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Roadblocks and solutions to police reforms

Despite a slew of police reform commission reports and Supreme Court directions, change is yet to come among officers and men in the police force across the country. APN News conducted an in-depth discussion on the issue of police reforms on its special show India Legal. The show was moderated by the channel’s Editor-in-Chief Rajshri Rai. A summary of the discussions:

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By Sanjay Raman Sinha

The National Crime Records Bureau’s latest data for 2020 is worrisome in many respects. As compared to last year, there has been an increase of 28 percent in the total cases of crimes in the country. The number of cases registered under the SC/ST sections has also increased last year. Uttar Pradesh tops the list in crimes against women. One rape happens every 16 minutes in India. At one level, the figures are an indictment of the police force of the country. It is not a question of whether the police are in need of an overhaul. The question is how and how soon.

It has been a long drawn battle for police reforms. Almost two decades of prolonged legal combat has yielded very little. Despite the formation of umpteen commissions and committees, we as a nation are still seeking a solution to regulate and reform the workings of the police force. Starting with the Kerala Police Reorganisation Committee of 1949, a series of police reform committees have been commissioned. The philosophy undergirding these reform proposals were that political interference can create mutual vested interests between the khaki and the khadi, and it is better to delink the two. It also held that providing police to function in an independent space can improve its workings.

But the path leading to good intentions is not always easy. State governments found it convenient to go slow on the reform proposals and retain control of the reins of the police force. It was in 2006 when the Supreme Court passed its landmark Prakash Singh proposals. It was thought to be the panacea of all ills besetting the police but sadly state governments chose to ignore or evade the directions. This, of course, is a sad comment on the political class.

The lack of will and courage has pushed Prakash Singh, former director general of police, Uttar Pradesh, into action again. The veteran former police chief has filed an application in the Supreme Court. Singh put the problem in context. He said: “The Supreme Court had given seven directions with regards to police reforms. It had asked for the constitution of a State Security Commission to ensure that the state government does not exercise unwarranted influence or pressure on the police. The Commission was also to ensure broad policy guidelines for the police force. The Court also had wanted that the director general of police be appointed through a merit-based, transparent process, and secures a minimum tenure of two years. That a person appointed as director general of police should continue to hold the post for a reasonable period beyond the date of superannuation.

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“The directions also had asked for a fixed two-year term for senior officials like the director general of police and the superintendent of police. The Court had directed to separate the functions of probe and maintaining law and order. It had also directed setting up of a Police Establishment Board to decide and make recommendations on transfers, postings, promotions and other service-related matters of police officers of and below the rank of the deputy superintendent of police. Police Establishment Board would have to give recommendations for transfer and posting of personnel. There was also a complaint authority for state and district level, so that accountability for misdeed can be fixed and action taken.

“These were some basic recommendations. We expected the system to improve and the grievances of the people against the police be reduced. But states resorted to their usual tricks to avoid Supreme Court directions. The Court had said that the directions will be binding till the states make laws of their own, and the states found ways to evade monitoring. They made laws to avoid court monitoring. Till now, eighteen states have made laws, all against the letter and spirit of the directions of the Court.

“In May 2008, two years after the directions were issued, the Supreme Court had appointed Justice KT Thomas as the head of the three-member monitoring committee which would keep a tab on implementation of its directions on police reforms. After two years of assessing the situation, the Justice Thomas committee expressed ‘dismay over the total indifference to the issue of reforms in the functioning of police being exhibited by the states.’ 

“Several committees have been formed during the interim period. Even Supreme Court has monitored the implementation of directions, and the results are not encouraging. In this context, we have filed an application at the Supreme Court for urgent hearing of the case.”

The apex court may take note of the application. But there are fears that the same fate may befall on it as what happened to other pleas, petitions and directions. In that case, the recalcitrant stand of the states can throw up a challenge for the judiciary. Can it resort to contempt proceedings against the state?

Prakash Singh knows better. He said: “From 2006 to 2008, in two years, I have moved five contempt petitions against the most defiant and deviant of states. I had expected notices to be issued to state home secretaries, the DGPs but sadly the Supreme Court didn’t issue notices.’’

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Justice Bhanwar Singh, former judge of the Allahabad High Court opined:

“There is option for contempt proceedings. Whoever is responsible for not carrying out the directions, contempt action may be initiated against them. But in a democratic set-up, contempt action against bureaucracy is not good. So the Court insists that the police takes and follows its directions. The fact is that no government wants to make police independent of it and lessen its grip on it. The people in power want the police to work according to their directions, to serve the political will. That is why we find so much interference in filing of FIR in sensitive cases. However, the people want efficient and responsive police force. But for the police to operate at its optimum, better infrastructure, modern arms, more manpower and proper training is needed. Establishment Boards should be in place, different police personnel should be allocated for probe and law and order work. All this is recommended by the Court but is not happening. Reforms, especially making the police force independently active don’t suit the political masters. The states are unwilling to give up their hold on the police force.”

