September 22 is to be celebrated as “Police Reform Day” because of the landmark Supreme Court verdict on that day in 2006 in a petition written by Prakash Singh and others. The three-judge bench made up of Judges YK Sabharwal, CK Thakker and PK Balasubramanyan studied “distortions and aberrations” in the functioning of the police and gave seven important instructions. If implemented, they will be a game-changer for Indian citizens and the police.
However, corrupt politicians and police together hinder reform implementation. The Sachin Waze-Param Bir Singh-Anil Deshmukh saga is a recent example of dangerous collusion. It was to end these ungodly ties that the SC intervened to free law enforcement from the clutches of selfish political leaders. Allow honest police officers to focus on their professional crime prevention, investigation and law enforcement work, instead of being used and abused by those in power. One of the main causes of the slow progress in police reform is the lack of public awareness and sustained interest in law enforcement.
Citizens shout loudly if there is a cruel rape, merciless murder or theft in the light of day, but fall asleep later, encouraging political parties to maintain the status quo. The SC therefore took the initiative to initiate reforms aimed at a citizen-centered police force. It demanded that all assignments, from the head of a police station to the department head, be based on merit. Currently, proximity to the ruling party is the only criterion. Police officers are therefore busy cultivating politicians instead of looking after the interests of citizens. To verify this pervasive harmful practice of “picking”, the court ordered the formation of establishment committees for impartial assignments, transfers, promotions and other service-related matters involving police officers. It involved the Union Civil Service Commission for the selection of heads of state police forces. The Court’s insistence on the fixed tenure of all operational leaders is to give police chiefs sufficient time to implement their policies. Otherwise, their terms have been solely dependent on the pleasure or displeasure of the ruling party.
The establishment of security commissions at the Center and in the States, in accordance with the Court’s directives, would ensure sound policy development at both levels. It would also protect the police from undue political pressure, allowing them to focus on the essential issues. The court further requested a separation of public order and criminal investigation. This would reduce the police workload. The Status of Police in India Report 2019 (SPIR) from Common Cause, Lokniti, Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Tata Trusts found that “police in almost all states (are) excessively overworked , with an average staff working 14 hours a day ”.
Another police reform that is entirely in the interest of citizens is to establish “complaint authorities” at district and state levels. These impartial and independent committees are supposed to investigate allegations of police misconduct or harassment and provide assistance to the community.
The seven major reforms aim to reorganize law enforcement, but the response from states has been lukewarm. One can also discern deliberate sabotage on the part of political parties, as they tend to appoint their favorites to establishment committees and complaints authorities. Extensions are also used for preferred officers who are about to retire to harass or silence dissent. As a result, these bodies, even though they are created in some states, have failed to gain the trust of police officers or citizens. And this is not unique to any political party, all are united in their effort to “put the parrot in a cage”.
If police reforms are implemented seriously, criminals like Vikas Dubey will not be allowed to kill uniformed police officers. Male criminals are not going to rape women either. Because the officers at the head of police stations and districts, men and women of merit, will act in time to prevent such a crime. If we are to ensure that criminals do not roam around fearlessly and to improve conviction rates, the merit of police officers must be the sole criterion for their appointment to police stations and above. And the Supreme Court painstakingly took this into account in its order.
At present, petty criminals are gradually becoming donations due to political patronage. Initially, they are used to threaten “troublesome” people. Gradually they start their own extortion rackets or engage in violence, forgery or hoarding of essentials as local politicians successfully neutralize the police and other law enforcement agencies. Engaging in dubious land deals, real estate, hotel and restaurant businesses emptied of black money, they form dangerous criminal gangs. Giving protection to these illegal activities and collecting money through them enriches agents of different departments as well as politicians. It’s a vicious circle. And it is this politician-officer-criminal bond that the SC attempted to demolish in 2006.
It is in all of our interests to vigorously pursue police reforms and to hold EU and state governments accountable for their failure. The Supreme Court has established a clear and compelling process for creating a citizen-centered police force. It is entirely up to us to implement it.
This column first appeared in the paper edition on September 22, 2021 under the title “For a citizen police”. The writer, an IPS officer, retired as Managing Director, Bureau of Police Research & Development