Whither police reforms? Law enforcement may be failing Indian democracy

The current pattern of law enforcement in India dilutes the claim to be a  robust and equitable democracy and  the hapless citizen pays a heavy price, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor


The end February riots in Delhi that coincided with the visit of US President Donald Trump  led to the death of more than 50 people and scores more were injured. Two security personnel were also killed including an intelligence official. This kind of violence with a sectarian orientation was last witnessed in November 1984  after the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and during that period there was a total breakdown of the law and order machinery in the capital and the army had to be called in to restore order.

However Delhi 2020 was of a lower order if such tragic events can be so qualified, for more than 2500 innocent Sikhs were killed in Delhi in that tragic period of late 1984. Yet there can be no denying the fact that whatever be the reasons for this violence (triggered by the protests over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act ), it does point to a lapse by the local police and intelligence agencies.

The Trump visit to Delhi  (Feb 25) was a major event and hence precautionary security measures would have been taken and yet the nature of the violence that engulfed parts of north-east Delhi pitting Hindu and Muslim groups against each other was neither anticipated nor prevented. Provocative speeches and threats issued in public by a local political leader affiliated with the ruling party  the BJP (Bharatiya Janata party) only aggravated the situation.

Yet no preventive action was taken and in certain areas, the local police was accused of being partisan in targeting Muslim suspects  and incriminating visual evidence has been circulated on social media. The net result was the  loss of precious lives and property and a lack of faith in the local police. Order was restored only with the personal intervention of the NSA (National Security Adviser) Ajit Doval who visited the affected areas.

Police acting in a  manner that casts aspersions on their professional integrity ( to be impartial enforcers of the law)  has been the bane of the Indian state thereby weakening the democratic ethos. This is very visible in state governments where the police are expected to adopt an orientation that is slanted towards the political party   in power and very often transfers and recruitment to the state police force are  the leverages used to consolidate  this patronage model.

Thus it was very pertinent  that  NSA Doval dwelt on this cardinal tenet of the corelation between the police and democracy. Speaking at a police conference  he reiterated : “Law-making is the most sacrosanct job in a democracy. Legislature makes the law and the police enforce it. You are the enforcers of that law. If you fail, democracy fails.”  He further added about the trust factor : “People will take one stray aberration of a policeman having done something and then that will be the headline. It is the perception that provides confidence to the people and enhances their trust.”

Regrettably, in India there is little trust in the police as a competent, empathetic and impartial enforcer of the law and this is an issue that professionals have highlighted for decades. The criminalisation of Indian politics and the increasing politicisation of crime was the subject of a detailed report (October 1993)  by then Home Secretary NN Vohra  and the summary was bleak. The entire Indian eco-system of governance stood compromised.

The need for reforms within the functioning of the police has  come from outside and a former Director General of the UP Police, Prakash Singh, filed a PIL (public interest litigation) in 2006 that led to the courts directing the executive to embark upon such reforms. Alas 14 years later there has been no effective movement towards cleaning the stables.

The current pattern of law enforcement in India dilutes the claim to be a  robust and equitable democracy and  the hapless citizen pays a heavy price.  Paradoxically this was evidenced on the same day that the NSA was exhorting young police officers to redeem  the trust reposed in them and thereby strengthen the democratic impulse.

On March 5,  a  Delhi court acquitted 30 of  59 accused people in a 1985 transistor-bomb blast case where 49 innocents were killed. The court noted that the “investigation conducted in these cases was defective, lopsided, unfair and suffered from various lacunae”. The fact that judicial closure was arrived at after 35 years needs little comment. How India evolves in the next few years will be shaped by the Doval metric – the texture of the police-democracy linkage.

(The writer is Director, SPS)