Anniversaries and birthdays are joyous occasions. The 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Prakash Singh case should be one of them — a reason to look back with pride at the court’s seven directions in its September 22, 2006, verdict aimed at propelling police reform. The judgement was intended — but perhaps not expected — to kick-start police reform.
On paper, the directions pull together recommendations generated since 1979. They make up a scheme, which, if implemented holistically, will cure common problems that perpetuate poor police performance and unaccountable law enforcement. The design requires states and the Centre to put in place mechanisms to ensure that: The police have functional responsibility while remaining under the supervision of the executive; political control over the police is kept within legitimate bounds; internal management systems are fair, transparent; policing is increased in terms of its core functions, and public complaints are addressed through an independent mechanism.
On the ground, however, states have chosen four approaches: Actively resist the court’s order; lie doggo and do nothing; do something but do it wrong and finally, get out from under the Supreme Court’s orders by passing laws which not only do not conform to the court’s orders but actually give statutory sanction to bad practices. For instance, in the majority of the 17 Police Acts passed since 2006, state governments have given themselves the sole discretion to appoint police chiefs instead of choosing from a panel recommended by the UPSC. In many of the nine operational Police Complaints Authorities currently in place, their design has been subverted by appointing serving police officers as judges in their own cause. Elsewhere, their functioning has been hobbled by the lack of independent investigators.
In the last decade, the court itself has been inconsistent in ensuring its directions are being followed. After four years of patience, in 2010, it appointed a monitoring committee. Its one brief shining moment flashed by when chief secretaries of four states were summoned to explain total non-compliance. Once empty justifications, excuses and promises were given, amici curiae have come and gone, hearings on compliance have sputtered into life under different judges and dwindled into Dickensian delay, leaving a disillusioned public behind.
Delhi, with its central government clout, should have been a big influence in encouraging implementation of the SC’s orders. Instead, it has been a laggard in every way. The Centre constituted a State Security Commission for Delhi in 2011. It has both the chief minister and lieutenant governor on it. Despite its potential to create policy, provisioning and performance guarantees for better policing, it has met just five times and not once since the AAP came to power.
The Central government’s pallid efforts toward encouraging national reform have included the formation of committees to create a Model Police law in line with the Court’s directions. The Model Bill of 2006 drafted under Soli Sorabjee’s chairpersonship has been adopted in breach by 17 states and entirely ignored by the Centre. Then, as if to signal some sign of wakefulness, another Police Act drafting committee was formed in 2013 to make revisions to the 2006 model. Dutifully, it has given its recommendations, which now lie mouldering in bureaucratic caverns measureless to man. In any other country, such brazen disobedience to its Supreme Court’s orders would be a crisis of constitutionalism. In India, this is routine disobedience and the courts have barely stirred.
Sad or happy, a 10-year moment requires marking. Ten years of Prakash Singh signifies the valiant efforts of some within the police and amongst civil society to make improvements even if they are whistling in the wind. It shows also how strong the police-power connection is and how difficult it is to break a captive police from its enslavement to political clout. It proves how little individual safety — of women, children, the vulnerable, the minority, the migrant, the dissenter, “the other” — really matters to governments, whatever the party. It signals how unwilling they are to take the smallest steps to change the police from a force designed to tamp down the public to the public service our democracy deserves. True, September 22, 2016, cannot be a day for celebration but we can surely mark it as a requiem for reform.