Police was in the news for the right reasons till yesterday — for its humanitarian role during the pandemic. It was lauded as “the frontline of the frontline” and even the prime minister said that “the human and sensitive side of policing has touched our hearts”. Unfortunately, the pendulum has very soon swung to the other extreme.
The brutal treatment of a father and son in Sathankulam police station of Thoothukudi district in Tamil Nadu, resulting in their death, exposed the ugly face of the police. It showed that the police are still relying on medieval methods in their day to day working and that custodial torture continues to be an area of serious concern. What was worse, the supervisory officers abdicated their responsibility and failed in their primary duty of registering a case against the delinquent police personnel and getting them arrested. It is a great pity that the high court had to step in and the case had to be handed over to the CBI. The situation could have been easily defused if the officers had risen to the occasion and ensured action under the law. We are now faced with the embarrassment of the UN Secretary General wanting the incident to be investigated.
On top of that, we have an encounter in Kanpur where a criminal wanted for the murder of eight policemen was killed by UP Police under circumstances which have raised uncomfortable questions. These would hopefully be answered by a proper inquiry into the matter in due course. However, we need to go to the root of the problem.
As far back as 1993, the Vohra Committee had submitted a report on the nexus between the criminals, politicians and government functionaries. The DIB, in his report to the Committee, clearly stated that “the network of the mafia is virtually running a parallel government, pushing the state apparatus to irrelevance”, and suggested that an institution be set up to effectively deal with the menace. There were heated discussions in parliament, but the matter ended there. There was hardly any follow-up action.
And it was futile to expect any decisive action. Politics in the country was gradually entering a murky phase. The mafiosi, who were hitherto supporting the politicians from outside, had decided to enter the fray. They started contesting elections on party tickets. It is a sad reflection on our democracy that the number of members of parliament with criminal background has been going up with every successive election. It was, according to the Association of Democratic Reforms, 30 per cent in 2009, 34 per cent in 2014 and 43 per cent in 2019. The present UP Assembly has 36 per cent or 143 MLAs with criminal cases against them. What do we expect from them in their constituencies except that the administration should turn a blind eye to, if not support their depredations and also of their henchmen? The nexus has proliferated and grown in strength down the years. It creates an environment where the criminals who are part of the nexus are able to dodge the due processes of law. After all, Vikas Dubey had 62 FIRs against him, including seven of murder and eight of attempt to murder, and yet he was roaming free.
What is the way out? The nexus will have to be broken and reforms must start with the political system. We must have a law which debars persons with serious criminal cases from entering the assemblies and the Parliament. Secondly, the criminal justice system must be revamped as recommended by the Malimath Committee. Thirdly, the Supreme Court’s directions on police reforms must be implemented. Fourthly, an institution comprising representatives of the police/CBI/NIA, Intelligence Bureau, Income Tax department, Revenue Intelligence and Enforcement Directorate should be set up to monitor the activities of the mafia and criminal syndicates in the country and ensure stringent action against them. Fifthly, a Central act on the lines of MCOCA should be enacted to curb the activities of organised criminal gangs. Sixthly, the concept of federal crime, as recommended by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, should be accepted and offences which have all-India ramifications or are trans-national in character, like those of terrorism and organised crimes, should be brought within its ambit. It may sound like asking for too much, but we have been discussing the need for such measures for a long time. Is it not time to take up these reforms in right earnest? The journey of a thousand miles, they say, begins with the first step. Let that step be taken at least.
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The aftermath of George Floyd being choked to death by a white policeman in the US has lessons for us. There were countrywide protests and demonstrations. The Democrats in Washington even drafted a Bill called the Justice in Policing Act for police reforms. President Donald Trump, responding to the widespread demand for police reforms, signed an executive order on June 16 to establish a database which would track police officers with excessive use of force complaints in their records. It would, besides, give the police department a financial incentive to adopt best practices and encourage co-responder programmes in which social workers would join the police when they respond to non-violent calls involving mental health, addiction and homeless issues. In India, has any member of parliament even spoken of the need for police reforms?
Our leaders should see the writing on the wall. Any spark of police misconduct of the kind that happened in Thoothukudi could tomorrow lead to a prairie fire of popular indignation and protests across the country. We must, without further delay, build an environment where police becomes an instrument of service to the people, where monsters like Dubey do not thrive and become a menace to society.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 14, 2020 under the title ‘Thoothukudi to Kanpur’. The writer was formerly Director General of Police, UP, DGP Assam and Director-General of the Border Security Force
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