Recently, while granting protection from arrest to the suspended director of Chhattisgarh police academy against whom two criminal cases of sedition and amassing of disproportionate assets have been filed by the state government, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana had said: “When a political party is in power, police officials take the side of the particular (ruling) party. Then when another new party comes into power, the government initiates action against the police officials. This needs to be stopped,” This is the ground reality which the Court was forced to take cognisance of, but can it issue contempt notices for not following its directions? That would be too much.

Prakash Singh conceded the point: “I concur with CJI Ramana when he points to politicisation of the police force. But we also have to take in consideration that the Supreme Court has penal powers and it needs to be used when directions are ignored.’’

The Supreme Court had said that police reforms have to be monitored. To avoid this, states have been passing token laws to avoid monitoring. Clearly, the centre can pass laws concerning two or more states if all the concerned states are willing. But how to bring the states to the table if the political will is lacking?

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GK Pillai, former home secretary with Government of India, said:

“Police and law and order are state subjects. Central government can give directions, however, implementation is up to the states. If a notice is sent to the state home secretary and the director general of police for non compliance of directions then it will act as a deterrent for all others. All states will toe the line. But we can’t blame states alone for the state of things. In Delhi, the centre couldn’t make the Model Delhi Police Act which would have served as a model for all the states.”

Justice Bhanwar added:

“The Supreme Court can mete out punishment but it can’t run governments. But a matter of respect is also involved. The courts have pushed the envelope. Contempt action was taken against Kalyan Singh, the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The apex court had initiated contempt proceedings against Singh after it was found that structures were being erected at the Ram Janmabhoomi site. Singh was found guilty and the court had sentenced him to a token imprisonment of one day with a fine of Rs 20,000. It was a one-off case. But if repeatedly contempt proceedings are used it will lower the respect of government and also that of the judiciary. The Supreme Court knows that its job is to pass orders and not to run the government. The government should also accept the constitutional powers of the apex court and follow its directions. The government can make police reform laws based on the reports of various committees and the court can monitor its implementation. There is a delicate balance in democracy which shouldn’t be disturbed. Laws should be made then it will be easier for the courts to pass directions.”

The home minister had recently stated that more than police reforms, it is reform in policing that is needed. But reform in policing entails more manpower, better infrastructure, modern arms and updated training. Prakash Singh said: “There are many things in policing which the government should pay attention to. The Supreme Court has passed seven directions for states. This is the heart of the problem. If the directions are implemented properly all things will be sorted out. Right now five lakh policemen are needed, infrastructure has to be upgraded, and police quarters are in shambles, they need to be put in condition. Vehicles and communications modes need to be looked into. Labs are outdated, forensic reports are delayed affecting judgements. Model police stations have been established, but all police stations need to be made up to mark.”

The police-public ratio is heavily lopsided. There are only 144 police officers for every 100,000 citizens. The United Nations-recommended ratio is 222. The vacancy rate is almost 30 percent. Decreased spending on police in recent years is adding to the resource crunch. Between fiscal 2011 and 2015, states spent 4.4 percent of their budgeted expenditure on policing on average but this has reduced to 4 percent over the last four years, according to PRS Legislative Research. 

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GK Pillai added:

“Funds for police are regularly released by the centre. But modernisation efforts have to come from police and the states. However, if policing has to improve then political control on police force has to cease. FIR in sensitive cases shouldn’t be registered on political command. This is just one of the instances how polarisation works. The government has to function as per the rule of law. The DGP’s tenure shouldn’t be tampered with. Long term police reform agenda should be worked on with. In this digital age, stress should be on cyber security and cyber policing. But as for the Supreme Court guidelines, law and order is state subject and states should shoulder the responsibility of reforms.”

Justice Bhanwar said:

“There have been umpteen police commissions to look into the matter. The fact of the matter is that the court can work up to a point. Centre and state should not be in conflict but work in tandem. Policies should be formulated keeping ground realities in mind.”

Prakash Singh looks at a wider solution. He said:

“States are not initiating tough steps, which is the need of the hour. The political class has developed vested interests to main the status quo. What is needed is a people’s movement to bring about change. Laws need to be enacted and people’s representative, the MPs and the MLAs should take the lead.”

At a time when the government is rooting for pan India laws and is advocating “One Nation, One Ration Card”, “One Nation, One Registry” and “One Nation, One Election”, a singular police law may solve the problem. Building a broad consensus among the states and formulating a National Police Act may refurbish the image of the men in khaki.

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