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The Hoax Of Police Reforms In India

A clever ploy to wield unbridled power without any accountability

Police Reforms in India
Assam police veerangana march during full dress rehearsals wearing face mask for the 74th Independence Day celebrations, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, in Guwahati on 13 August 2020. (Istock Photo)

Whenever there is some glaring mistake by the police or some atrocity committed by them, the media and the people swayed by the media start lamenting that the police are in dire need of police reforms. Even if it is not stated in so many words, it is invariably implied by everybodythat police reforms are like some sort of panacea; all it needs is their implementation and voila, we will have the most efficient, most humane police in the whole world in no time.

Indians have this quintessential habit of believing in miracles, of seeking simple solutions to complex problems. You may recall how, not so long ago, the country had pinned its hopes on the institution of Jan Lokpal—have the Jan Lokpal and the country would be corruption free. There was quite a sizeable movement on this and some people made way to the corridors of power riding on the wave of this movement. What the institution of the Jan Lokpal could accomplish, is for all to see.

Indians are always in need a messiah, a ‘taranhar’ or a saviour. This saviour may be a charismatic person or may be an idea, but we need something. Police reforms are also a ‘taranhar’ idea.

The seeds of this idea were sown by the Supreme Court judgment in the case of Prakash Singh (2006). The petitioner had mainly highlighted the phenomenon of frequent and indiscriminate transfers ordered on political considerations as also other unhealthy influences and pressures brought to bear on police.

The Supreme Court then passed directions about formation of State Security Commission, Police Establishment Board and Police Complaints Authority; fixed tenure of the DGP and other officers on operational duty in the field up to the SHO; and separation of investigation, etc.

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There is no evidence that implementation of these orders have had the slightest effect on the functioning of the police. Every single premise of the so-called police reforms including fixed tenures for the DGP, has fallen flat on its face in the 15 years that followed the order.

Not a single citizen can be found who could testify that they could move the cops to do what they were legally supposed to do without the ‘grease of bribe or some sort of sifarishor pressure’.

If the cops have belied the expectations of the Supreme Court, the reason is that the so-called police reforms are a hoax.

The entire business of police reforms stems from an unstated presumption that the police officers are inherently good whereas the politicians are inherently bad and hence, the police officers must be given complete freedom so that he may do the good work.

To speak of ‘insulating the police from political interference’ indicates that the bureaucracy treats itself as something inherently ‘superior’ which condescends to ‘serve’ the hoi polloi, but is repeatedly thwarted in its ‘noble’ attempts by the politicians who are inherently ‘inferior’. This is a self-serving, self-congratulatory attitude.

There is no basis at all of such a presumption. Politicians and government servants of all description are products of the very same society, social milieu, education and value systems.

Government servants selected through a tough examination may be more intelligent and smarter than the politicians may. However, there is no reason to believe that the mere fact of passing one examination and undergoing PT/parade for a year or two years changes their very genes and they become incorruptible virtuous people while the politicians remain evil incarnate. Intellectual capacity has nothing to do with the character or integrity of a person.

The police reforms campaign in this country, particularly the way it has been sold to the public and the media, cleverly conceals the fact that all they want is more power—unbridled power so that they may commit their misdeeds with more impunity.

Corruption in the police and extortion by the police are so well known that I would be wasting time and space if I discuss it here. At present, the proceeds of corruption are shared by the cops and the politicians. Under the pretext of autonomy, they want to keep the whole loot to themselves.

In all the states, transfers and postings of officers, for example, are a blooming industry. The posts of district SP of a district with major avenues of corruption or that of the SHO of a similar police station cost up to a crore!  At present, most of the money goes to those in power.

The reformwallahs’ desire to create an ‘exclusivist’ system that seeks to ‘clip the wings’ of the ‘dirty’ politicians has ulterior motives to garner a larger share of the booty than is possible with the politicians ‘intimately’ and ‘mightily’ involved with the system.

