The annual conference of the directors general of police will be held at the end of this month in Guwahati. Organised by the Intelligence Bureau, and not by the police establishment, the conference concentrates on insurgency and national security, rather than on everyday policing of the ordinary population, which should be a primary concern. Still, these conferences are rare moments when men of power and responsibility — there are few women in high police positions — can deliberate collectively. This time, a new prime minister will be putting his stamp on the occasion.
It is time the political and police leadership had a sincere conversation on what is holding back reform. It is time to think about the relationship between the police and the political executive: how best to design it so that one does not impinge or enervate the other. The new and improved Model Police Bill, put forward by the Soli Sorabjee Committee, set up by the ministry of home affairs, offers a solution to this issue. It is time to lay out what the common principles of policing in a democracy should be. It cannot be punishment inflicted by force on behalf of the ruling regime.
Policing must be a service that is essential to the whole population: efficient, responsive, law-abiding and accountable. The obsession with status, postings and promotions should give way to a greater emphasis on improving police stations and chowkies. These are the basic and most important service units, and are closest to the population.
There must be fundamental changes in recruitment practices and training curricula so as to bring in people and attitudes better suited to a new kind of policing. Many individual officers have generated good practices. But they remain experimental and ad hoc, given the presence of risk-averse leaderships and mean considerations of territoriality and credit.
Actionable plans with set timetables must be put in place to improve diversity across the police establishment. The force should no longer be imaged as the preserve of machismo. This has brought no glory. It is time to detail how the force means to adapt its internal culture and attitudes to accommodate and mainstream women. With the national average of women in the police force at about 7 per cent, no one can claim the force is gender friendly or “inclusive”. It is useless to blame women for not joining. The police must examine why it is so unwelcoming to about half of the country’s workforce.
The excuse that the British left behind militaristic policing has worn thin after 67 years. We need to own up to the fact that the leadership is comfortable with this design and has perpetuated its feudalism. The police needs to stop passing the buck for sub-standard service to interfering politicians, scheming bureaucrats and a dilatory judiciary.
There are problems whose solutions lie in the hands of the police leadership and not of any outside agency: for instance, accountability. It is imperative to revamp internal systems of accountability, seen as secretive, unfair and patronage-driven, and put in place systems that distinguish between disciplinary breaches, poor service delivery and outright criminality. But the police must also stop being bitter about external mechanisms of accountability like courts, human rights commissions and the new police complaints authorities. The collective leadership might want to analyse why they were deemed necessary in the first place.
The state, too, must help the police transform from a state force to essential public service, equipping it with more personnel, money and infrastructure but also demanding the strictest accountability. The PM has a penchant for using technology as a solution. It can aid better policing but it can’t change sub-cultures. In fact, increased capabilities within arrogant sub-cultures can increase their exploitive nature. Modernisation without the assurance of constitutional legality is the sure road to perdition. Today we are well on that road.
Across states, police establishments are in a parlous state. Their dubious methods — to say the least — do not even have the virtue of efficiency and, in the end, they fail in their primary duty of bringing the guilty to justice and protecting the rights of the innocent. In their defence, it must be said that the police are ill cared for by the regimes they serve.
The PM has emphasised the need to sweep the country clean of the corrupt, the ineffective, the apathetic. Recently, he was more specific about the “how” of change, calling for reforms to be “people-driven” and insulated from politics. Hopefully, the PM will stick to this credo and promote openness and wide consultation with people on root and branch reform.
He will be speaking with the authority of a government that has a commanding majority in the Centre. Today, many of the states also wear his colours. His words will have huge influence on shaping police deeds in days to come. Police behaviour with our sovereign people will be a significant marker of the ethics and legitimacy of the Modi administration, when its history comes to be written.
The writer is director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative