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Perpetuating impunity

Maharashtra’s police complaints authorities are designed to be cosmetic sops

Updated: February 24, 2014 9:22 am
The police machinery is very strict about wrongdoing and pulls up its own more than any other service. (Express File Photo) The police machinery is very strict about wrongdoing and pulls up its own more than any other service. (Express File Photo)

Police officers everywhere have a strong resistance to being made accountable, even when it is the worst of crimes. Maharashtra’s police leadership is no exception. Faced with the possibility of a police complaints authority (PCA) coming up in the state, the director general of police, Sanjeev Dayal, along with several senior officers, recently met the home minister to express their unhappiness about its imagined wide-ranging powers. The arguments against the new body would have been the usual. There is already an internal mechanism as well as human rights commissions, anti-corruption bodies and courts to which the police must answer. The police machinery is very strict about wrongdoing and pulls up its own more than any other service. The police must not be demoralised by yet another body’s finger pointing; outside agencies interfere with the police’s disciplinary functioning; no one understands the pressures under which the police work.

Yet the facts speak for themselves. The Crime in Maharashtra 2012 report records nearly 7,000 complaints, inquiries and cases against the police in that year alone. This is an increase of nearly 25 per cent from 2011 and of 41.15 per cent from 2010. Just 185 policemen were sent to trial in 2012, out of which only 25 cases have completed trials. Only five policemen were convicted, and the other 20 acquitted. With such annual spikes in complaints, a prudent leader would welcome any mechanism  that could help create a change in policing by drawing attention to and ensuring accountability for police abuses. Public satisfaction levels with policing have also dropped steadily. Death and violence in custody, corruption and connections with malefactors and mafia abound, and rapes by police personnel have created a sensation much too often. Add to this the near universal belief that the police never get punished.

There may be many bodies to which the police have to report. But that is so the world over. And this is so because the police have the power to take away life and liberty, and to use coercive force. Holding them accountable through multiple mechanisms is an accepted practice in places where the police function well. PCAs at the state and district levels create local spaces for people’s complaints. They are not forced to go to distant, already overburdened bodies like the human rights commissions or the courts with their achingly slow process.

Ideally, the PCA should be a powerful body of independent people able to help the police weed out bad individuals and bad practices, and to help the public trust the police. Instead, the authorities in Maharashtra are designed to be weak cosmetic sops, created with one eye on the Supreme Court and the other winking at the police. Throwing fair and impartial adjudication to the winds, the new PCAs will be composed almost entirely of serving government and police officers. This defeats the first principle of having an external oversight body — separateness from the institution that is to be judged. When there is already an imbalance of power between the police and the public, which brave soul will now approach a body that is composed of serving police officers hearing complaints against their own?

The state government has also kept the power to reject the authorities’ findings. The Supreme Court, under whose directions these new bodies are being created, had specifically directed that PCA findings be binding. As if that were not enough, the new Maharashtra Police (Amendment) Ordinance has draconian provisions to punish anyone making false or frivolous complaints against officers, with fines or imprisonment or both. This was supposed to be a body for redress — provisions like these will discourage and intimidate ordinary people. So the DGP has much to cheer for such a body, which might be ineffective and toothless from the very start.

The 11 PCAs already in existence (in Assam, Goa, Haryana, Kerala, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, Andaman and Nicobar and Delhi) have faced challenges from their inception: fractured mandates, improper compositions, inadequate staffing, few financial resources, little investigating capacity, non-cooperation and outright defiance from the police and near-complete disregard from the governments and legislatures that birthed them. So it is very possible that Maharashtra’s PCAs will die a premature death.

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