Seven states and the Union Territory of J&K have appointed acting officers despite Supreme Court’s guidelines. Most are officers superseding seniors, leaving the police a slave to the party in power
By Vikram Kilpady
There’s a popular adage spread by films in India—jiski laathi uski bhains. Harkening to the age of the wanderer-nomad, the adage means he who wields the stick, owns the buffalo, or, the cow, the prime asset in a pastoral world.
Given the importance of the stick in politics, it also functions as a euphemism for control of the local police. The problem with this control is that it is carried to the extremes in some cases, such as in Uttar Pradesh, which has seen four acting Director Generals of Police (DGPs) in almost two years.
The state recently appointed Prashant Kumar, the Director General (Law and Order), as the acting DGP. He replaced Vijay Kumar, who had retired. Earlier, Vijay Kumar was appointed acting DGP by superseding his senior Anand Kumar, to replace Raj Kumar Vishwakarma. Vishwakarma had replaced Devendra Singh Chauhan who was given the acting DGP mantle in May 2022. That first acting DGP appointment was made because the then incumbent Mukul Goel was removed for exhibiting lack of interest towards work.
In 2018, the Supreme Court had modified its own 2006 guidelines on the appointment of DGPs in a PIL filed by Prakash Singh, a former Uttar Pradesh DGP. It said states should send a list of officers eligible to be DGP, including the three senior-most officers, to the Union Public Service Commission six months before the incumbent DGP was to retire.
The UPSC had to sift through the list and send the top three for the states to pick one. The UPSC would invariably pick the senior-most and not the ones who either enjoyed political patronage or could be made to submit to the executive’s demands. This practice is now followed more as a chore as states would either not follow the protocol required in sending the proposal to the UPSC or riddle it with errors to make it ineffective, causing it to be sent back. This gave them a valid reason to choose an officer of their own liking, citing lack of time or procedural delays. Some states don’t even send the proposals and returned to the situation quo-ante, and went about picking their favourite as acting DGP.
Prakash Singh’s main plea in his PIL was to get the police force out of the clutches of the party in power and modernise it. But with the big DGP ticket in mind, officers would play anything, but square. Several IG rank officers have been vying with each other to appear more pleasing for their respective state governments. Some have showered petals from helicopters on kawads, making the annual pilgrimage before the spring navratras, and ensured the photos were tweeted and Facebooked. Some cracked down on dissidents and shops selling non-vegetarian products in the name of protecting “purer” sensibilities. In other parts of the country, officers have been enforcing ruling party diktats, especially when it comes to rallies, marches and protests by rival political formations, to either trouble them or refuse them permission outright.
Among the other Supreme Court guidelines were that any candidate for DGP should have at least six months’ of service left before retirement. This was to curb state governments from appointing pliant officers to the post, who would get a two-year extension on assuming office.
In 2006, the Supreme Court had frowned at the practice of appointing acting DGPs and said there should be no ad hoc or temporary appointments for this post under exceptional circumstances. That stricture is now being twisted in seven states and a Union Territory. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Odisha have acting DGPs, as does Jammu and Kashmir.
Some of the Court guidelines ended up whittling the authority of the DGP. Primarily to make transfers and postings transparent, the Court had ordered the formation of establishment boards. These would comprise five members, including the DGP. Therefore, what was once the DGP’s prerogative to transfer or post some officer was snatched and vested with the board, which could overrule his choices. This ended up making the DGP a sinecure instead of strengthening the institution, and left room for states to pick and choose officers for acting DGP roles.
Earlier, the senior-most officer would get to be the DGP. Some of the tough guys who did their job without fear live on in people’s memories—Walter Devaram in Tamil Nadu and KPS Gill and Julio Ribeiro in Punjab.
After the judgments in the Prakash Singh PIL, the stature of a DGP waned into relative insignificance. Now, officers aspire to leading elite city forces like the police of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai as the Commissioner, knowing the roulette for DGP is loaded against them.
Remember the removal of Anjani Kumar, the acting DGP of Telangana, by the Election Commission? He was turfed out because he had landed up to congratulate the now Congress CM Revanth Reddy when the exit poll trends were pouring in, early December. He was replaced by another acting DGP.
In Andhra Pradesh, the YS Jagan Mohan Reddy government superseded almost 10 IPS officers to appoint KV Rajendranath Reddy as the acting DGP of the state last February.
Punjab, which had either voted for the Congress or the Akalis, gave the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) a landslide victory in February 2022. Coming to power in a second state after Delhi, the AAP government appointed Gaurav Yadav as DGP on additional charge when DGP VK Bhawra went on two months’ leave. Yadav had superseded half-a-dozen IPS officers senior to him. But the situation is flummoxing as Bhawra returned and was transferred to the Police Housing Corporation, an age-old sinecure for officers out of favour. Bhawar has moved the Central Administrative Tribunal challenging his ouster.
Parties which ink new victories operate on the oft-held belief that proximity to power taints officers and that the ancient regime’s favourite top brass should be outed, akin to what happens in the civil administration after a military-led coup.
The supersession of officers is a regular phenomenon in appointments of acting DGPs. Political parties have no qualms in choosing the pliant one even if other senior and capable officers are in the fray.
Take the Odisha government. It bypassed seven senior IPS officers to appoint acting DGP Arun Kumar Sarangi in December 2023. In the Union Territory of J&K, the central government appointed CID chief RR Swain as acting DGP in end-2023. He was picked over seven cadre officers who were senior to him and eligible for the post.
In West Bengal and Uttarakhand, the governments chose from the three names they had sent to the UPSC. West Bengal acting DGP Rajeev Kumar had been in the news a few years ago when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had staged a protest in Kolkata after he was summoned by the CBI for questioning in the Saradha case.
To lay the blame on states for this acting DGP merry-go-round is being unfair. The brain behind this exercise is the Union Ministry of Home Affairs with its handling of vacancies at the top in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs). Director Generals of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Central Reserve Police Force have held sway over the other CAPFs at one point or another over the last four years. The decision to get CAPF DGPs to multitask was because there were way too many vacancies at the top in individual forces. A similar blight had befallen the Central Bureau of Investigation and the National Investigation Agency too before that was set right.
Prakash Singh’s PIL on implementing police reforms has been pending in the Supreme Court for some three years now. Hearings and a verdict are bound to get more prescriptive norms.
With no officers left of the calibre of Julio Ribeiro and KPS Gill, the greater turnout of pliant officers as acting DGPs is here to stay.