By K. Subramanyam
Police accountability is perhaps the focal point of discussion in every human rights forum. The recurring theme of this narrative is how brutalised and even criminalised the police force in India is and how the Indian police, wallowing in the British legacy and armed with the “power to take away life and liberty”, continues to be a threat to human rights and civil liberties by its “use of coercive force”. The setting up of the police complaints authority (PCA) in this context and the reported “unhappiness” expressed by the director general of police in Maharashtra over this move, as detailed by Maja Daruwala in her article ‘Perpetuating impunity’ (IE, February 24), has prompted me to put across my views on the subject.
Complaints against police could be for any of the following reasons: police misconduct arising out of procedural violations; criminal misconduct in making false arrests; extortion, intimidation, etc; or violation of human rights by selective enforcement of the law. Thus, occupational deviance in the police could take the form of simple misconduct to outright corruption and criminality. Police misconduct and corruption are universal. The degree of misconduct varies according to the gravity of the situation faced by the complainant and the scope for manoeuvring by the official.
True, there are instances of abominably brutal behaviour by the police, like assaulting handicapped persons or even women at police stations, as seen in some parts of the country. In such instances, besides severely dealing with those directly concerned with these criminal acts, the role of supervisory officers must be subject to scrutiny to bridge any trust deficit. One has to bear in mind that just as every action of a policeman while enforcing rule of law gives him scope for corruption, a strict non-partisan approach in such enforcement could also invite allegations from the person who violated the law. This is the reality that both citizens and the police are confronted with daily.
Daruwala has painted a picture of total lawlessness and anarchy in Maharashtra, all because of the abuse of power by the police, and she believes that a PCA , composed only of people from outside the government, can improve police accountability.
When we advocate the introduction of yet another watchdog in the form of the PCA, are we admitting that the existing grievance redress systems, including the courts, have failed? The question that begs an answer is: How many oversight bodies should be calling the police to account to ensure a squeaky clean and public-friendly police force? On one hand, we make a strong case for respecting police hierarchy and chain of command as an integral part of police reform and on the other, condemn the entire hierarchy as incompetent and complicit in abuse when they deal with the misdeeds of the subordinate police force.
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Contrary to perception, the police department has been unsparing while dealing with misdemeanour and misconduct in the police force. There are instances where the superintendents of police at the district level, acting on complaints against subordinate officials, suspended them and ordered departmental inquiry or even registered criminal cases where warranted. And in corruption cases, sanctions for prosecution are accorded in almost 100 per cent cases, unlike other departments in government that keep them pending for years. This shows the intense commitment of the department as a whole to cleanse the system.
It is also important to note that at times, vested interests make complaints against the police with the express intent of thwarting legal action against the guilty. Any indiscriminate action against the police based on such false complaints could demoralise the force. Ironically, we have so far not formalised a mechanism whereby such malicious complainants could be legally dealt with. For this reason, the introduction of penal provisions for making false complaints in the Maharashtra Police (Amendment) Ordinance is welcome. This is not an absolute immunity but a protection against possible reprisals. Therefore, the constitution of the PCA in its present form cannot be said to be anomalous. To say that no “brave soul” can venture to approach a PCA composed of government and police officials is as hyperbolic as attributing the police with “powers to take away life and liberty” of people.
It is nobody’s case that the entire police force, through the length and breadth of the state, is impeccable and a picture of perfection. Competent police officers committed to the cause of upholding human rights and improving the image of the police can always make a difference. That is why the clamour for leaving matters related to police administration, including postings of officers, to the head of the police force is incessantly made. The PCA, composed of either government-sponsored officials or independent groups, may not be viewed with cynicism but is certainly not the panacea for the problem it seeks to address. While the PCA, being an offshoot of the assumption that the police is bad and ugly, dabbles with deviant police behaviour, it is important to focus on building the internal corrective mechanisms in the police forces, such as the development of the right attitude, intense training in behavioural aspects, sensitisation of police personnel to take a humane approach to problems and the active enlistment of communities as stakeholders to infuse confidence, which can go a long way in protecting human rights and making the police more people-friendly.
The writer, a retired IPS officer, is former director general of police, Maharashtra