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Police reforms: Goals and means

The well-known protagonist of police reforms, Prakash Singh, in a recent write-up diagnosed the problem behind an apparent lack of progress in this direction by identifying five points of challenge that had not been tackled so far – the unholy nexus between politicians


Sentinel Digital Desk

DC Pathak

(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)

The well-known protagonist of police reforms, Prakash Singh, in a recent write-up diagnosed the problem behind an apparent lack of progress in this direction by identifying five points of challenge that had not been tackled so far – the unholy nexus between politicians, bureaucrats, police and criminals had to be broken, a bar had to be put on persons of criminal background entering the Assemblies and Parliament, restructuring of police had to be done to give it 'functional autonomy', a robust criminal justice system had to be put in place and there had to be emphasis on bringing about systemic changes that had universal application.

Four of these postulations depend on a collective will power of the political executive, legislatures and the higher judiciary to get into the act – this has not happened so far for reasons that can be gone into but are not difficult to imagine. It is far more important, however, for people who have had a lifelong experience of managing the police system from positions of leadership, to start spelling out how the restructuring of police should be done to provide it functional autonomy. For this, it is necessary to be upfront about accepting that whatever little course correction could be done from within the police machinery by its leadership, had not been attempted or achieved.

It needs to be mentioned at this point that in no other major democratic country an equivalent of IPS (and IAS) exists where a bright young person on the basis of a national examination gets launched on merit, in a career in the government that literally starts with a leadership position – in just about five years of service he becomes as the SP the commander-in-chief of the large armed and civil police force of the district serving a large territory and a large segment of the population just as his IAS colleague became the Collector described in the British times as the 'king' of the district. To be fair to them, young IAS and IPS officers showed a lot of moral strength and decisiveness before, with the passage of time, they climbed down on these inevitably because of the 'messaging' they perceived they were getting from the above. It is generally seen that officers lose their direction and strength as they move up the hierarchy – there were many honourable exceptions – and the first step in the direction of reform, therefore, is to examine how the DGP of the state should become the pillar of strength for officers under him or her in the exercise of their 'functional autonomy'.

It would be theoretical and Utopian to expect that all facets of democratic governance would simultaneously upgrade themselves to create an ideal environ for the citizens but the logic of why the beginning should be made with the police is easily established. In a democracy, the police is the only coercive arm of the state and it is crucial, therefore, that it is even-handed about giving a sense of protection to law-abiding citizens and creating an image of deterrence for the law breakers. Sometimes a corrective action by way of a warning and caution may be sufficient for a citizen who happened to violate a traffic rule for instance – exercise of this discretion honestly, however, is a leadership function that only an officer and not a constable would be able to perform. On the other hand, the lawless elements also sensed that befriending lower-level police personnel was easier and, hence, here again the handling of such elements had to be closely overseen by the officers.

Policing in India must, therefore, become officer-oriented which is not what obtains at the police station, the focal point of law-and-order management. Importance of the police station was highlighted in the British law that India inherited, clearly laying down that all senior police officers exercised the power of the Station House Officer in respect of all police stations in their jurisdiction. A police station symbolizes the sovereign power of taking cognizance of a serious offence and starting its investigation and yet this is the establishment that was allowed to be degraded mainly because the IPS leadership did not get focused on improving its performance and apparently kept itself above the affairs of that ground level face of police. The opposite of this should have been happening with the officers spending a significant part of their time and energy at the police stations.

The first police reform, hence, is to get the police stations manned by gazetted police officers assisted by inspectors and sub-inspectors with all necessary transport facilities and communication equipment being made available to them. A unit of armed police must be kept at major police stations and those in communally sensitive areas or on the borders. The idea is to minimize constabulary's role in the core of investigative work. No supervisory Circle Officers would be needed then and this will cut cost. The government has to spend on the safety of law-abiding citizens through a reformed police station. It is no good for an IPS officer to claim that he is personally honest and good – his prime responsibility is also to take responsibility for the functioning of the police stations in his charge. It is this lack of involvement of seniors with the police station that this important instrument of democracy has been left at the mercy of unscrupulous politicians. A police station is the protective arm of the state located closest to the public but is shunned by the law-abiding citizens. There should be a serious introspection by the police leadership on this before pleas of other wings of the government not taking their share of responsibility are raised.

A second point of reform is to restore the autonomy of the DGP heading the state police. This will begin with the defining of the process of DGP's selection and appointment itself. An unhealthy race for bagging that position goes on all the time because extraneous influences including politics play a role and also there was no transparency in selection. Image of senior officers takes a beating in the process and this had a multiplying effect on the force down the line in terms of a decline of integrity and efficiency. Supreme Court has shown the path by laying down that the UPSC should draw up a panel of three officers in consultation with state government for the selection of DGP and that no 'officiating DGP' should be appointed. This will allow for merit and seniority to become the decisive factors in the appointment at the top and if it is done for a tenure of say two years, it would stabilize the system to a great extent. The added advantage here is that the Centre would have a legitimate role in putting a systemic reform in place in a situation where policing, being a state subject, got relegated to the position of politician-driven machinery. In a democratic country, it is necessary that the vital function of managing the law and order had a uniform execution for the citizens through the length and breadth of the nation. Considering the vast differential that was seen in the performance of the state governments on this front, the Centre must actively discharge its constitutional duty of reprimanding a state for serious failures in the sphere of implementation of law and maintenance of order. Weakness of law and order is, in fact, sullying the image of India.

The third area of police reform that can be handled internally is to restore the function of 'supervision' at all levels – this responsibility, so important for a force in uniform, had almost disappeared from the system. In the Army, a soldier is never punished without a matching liability being put on the JCO right above. In policing, it is even more important that a failure or misdeed of the personnel should prima facie call for a scrutiny of the role of the immediate supervisor. This does not happen with the result that all blame is pushed downwards to the lowest levels of the chain. This has to go together with a policy of zero tolerance of any 'rogue' behaviour of a policeman. Rape or murder in police custody in the watch of a police station officer, receiving bribe from a criminal under investigation or connivance in the commission of a crime itself are matters that can make it a fit case even for dismissal without enquiry under Art 311(2)(c) of the Constitution on the ground that the act of the policeman had the effect of causing internal destabilization in the country. Even one such case of genuine punishment of a rogue cop would create a deterrence all around.

The first step in this direction has to be to give back power to the DGP to suspend a police officer for the commission of a serious misconduct or offence. The police chief of the state looks so weak in the absence of even this minimal authority. In the final analysis, it has to be stated that police reforms in this country must begin with the Indian Police Service redefining its role and responsibility in helping to run a secular democratic rule. For too long has the police leadership sat passively avoiding an introspection and pleading for the other stakeholders in the system doing their part first. Maybe, the DGP Conference is a good forum for discussing police reforms on these lines. (IANS)

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