Framing the case for police reform

Films like Pink and Akira remind us why government needs to act on SC’s decade-old recommendations.

Written by Pushkar Raj | Published:December 2, 2016 12:04 am
Pushkar Raj India’s police is plagued with serious structural issues. (Representational image)

Pink and Akira, two recent Bollywood films, depict an ugly reality of the police in India. It seems much has not changed in the last 10 years since the Supreme Court, in the Prakash Singh case, ordered that the police must be made functionally autonomous and accountable by enacting new police laws. After 1947, the Indian police has continued to be governed by the police laws framed in 1861, retaining its colonial character. While democratic legislation has been passed, the instrument of implementation — the police — has continued to be authoritarian. This conflict plays out in a citizen’s life, which is convincingly presented in Pink and Akira.

In Pink, police hound and frame three young women under false charges of prostitution. The case is illegally registered and the women are arrested without following service rules. In the film, the police act under the influence of a politician and his henchmen flouting the law, a routine event in the country, cynically accepted without much indignation.

Political interference in policing is rampant in the country. Whether it is intimidating and arresting political opponents, firing on protesting citizens, fixing human rights activists or being inactive while a mob kills an ethnic or religious minority, the police are ready to crawl where they are asked to bend by the politicians. Prakash Singh, a former director general of police, highlighted this before the Supreme Court, which after deliberating over a plethora of documentary evidence for 10 years, expressed its disappointment at the situation and ordered the Centre and the state governments to professionalise the police service.

A politicised police is dangerous for a democratic society. Political patronage and interference promotes the culture of impunity and encounter killings portrayed in Akira. In the film, the police rob a large amount of cash from an injured person and kill him. They also execute a few potential witnesses in cold blood and pass them off as “encounters”. The film’s encounter scene has an uncanny resemblance to the recent killing of the eight SIMI under-trial activists in Bhopal where senior police officials are heard on phone instructing policemen on the ground to “eliminate” the escapee. Encounter killings are endemic to India. In a press statement in October 2016, the National Human Rights Commission said that there were 206 cases of encounter killings in the last 12 months. The majority of these deaths are questionable, as reports of human rights organisations and independent citizens’ fact-finding reports suggest.

India’s police is plagued with serious structural issues. The average policeman does not know the Indian Penal Code, Code of Criminal Procedure and Indian Evidence Act well. He does not get a chance to develop and refresh his professional skills in service. He learns on the job and makes mistakes that have serious repercussions on justice delivery. The conviction rate, according to the National Crime Research Bureau, was 45.1 per cent in the country in 2014, while the conviction rate in crimes against women is merely 21.3 per cent. In other words, in 55 per cent of cases, people were either wrongly framed or they got away without punishment after committing a crime.

What is the use of having strict laws on crime against women when, nationwide, about 78 per cent of the accused get away?

There is no investment in basic infrastructure and human resources in policing. The police continue to lack basic amenities and support.
For example, a right to information application revealed that 23 police stations in Jammu and Kashmir lack drinking water facilities while 14 are without a toilet.(IE, October 14). Police personnel are over-worked and underpaid. They become like the havaldar in Akira who counts on his share of the booty for his daughter’s marriage.

The Prakash Singh judgment tried to address some of these structural issues in policing in the country. However, 17 states that had passed new laws have diluted them considerably. The Centre has not implemented the SC’s order in the Union territories. If it had, the Delhi police would not be able to act in such a partisan manner, without facing tough accountability at different levels.

The police leadership must impress upon the political leadership that they cannot take pride in their service if their ranks are filled with resource-starved, demoralised men. The home ministry budget is merely 30.2 per cent of the defence ministry’s allocation while they have more or less the same number of men to cater to.

Even out of the Rs 77,923 crore of the home ministry’s budget, the allocation for police modernisation is a paltry 11 per cent. The leadership of social movements may also consider adding the issue of changes in policing structures in their demand for legal justice besides social and economic justice which is a major need, right and demand of the poor, Dalits and minorities across the country.

Pink and Akira present the distressing reality of policing in our society. It is up to us to decide: Do we want to continue to live with it or endeavour to change it? For a young nation on the path of so many changes, this is not a big ask.

The writer, who taught political science at Delhi University, is a Melbourne-based researcher and author