Urgent police reforms and regulation required in India, but politicians unwilling

What is required to be done is that all enforcement agencies, like ED, CBI and, at the state level, the police, should be completely insulated from political masters, writes Vinod Aggarwal for South Asia Monitor

Vinod Aggarwal Feb 10, 2020
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Photo courtesy: The Quint

The police in India is governed, administered and controlled by laws like the Police Act, 1861 and Indian Penal Code. Law and order being a state subject under the Indian Constitution, the police in all states are under the control of the state governments, which means chief ministers and home ministers. The Central government does not have police forces, except in union territories it directly administers, but it has enforcement agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Income Tax Department and Enforcement Directorate (ED). Neither the state authorities nor the central rulers ever feel shy of misusing or abusing law enforcement agencies and other agencies for their convenience. 

This law and order enforcement system was designed by the British to control the country. It suited the Congress party when they held power in the Centre for 55-plus years. It equally suits the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Tamilian Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna DMK, the Trinamool Congress, the Janata Dal (United) and all other state and central ruling parties. No one is ready to give up “ownership” of the police and carry out any meaningful reforms which would ensure that the police forces become proper, independent law enforcement agencies, commanding true public confidence, rather than a puppet in the hands of the political masters.

The subject of police reforms has been under discussion for at least 40 odd years. Several committees have been appointed to study the subject. All of them made several recommendations to ensure that the police do not act as private armies of the central or state government. The Supreme Court has passed a detailed judgement on police reforms in a case filed by the retired head of Uttar Pradesh Police, Prakash Singh.

Although orders passed by the Supreme Court automatically become the law of the land which have to be implemented, this has surprisingly still not been done, except for a few cosmetic changes. What is required to be done is that all enforcement agencies, like ED, CBI and, at the state level, the police, should be completely insulated from political masters. 

Mechanisms suggested for this are simple. Recruitment of police, postings and transfers, promotions etc. must be done through independent bodies, not controlled by politicians. Complaints against police officers must be probed by independent bodies. It is not difficult to implement these orders. But which government would willingly give up control over the police, always willing to act as an accomplice in their illegal activities and in putting down the political opposition?

If police were to be outside the purview of ministerial control, ministers would become quite powerless, much like the Chief Minister of Delhi. Politicians would not be able to order a police officer to arrest, torture, discipline a political opponent or any inconvenient person or save their followers when they are found in violation of the law. Such cases include Kuldip Shengar, a BJP state legislator from UP accused of rape and murder of a girl and recently convicted to life imprisonment, Swami Chinmayanand, again of the BJP, facing rape charges, perpetrators of the 1984 anti- Sikh riots in Delhi, among others. 

Both the ruling and opposition parties justify police action when in power and criticize similar action when they are in opposition. However, they do not undertake the reforms, fearing a loss in their power.

On the subject of police reforms, most of the law enforcement agencies like ED, Income Tax and CBI at the centre and police at the state level are the main collaborators of government in India in 'disciplining' or 'controlling' inconvenient opponents. In authoritarian  regimes, the public is mentally reconciled to the fact that they have no freedom and thus they quietly follow what the rulers tell them, like in China, Russia, North Korea, Pakistan, almost the entire Middle East and several countries in Africa and in South America. The issue of police suppressing public dissent with an iron hand, legally or illegally, really arises only in democratic countries where a few hundred people can hold an entire locality to ransom by blocking rail, roads and public transport.

It is common knowledge that in several countries, including India, the police do not always act within the law. Whether in routine criminal cases like theft, traffic offences, drunken driving etc, or political cases like demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act or National Register of Citizens, reservations for some castes/communities, damage to public property and inconvenience to the public is usually a primary outcome. 

The police, ED, CBI and so on cannot and should not be expected to act impartially within the law. There is a structural problem of design here. The problem does not primarily lie with the police force. It lies with many of the laws which date back to the British era and control of the police by the political governing class.

Despite the current opposition crying hoarse that the present government and police is partisan, the same police was totally law-abiding when they were in government. When the roles get reversed, the same theatrics will continue to play out, until radical changes take place.

(The writer is an entrepreneur and a former legal correspondent)

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