Creating citizen-centric police

Meeran Chadha Borwankar writes: Supreme Court's directions in 'Prakash Singh' have remained on paper, obstructed by politicians and corrupt police officers. People must demand accountability on police reforms.

September 22 needs to be celebrated as “Police Reforms Day” because of the Supreme Court’s historic verdict on this day in 2006 in a writ petition by Prakash Singh and others. The three-judge bench consisting of Justices Y K Sabharwal, C K Thakker and P K Balasubramanyan studied the “distortions and aberrations” in the functioning of the police and had given seven significant directions. If implemented, they will be game-changers for the citizens of India and the police.

However, politicians and corrupt police officers together are obstructing the implementation of the reforms. The Sachin Waze-Param Bir Singh-Anil Deshmukh saga is a recent example of dangerous collusion. It is for ending such unholy nexuses that the SC had intervened to set law enforcement agencies free from the clutches of self-serving political leaders. To enable honest police officers to concentrate on their professional work of crime prevention, investigation and maintenance of public order, instead of being used and abused by those in power. One major cause for the tardy progress of police reforms is the lack of public awareness and sustained interest in law enforcement.

Citizens cry out loudly if there is a cruel rape, merciless murder or daylight robbery but later go into a slumber, which encourages political parties to maintain the status quo. The SC, therefore, took the lead to initiate reforms aiming at citizen-centric policing. It mandated that all postings, from the officer-in-charge of a police station to the head of the department, should be based on merit. Currently, closeness to the ruling party is the sole criterion. Police officers, therefore, are busy cultivating politicians instead of looking after the interests of citizens. To check this all-pervasive detrimental practice of “cherry-picking”, the court had directed the formation of Establishment Boards for unbiased postings, transfers, promotions and other service-related matters regarding police officers. It involved the Union Public Service Commission for the selection of heads of state police forces. The court’s insistence on fixed tenure to all operational heads is to give adequate time to police leaders to implement their policies. Otherwise, their tenures have been solely dependent on the pleasure or displeasure of the ruling party.

The creation of Security Commissions at the Centre and in states as directed by the court would ensure robust policy-making at both levels. It would also protect the police from unwarranted political pressures, enabling them to concentrate on core issues. The court has further sought a separation of law and order and crime investigation. It would reduce the workload of police officers. The ‘Status of Police in India Report 2019’ (SPIR) by Common Cause, Lokniti, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Tata Trusts found that “police personnel of nearly all the states (are) excessively over-worked, with average personnel working for 14 hours a day”.

Another police reform that is entirely in the interest of citizens is establishing “complaint authorities” at district and state levels. Such impartial and independent committees are meant to enquire into the allegations of police misconduct or harassment and provide succour to the community.

The seven major reforms aim to revamp law enforcement agencies, but the response from the states has been lukewarm. One can also discern deliberate sabotage by political parties as they tend to appoint their favourites to Establishment Boards and complaint authorities. Giving extensions to preferred officers who are on the verge of retirement to harass or silence dissent is also being resorted to. As a result, these bodies, even if created in some states, have failed to win the confidence of either police officers or citizens. And this is not peculiar to any one political party, all of them are united in their effort to “cage the parrot”.

If police reforms are implemented in true earnestness, criminals like Vikas Dubey will not be allowed to kill police officers in uniform. Nor will felonious men go around raping women. Because officers leading police stations and districts, being men and women of merit, will act well in time to prevent such crime. If we want to ensure that criminals do not prowl fearlessly and wish to improve conviction rates, the merit of police officers should be the sole criterion for their appointment in police stations and above. And the Supreme Court has laboriously factored this in its order.

Presently, small-time criminals gradually become dons due to political patronage. Initially, they are used to threaten “inconvenient” persons. Gradually, they start their own extortion rackets or take to violence, adulteration or hoarding of essential commodities as local politicians successfully neutralise the police and other enforcement agencies. Entering into dubious land deals, real estate, hotel and restaurant businesses flushed with black money, they form dangerous criminal gangs. Giving protection to these illegal activities and collecting money from them enriches officers of different departments as well as politicians. It is a vicious cycle. And it is this politician-officer-criminal nexus that the SC tried to demolish in 2006.

It is in the interest of all of us to pursue police reforms vigorously and to hold Union and state governments accountable for their failure to do so. The Supreme Court has laid down a clear and cogent process for creating citizen-centric police. The onus of getting it implemented is entirely on us.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 22, 2021 under the title ‘For a citizen’s police’. The writer, an IPS officer, retired as director general, Bureau of Police Research & Development

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