Representational image: Flickr Commons
Representational image: Flickr Commons

On September 28, the Indian government approved a Rs25 billion “umbrella” police reforms scheme to be implemented between this year and 2020.

The scheme, said to be “one of the biggest moves towards police modernisation in India,” is expected to strengthen the law and order apparatus, modernize state police forces and enhance counter-terrorism capacity. The central government will provide about 75% of the funds and the rest will come from the state governments.   

Priority will be given to improving policing in conflict-affected Jammu & Kashmir and other areas.

Other issues to be addressed include special provisions for women’s security, force mobility, logistical support, hiring of helicopters, upgrading police wireless, satellite communications, and crime and criminal tracking networks and systems (CCTNS), including “e-prisons.”

The scene will help state police forces upgrade transport, communications and forensic services. Increased funding for state forces is expected to enhance the capacity to deal with Maoist violence  in central India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had used the colourful phrase “SMART policing,” which means the police would become strict and sensitive; modern and mobile; alert and accountable; reliable and responsible; and tech-savvy and highly trained. Can the prevailing system of “rulers’ police” ever achieve these lofty goals? That is is the million-dollar question.   

In 2006, the Supreme Court of India issued six guidelines for improving police performance drawing on the neglected recommendations of the National Police Commission (1977-81). The guidelines, which were “super-structural” rather than “infrastructural,”  focused on the living conditions of the subordinate police.

In 2007, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (SARC) reported on “public order” and made further recommendations that have not been implemented.   

The SARC, among other things, noted the disastrous consequences of the dehumanization of the guardians of law and order and said fake police “encounter” killings had given the police a bad name. Wholesale reform of the criminal justice administration and the police structure were called for to eliminate such unlawful killings by the police.

The commission noted that corruption and inefficiency were the order of the day in policing. The concept of police accountability is critical in dealing with the deterioration of the institution. The “symbiotic relationship” between ruling politicians and policemen has complicated the issue. The role of training in explaining and implementing police accountability needs to be emphasized.   

“Accountability” means an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility and account for one’s actions. Accountability in the sphere of governance means that public officials have an obligation to explain their decisions and actions to citizens. Accountability is achieved through various mechanisms – political, legal and administrative. A delicate balance must be struck between control and the initiative of policemen.

In the United Kingdom, there are 43 police forces with a tripartite system of police accountability. In the United States, there are 17,000 police forces, each under the control of their respective elected local government.

The complex task of balancing control over the use of police powers and the need for operational autonomy necessitates the division of police functions into prevention, investigation and service provision. The police perform different functions and the accountability required for each function is quite different.  

The entire police service needs to be restructured to create two separate agencies dealing with “investigation” and “law and order” with separate accountability mechanisms

The entire police service needs to be restructured to create two separate agencies dealing with “investigation” and “law and order” with separate accountability mechanisms.

Independent district and state police complaints authorities (PCAs) must be set up to look into allegations of human rights violations. An independent inspectorate of police like the one in the UK should be set up to establish a system of rigorous inspection of police stations and the performance of police officers. The inspectorate should look into recurrent incidents of suspicious deaths in “encounters” with the police.

These measures are not envisaged in India’s latest scheme for the “modernisation of police.”

The organizational model of the Indian police today derives from the colonial experience in 1861. That model was based on the Irish colonial paramilitary structure, which is not appropriate for a democratic, republican country.

The secrecy and political importance of the intelligence wing; the coercive strength and disposition of the force; high levels of state violence; institutionalization of an armed wing within the civilian structure; close identification with propertied interests and so on must be removed.

Further, a huge centralized armed paramilitary police force emerged after independence, defying the constitutional imperative of decentralization.   

The colonial criminal laws and procedures intended to suppress the people are still in force after 70 years of independence. This contradicts the Preamble, Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Rights of the Indian Constitution. They contribute to the enduring unpopularity of the Indian police.

Police officers at all levels must be sensitized to human rights. The National Human Rights Commission has stated that 60% of all the arrests made by the police are either unjustified or unnecessary and that 75% of all the complaints of human rights violations received by them are against the police.

Moreover, custodial violence, torture and extrajudicial executions continue. A 2008 report said that 1.8 million people are tortured in police custody every year. Finally, India  has not yet ratified the United Nations’ Convention against Torture.

Thus, there are many challenges ahead. The British said in the late 1850s that the Indian police were “all but useless in the prevention and sadly inefficient in the detection of crime; unscrupulous in the exercise of authority, they had a generalized reputation for corruption and oppression.”  

Two police commissions set up by the British in 1861 and 1902 failed to address these issues.

India set up a National Police Commission (NPC) in 1977 that submitted eight reports in 1981. Though some piecemeal social engineering was carried out, no fundamental reforms were implemented.

In 2005, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission submitted 15 reports, one of which was on public order  (2007). The recommendations contained in reports have remained largely unimplemented. A dismal story indeed, given the present exercise.  

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.