing or even prohibiting the running of cinemas; regulating or prohibiting public assemblies and processions; and requiring people to execute bonds, “with or without sureties for good behavior” if the police receives information that the concerned person is “likely to do any wrongful act that may lead to disturbance of public order”. This is no different than the existing Kalandra system and likely to be just as ineffective in controlling crime.
Even in the hands of civic agencies, the License-Permit-Raj has an inglorious track record of being corruption-friendly because it legitimizes harassment through arbitrary denial of licenses or assembly to those who do not find favor with the current regime. It is not appropriate to let the police have powers to regulate the cultural life of a community. Sultani Power to Banish People Section 97 grants the police to issue sultani farmaans to remove and banish people from their homes and cities. For example, a person may be removed if “it appears to the Commissioner of Police” that the person’s “movements or acts” “are calculated to cause “alarm”, “danger, or harm to person or property”. This section also provides ample scope for misuse at the behest of vested interests who may implicate their opponents in false and fabricated cases to get rid of them from the area and deprive them of their land and home. In any case, if a person is “hazardous for a community”, he/she should be booked for the offences committed and put in jail if found guilty rather than be allowed to run amok in some other areas. The scope for misuse is enormous especially since the police can exercise such sweeping powers without the need for judicial process with independent witnesses willing to testify to the wrongdoings of the person thus targeted.
Special Security Zones
Section 112 to 118 and Section 121 enables Special Security Zones to be declared by Union Government with the concurrence of the State Government. It mentions the need for appropriate police structure, integrated mechanisms and standard operating procedures for such Special Zones. But all these terms are vague and ill defined, thus providing ample scope for arbitrary exercise of power as happens in regions which are under the purview of Disturbed Areas Act. Similarly, phrases like “terrorist activity”, “militant activities”, and “insurgency” are used without precise definitions of what these terms imply. Many poor people—street vendors, rickshaw pullers etc.—who operate at the mercy of the police, routinely complain of “police aatank or terror” However, we know that it is not the citizens’ perceptions of terror but that of police officials that will decide what these loaded terms mean. This is likely to mean further compromises with fundamental rights of the community at large and of political dissenters in particular. The arrest and prolonged detention of Dr Binayak Sen on charges of abetting terrorist activities in Chhattisgarh and the undiminished influence of Maoist terrorism in the Disturbed Areas should act as a warning against putting over much trust in the efficacy of such measures or in the ability of the police to be judicious in the use of such measures.
Learning from Our Own Past
While it is important to learn from the best models of policing currently operational in different parts of the world, it is equally important to learn from India’s own pre British institutional history - how various communities catered to their security needs and instituted forms of accountability into the system. The continued dependence of our political and intellectual elites on the models of governance created by our colonial masters and their inability to democratize them is in large part due to a very high level of ignorance of our ruling establishment regarding India’s civilizational principles, contempt for the surviving indigenous institutions, a deep mistrust of our people, lack of respect for their views, wisdom, needs and aspirations. That is why post independence legislation tends to be highly authoritarian and our reform measures always top down.
This is not to suggest that we have to blindly emulate or relive our real or imagined past history. But we need to study our pre-colonial history and the nature of diverse civil society institutions prevalent in different parts of India without looking through colonial lenses if we wish to understand India’s civilizational heritage, including its flaws. People without a healthy critical sense of their society’s past often lose the ability to creatively shape its future. Our people’s continuing reliance on caste and biradari institutions, often in preference to governmental structures and laws, points to the need to build the democratic institutions of today and tomorrow by including the positive features of the institutional genius of India’s diverse peoples.
Pre British India has often been described as a society of self-governing village republics. Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of Swaraj was based on resurrecting and renewing some of the key principles and institutional structures of those self-governing village republics to suit present day requirements. Unfortunately, in post independence India, we stayed enamoured with colonial modes of governance and did very little work to unearth and document of our forgotten institutional history.
One of the few illustrative accounts of how the self-governing republics functioned is provided in the works of Gandhian historian, Shri Dharampal. To illustrate an example from the vast body of his writings, I would like to cite a small insightful extract pertaining to the system of policing in pre British India described in his work on the “Indian Economy and Polity in the 18th Century” jointly authored with M D Srinivas. This was based on a study of palm leaf manuscripts of 1764 to 1774 pertaining to Chengalpattu District in Tamil Nadu along with a contemporary survey of the villages mentioned. These manuscripts provide a detailed account of the functioning of more than 2,100 localities in the Chengalpattu region of Tamilnadu around the time of the British conquest of the region. It bears testimony to highly productive and wealthy village communities, with a sophisticated decentralized system of self-governance by citizens involving all spheres of life, including an inter-village and intra-village security apparatus. This was in sharp contrast to the highly centralized, authoritarian system of governance and policing thereafter imposed by the British colonial regime.
