Martin Luther King had said if as law enforcement officers, we side with justice, then we must recognise that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. The Hathras incident that involved manhandling of Opposition leaders and media by the “protectors of law” has once again reminded us of the triad of malaises afflicting law enforcement in India — the lack of sensitisation of police personnel, absence of accountability under the garb of khaki and politicisation of the police.
In a well-ordered democracy, the police are supposed to be a disciplined force trained to uphold the law and enforce the functioning of democracy on constitutional lines. But, setting aside basic human values of dignity, the Uttar Pradesh police cremated the victim’s body in the middle of the night, in the absence of family members. They denied her dignity even after death. Then, violating the basic principle of policing, male police officials manhandled female mediapersons and female politicians, including Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Such behaviour by the police and the absence of any effective accountability mechanisms — other than expressing hollow remorse over Twitter and periodic review of performance of the police force — is causing the police to lose the public’s confidence. The country must wake up to the crying need for police reform — this is one reform India cannot afford to delay.
Reform should start from the basic level, where it is badly required. The police need to be sensitised about their role in society. There has to be promptness of action and decency of behaviour. They need to be trained in body language and strictly advised to refrain from abusive behaviour. The sensitisation module should aim at bringing about attitudinal change — especially pertaining to gender and power relations and police behaviour. It is necessary to increase public confidence in the police by upgrading levels of police service delivery as well as by investigating and acting in cases of police misconduct.
The second important aspect is police accountability. Confidence in police, which is a prerequisite to effective policing, erodes significantly when the public perceives that police abuses are not investigated effectively. The Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, the Danish Independent Police Complaints Authority and the Independent Police Conduct Authority in New Zealand are classic examples of mechanisms for accountability of the police for acts of abuse of power. Enhancing accountability will improve police legitimacy and increase public confidence, which, in turn, will reinforce the integrity of the system. Linked to accountability is de-politicisation of the police force. This is a must for the effective functioning of the country’s criminal justice system. The police, as the custodian of maintenance of law and order, must stay away from agenda-driven politics.
In order to achieve these objectives, structural issues within the force must be given priority. According to a report by Common Cause in 2019, the Indian police force is at only 77 per cent of its sanctioned strength. India has 144 police personnel for one lakh population and, in some states, the figure is less than 100. One in every five posts sanctioned in the Indian Police Service remains vacant. The situation is more worrying when it comes to vacancies in low and middle rank posts. In these positions, the vacancies of 5.28 lakh personnel account for nearly one-fourth of the total sanctioned strength of over 22 lakh. A fully staffed police force would only increase India’s police-to-population ratio to 185 against the UN recommended ratio of 222. The police-to-people ratio should be improved by at least 50 per cent to meet the challenges faced by the force. Women are grossly underrepresented in our police force. They constitute less than 7 per cent of our total police strength. With the increase in the number of gender crimes, it has become a necessity to augment the strength of police by recruiting more and more women police personnel. The situation in Uttar Pradesh is the worst where police are at roughly 50 per cent of sanctioned strength. When the numbers are inadequate, police personnel are stretched, leading to shoddy policing. The existing police personnel are also not adequately trained. Less than 7 per cent police get in-service training. Gujarat scores the lowest, with less than one per cent having received any in-service training.
Since the National Police Commission in 1977, several committees were set up, including the Gore Committee, Padmanabhaiah Committee and Malimath Committee. These commissions and committees have made far-reaching recommendations. The recommendations of the Dharma Vira Commission have farsighted implications. One of its recommendations is that the top police leadership should be selected by apolitical representatives and an impartial body. It was a strong antidote to opportunistic appointments and transfers. Recommendations of the commission, if implemented, along with the Supreme Court directives of 2006 by Justice Sabharwal, in true letter and spirit, will go a long way in police reform. Reforms in the criminal justice system and separation of law and order from investigation and prosecution are the other areas that need the attention of the authorities. These aspects have been highlighted by many commissions and committees constituted by the Centre.
The challenge of India is to restore the culture of rule of law, and make police and justice accessible, effective and credible. A new role and new philosophy have to be defined for the police to not only make it a capable and effective body but also one accountable to the law of the land and to the people whom they serve. The government of the day should take keen interest in the matter. We have to address the fundamentals if we want better policing.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 21, 2020 under the title “A reform that cannot wait”. The writer is a Supreme Court Lawyer and national spokesperson, the Indian National Congress
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