The Indian Police Service (IPS) continues to evoke mixed sentiments amongst all those it is meant to serve and lead. While it retains its prestige and allure amongst young aspirants, high-profile events such as the ugly mess in the CBI continue to dent the service. More fundamentally, every routine problem relating to the police in India is blamed on the service. Against this backdrop, the leadership provided by the IPS to five of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), namely BSF, ITBP, SSB, CISF and CRPF, is now being questioned. Beside legal challenges by CAPF cadre officers seeking parity with the IPS, a Rajya Sabha committee has also recommended that leadership positions currently reserved for the IPS in the CAPFs may be abolished outright, or at least severely curtailed.
Perhaps a section of our elected representatives and our civil society sincerely feel that the IPS has outlived its utility, and must be given a quiet burial. Even if that may be the case, we believe this issue requires a wider public debate before a final view is taken. Given the constitutional status of the All India Services (AIS), an amendment to the Constitution and the relevant acts and rules would also be required.
The two AIS, the IAS and IPS, were created as a huge leap of faith in administrative continuity by the founders of our republic. Despite their colonial origin and distinctly elitist flavour, they were given a constitutional status and the broadest of mandates in manning existing instruments of governance, and in creating new ones. Seven decades is a long enough time span to do some honest stock-taking and, if necessary, carry out radical overhaul.
The current structure of recruitment to both the IAS and IPS provides that 40 per cent of a state’s cadre strength is for central deputation posts, which means about 1,100 IPS officers have been recruited to man central government positions. It is another matter that currently there are about only 550 posts for the IPS in the central government. The idea that they are interlopers is patently absurd because they have been recruited to be posted to leadership positions in the central government. In fact, the states are always reluctant to spare IPS officers for central deputation. The second issue that merits attention is that police is in the state list of the Constitution. In peacetime, the CAPFs are primarily a reserve resource for supporting the state police forces. It is, therefore, necessary that their leadership is in complete synergy in understanding the challenges of policing at the state and central level.
Do we want the CAPFs to acquire a more military character? Or do we want them to strengthen our policing capacities? How will abolition of the IPS from the CAPFs affect their prominent role in aid of civil authorities in our districts and states? Do their respective primary mandates, namely border guarding for the BSF, ITBP & SSB, industrial security for the CISF, and internal security for the CRPF, make a compelling case for complete autonomy for their respective cadres? Or are these primary mandates themselves a subset of policing in peacetime? And last but not least, we need to take an honest look at the role played by the IPS in creating and growing these organisations in the past before we can determine that in future, the IPS has no meaningful role left to play in these organisations. And if that be the case, is it time to abolish the IPS altogether?
The country could do away with the AIS completely, but that would mean the CAPFs would be led by officers who have never managed police stations or understand policing. As things stand today, IAS and IPS officers get exposure to both issues at the grassroots and the challenges of policy making at the Centre. Both these experiences are rich and useful in the making of the civil/police leadership.
In the last four decades, India’s police forces have undergone a remarkable transformation. The separatist movements in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and the Northeast, the left-wing rebellion in the states of central and south India, and terror strikes elsewhere, have dominated our internal security discourse. Among the CAPFs, the Assam Rifles has a purely military character both in terms of organisation and mandate, while the RPF is under the Railway Ministry with a token IPS presence and a very limited mandate. The debate is primarily about the five CAPFs that are under the MHA with IPS leadership in key positions, namely the CRPF, BSF, CISF, SSB and ITBP. Of these five, the CRPF was created during British rule, whereas the remaining four have been created post Independence, and nurtured and led by the IPS from their inception.
Criticism of continued IPS presence in these CAPFs is based on three arguments. First, that IPS officers have no experience of cutting-edge leadership in these organisations at the company and battalion level. Second, the cadres of these CAPFs are now capable of leading them on their own. Third, these organisations have a primarily military character and, therefore, a civil service like the IPS has no useful role to play in them.
The first argument is demonstrably false. The various state police forces between them have a few hundred battalions of armed police and India Reserve Battalions that have IPS commandants. Most IPS officers do a stint or two in these posts. Earlier, IPS officers used to command CAPF battalions too. But the rapid growth of the CAPFs since the 1980s, combined with recruitment to the IPS that has fluctuated around the 100 mark for the last three decades, has meant enough IPS officers were simply not available to man these positions at the CO level. This is mischievously projected as some kind of reluctance by IPS officers to come to these organisations.
The argument about the capabilities of CAPF officers rests on a flawed understanding of the systems of recruitment, training, calibre and exposure of the IPS vis a vis the CAPF cadre. Even the forces that are operationally commited in internal security duties like counter insurgency and anti-Naxal operations, are working in support of state police forces where the IPS have better understanding of grass roots requirements. And as for the primary mandate of border guarding, it involves activities such as anti-smuggling and anti-human trafficking that clearly require a policing and not a military approach. The success of IPS-led organisations like Punjab Police and Jammu and Kashmir Police in fighting militancy, the Grey Hounds of Andhra Pradesh and Special Operations Group of Odisha Police in the fight against left-wing extremism are examples of exceptional leadership and vision that the IPS is justifiably proud of.
Once we understand the current responsibilities of the CAPFs, the third argument automatically becomes a red herring. While the CAPF organisations are quasi-military in appearance, their role is similar to that of police. Those CAPFs that are given primarily military-like tasks could have their militarised components transferred to the Ministry of Defence and led by army officers for better integration with our military. However, we do not feel that a third cadre of leadership needs to be created. The aspirations of CAPF cadre officers cannot override our internal security needs or our constitutional scheme.
We realise that institutional changes in India are seldom based on rationality and cost-benefit analysis alone. Politics, popular sentiment and power tussles, all play a role. And it may well be that taking all these factors into account, we may consider easing out the IPS completely from these organisations. If we are to be declared extinct, let it be for the best possible reasons in the national interest.
The key concern in the conversations on police reform has been about making police accountable to the law. The suggestion to solve policing problems of society through greater militarisation and regimentation of the police are thoroughly misconstrued and may even be dangerous. The police and the military must be kept apart in structure, composition, command and ethos in the larger public interest. Future reform of the CAPFs must keep this in mind.
This article first appeared in the January 29, 2019, print edition under the title ‘The suitable leader’