The practice in this region of Tamilnadu was that every household in the village contributed about 30% of its produce to the common resource pool of the village in order to pay for the over 30 categories of service providers required by the village. This included artisans—weavers, potters, ironsmiths, goldsmiths, carpenters, sthapatis as well as those who provided intellectual, cultural or spiritual services such as teachers, priests, vaids, devadasis and so on.
It is noteworthy that unlike our present day underpaid police force— the village militia and police were among the highest paid functionaries of the village. They received a certain proportion of the total agricultural produce of an area, and in lieu of such remuneration, it was their duty to protect all those who contributed to this charge from local disturbance, thefts, etc.
The Karnam or Conicoply (which really implied the office of the registrar of the village, a sort of secretariat, rather than a single individual) generally had an allocation of 3–4% while the Taliar (i.e. the village police, which may have included several persons) generally had an allocation of around 3%. In cases of theft etc., if the police or the Palegar (the head of the militia and perhaps one who also acted as a modern Inspector General of Police for his area) were unable to recover the stolen property, they were expected to compensate the aggrieved party from the incomes allocated to their offices. Since each household paid a portion of their produce for the services of the police, each could demand and get accountability of a high order.
The establishment of British rule was accompanied by the imposition of alien laws, regulations to facilitate draining of the economic wealth of local communities and a repressive top down police force to enforce those laws. It is worth noting that the in this region of pre British India the offices of the Taliar, the Corn-Measurer, the settler of boundary disputes, and a few other village offices, were generally filled by persons from what later came to be described as the Pariah and allied castes. Similarly, in Maharashtra, it was the Mahars (who are today listed as lowly Scheduled Caste) that constituted the village police. This indicates that the present day depressed status of many of SC and Backward Caste communities may be primarily rooted in the impoverishment of Indian society and the forced disruption of their functions and entitlements.
The disempowerment of village communities from managing their internal affairs ushered in the demeaning “Petition Raj” whereby the only remedy available to citizens was to appear as hapless supplicants before some higher authority against wrong doing by their juniors. This authority was also not by law obliged to respond to citizens. This colonial minded system and mindset process continued unchecked even after we began to be ruled by our “elected representatives.” Despite the trappings of democracy, officials in India, especially the police, are a law unto themselves, accountable only to their seniors and are accordingly designated “Government Servants” rather than “Public Servants.”
Today, crude, effete, caricature versions of the traditional community appointed policing are evident in many of our urban centers, including Delhi, despite the highest concentration of government police stations and therefore witnessing among the highest crime rates in India. Almost every middle and upper middle class colony has become a gated community with private guards paid by local residents for their neighbourhood security. But unlike the highly paid local police of the Chengalpattu variety, most of these security guards are recruited from among the impoverished, undernourished, untrained rural migrants who are handed simple lathis and whistles to patrol at night or note the names of people and the number plates of vehicles entering the area during day time. They are paid a miserable pittance, not provided even elementary training or basic facilities like toilet or a place to rest after duty hours and treated with utter disdain. They are therefore good only for harassing those as vulnerable as them—street hawkers or other service providers — whose entry they can restrict at will. This indicates that centuries of enslavement and tyranny of the colonial system has disoriented our society at large and destroyed the inner strength and moral values of community life in India, something essential for devising functional, people centric institutions.
Towards an Accountable and Efficient Police Service The police system cannot be set right in isolation. Police reforms have to be an integral part of institutionalizing radical measures of accountability of government officials and elected representatives to citizens, involving far reaching electoral, legislative, judicial and administrative reforms. However, it is vital to start the process with the law and order machinery because its malfunctioning makes all other institutions dysfunctional. Citizens who feel confident in the ability of the police to uphold their constitutional rights do not take long to acquire the power and resolve to demand and secure better performance in all other areas of governance.
If we cannot make our police stations into institutions trusted and respected by ordinary citizens who feel that the police are willing to make common cause with them in marginalizing the role and power of criminals in our country, none of the special institutions for countering terrorism are likely to deliver results. It is only honest, law abiding citizens who can become effective “eyes and ears” of the police. Dubious elements and touts, even those working for the most professionally trained Intelligence agency, cannot pre-empt external or internal subversive elements. While a concrete blueprint for creating an accountable and efficient police service worthy of a vibrant democracy cannot be accomplished without active involvement of a cross section of concerned citizens and a vibrant public debate on the role, duties, responsibilities, entitlements, and powers of the police, I would like to present a small wish list, indicative of the direction
in which I would like to see the agenda of police reforms move:
1. Even the best of reform measures will fail if the Government does not take determined steps to weed out the criminal elements which have become well entrenched in the system. In order to put a new system in place and protect it from sabotage, the police establishment has to be rid of the enormous control and influence such criminal elements have come to acquire at all levels of the system. This will give strength to people with integrity who currently feel marginalized and demoralized.