Contrary to popular perceptions, politicians alone have not looted this country. It is the nexus of ‘netas’, bureaucrats, criminals, businessmen, industrialists, and all those ‘brokers of power’, which has systematically raped this country and its wealth.

There is a serious danger in the reform agenda that seeks to free police from political control without making them more accountable to the public.

If the politicians commit wrongs, the public can theoretically boot them out after five years. However, if the officers are committing wrongs, the people have no option but to suffer them for 30-35 years, until they retire.

This is not acceptable. To allow untrammelled jurisdiction and powers to the police in the name of independence or autonomy strikes at the very roots of the principles of responsible and accountable governance.

Elected representatives are accountable to the people they represent. Selected officers are not accountable to anybody. In the democratic system that we the people of this country have given to ourselves, the representative of the people are supreme and that is how it should be. Officers must necessarily work under them.

With my experience of 34 years in the IPS, I can safely state thata very large officers tend to be insensitive, cruel, unreasonable, and mechanistic, whereas many poorly educated politicians display more compassion, commonsense, reasonableness and capacity to think out-of-the-box. A retired IAS officer, Avay Shukla rightly points out that most officers have very high levels of schadenfreude (pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune), and love nothing better than to see the proletariat squirm.

The truth of the demand of autonomy under the guise of reforms is that these people want selective autonomy.

Politicians are an integral part of the democratic system. You cannot label them as inherently bad and seek to create a parallel system within the system.

The evils that beset the police are manifold, like the multi-headed Lernaean Hydra of Greek mythology. There are no simple solutions to them. One will have to grapple with complexity to devise solutions for it.

It is beyond the scope of this article to suggest ways in which the police in India can be ‘improved’. However, I must point out two things. First, that it is not possible by the much-touted, oversold myth of police reforms. Second, police is only a small part of a complex criminal justice system, with each component operating independently of each other.

Any attempt at reform that seeks to modify only a small part of the system for populist reasons is bound to fail. For example, if the people want a system that delivers justice quickly, it will not be achieved by merely making the police file the charge sheet quickly as long the system of ‘tareekh par tareekh’ (that is, dates after dates) continues in the courts.

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We have given this country a very complex system where plugging all the loopholes is not possible.An attempt towards a cosmetic alteration in the system would be farcical because it would eventually leave sufficient other loopholes intact.

The current police reform campaign is trying to obfuscate the real complex issues and project that the evils that the police officers do are ordered by the politicians only. This is not only wrong; it is a white lie.

Fact is, in most cases, officers themselves seek out ‘political patronage’. Who does not know the real reason for it? It is to curry favours with them and wield ‘extra’ power, etc. The relationship is very much symbiotic and there is no intrinsic antagonism.

Those police officers who do ‘bad’ or ‘unprofessional’ things do not do them because they are compelled to do so by the politicians at gun point; they do them because they serve their own interests by doing those things.

I do not have any reason to hope that the State Security Commission, the Police Establishment Board or similar fancy institutionscan bring any change in what the individuals eventually deliver to the people.

The so-called police reforms in India seek to reform the system whereas the malady lies more with the men who work for the system. Trying to blame the system alone is to deny the obvious truth.

They have no desire to reform the men because it’s where their vested interests lie. If every SHO becomes honest, how will he pay those lakhs of rupees every month to his superiors?

Even an outdated system can deliver results provided the men charged with the system have a desire to deliver. The desire to deliver is more important than the means to deliver.

Police reforms are a selfish agenda of senior officers who want more power and money for themselves. The elected representatives of the people must not allow these clever officers to mould public opinion against them. It will be dangerous for our cherished democracy. 

Author: Dr. N. C. Asthana is a retired IPS officer and a former DGP, Kerala. He is the author of 48 highly acclaimed reference works on various subjects, 76 research papers and 67 articles. He tweets @NcAsthana.

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