2. The present four tier system is far more vicious than the inequities of our much vilified caste system. The social, educational, cultural gap that exists between the lowly constables and the elite IPS cadre makes effective teamwork virtually impossible. Both for State Police Services as well as for the All India police cadre, there must be a single entry point for joining the police service and for promotions all the way up the ladder, and the starting salary should be MORE or at least comparable to that of a Lieutenant in the Indian Army.
3. The police service must be among the highest paid services in the country. Minimum educational qualification should also be raised to Graduation along with competence in the use of computers. This should be followed by two years of world class training in policing, including the judicious use of arms, gathering intelligence, building trustworthy relations with citizenry, proactive approach in upholding democratic, constitutional rights of citizens and protection of vulnerable groups.
4. The current system of a common civil services exam must be replaced by a specialized recruitment process as currently operational for recruitment in the Army. The police service must not be saddled with people who accept this service by default simply because they fail to make it to the more sought after IAS and IFS. Special aptitude and psychological tests need to be given precedence over judging merit on the basis of marks obtained in written tests and common interviews for civil services by the UPSC.
5. There should be a complete ban on the use of constables as personal servants and orderlies. It vitiates the morale of lower level staff by destroying their self-esteem. Such persons become unfit to perform cutting edge policing involving active inter face with citizens.
6. CCTV cameras should be installed in each and every police station so that the routine functioning of police personnel can be monitored by independent and empowered Monitoring Authorities constituted for this purpose comprising mainly of credible local residents selected through a rigorous transparent process, with institutionalized checks and balances for their functioning. All meetings of these Monitoring Authorities must also be video recorded and made available to citizens on demand under RTI. The District, State and National level Monitoring Authorities will work effectively only when monitoring the functioning of police stations is honest, transparent and effective.
7. Part of the salary of police personnel must come from a special tax levied from local residents of the area so that they feel they have a stake in the efficient and honest functioning of the system.
8. The practice of using transfers, as rewards and punishment must stop. If a police officer is found abusing his power in the job he was assigned, he should be dismissed rather than given a respectable way out of the mess he has created. There should be transparent and finely tuned institutional mechanisms for transfers and postings which are currently based on the whims and prejudices of bosses—both administrative and political. 9. Promotions should not be determined solely on the basis of Confidential Reports by senior officers, nor depend on the political patronage commanded by an officer. That breeds a culture of servility, sycophancy and authoritarianism. Instead, professional advancement should depend on the institutionalization of proper performance evaluation systems at each level, including citizen’s’ evaluation and feedback from juniors.
10. Police stations must be well equipped, well furnished and designed to meet the requirements of 21st century policing. Even their physical appearance must be such as can inculcate a sense of professional pride and self esteem among those who operate from there.
11. Democratic rights of police personnel as citizens must be well protected and effective machinery for speedily responding to their legitimate grievances must be an integral part of police reforms.
All this will succeed only if civil society has the capacity to produce credible and competent representatives, deeply committed to democratic values and respect for the human rights of vulnerable groups as well as the courage to act in a non-partisan manner. This process cannot happen without refashioning our governance institutions in a manner that rebuild the crushed self esteem of citizens. Citizens without self-respect inevitably turn into petty tyrants who emulate the habits of their own oppressors, even while they despise them. All this requires a long term perspective, patience and nurturing. If not in this lifetime, I hope to see this wish materialize in a future lifetime.
Acknowledgement: This paper would not have been written but for the encouragement of Mr. Ved Marwah, Chairperson of the Task Force on Internal Security. He created an exceptionally democratic and mutually respectful atmosphere for discussions throughout the tenure of the Task Force making each one of us, including a non specialist like me, feel a valued member of the Task Force. Since I often had strong views on democratization and accountability of the police as a precondition for strengthening Internal Security, Mr Marwah insisted that I write this paper to be submitted as an Appendix to the main report of the Task Force. I wish to express my sincere thanks to him for making our participation in the Task Force a memorable experience, despite my initial skepticism regarding government committees. I would welcome feedback and suggestions on this paper at email@example.com
* Ms. Madhu Kishwar is a Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
- Kamal Kant Jaswal