Long and winding road ahead
On September 22, 2006, there was a solar eclipse in various parts of the world, but in India, there was a new dawn in the shape of a landmark Supreme Court judgement. The division bench of Justices Sabharwal, Thakker, and Balasubramanyan delivered an order in connection with a ten-year-old case (no. 310) of Prakash Singh and Ors vs. Union of India and Ors. This order promised to radically change the face of policing and, by extension, governance in India.
For many in India, policing conjures up images of sloth, rudeness, potbelly, corruption, and khaki. However, police officers aver that the depiction is unfair—they are overworked, underpaid and subject to whimsical and abrupt transfer, and that prevents them from knowing the neighbourhoods under their watch. Policing is a state subject. The police in India are governed by the archaic Police Act of 1861 which envisaged their abject fealty to the rulers. At the state-level, numerous commissions had been set up to bring about reforms in policing. Reports of these commissions have been gathering dust.
At the national level, the Central government set up the National Police Commission in 1977 with ex–Governor, Dharam Vira, as Chairman and comprising four other eminent members. This Commission did ground-breaking work and submitted eight reports between 1979 and 1981 covering all aspects of policing. These reports were outstanding, comprehensive and earth-shattering, but ignored. The Commission also produced a model Police Act to replace the Act of 1861, and that too was ignored.
In 1996, Prakash Singh, a celebrated police officer, along with others moved a writ petition in the Supreme Court to issue directions to the government for the framing of a new Police Act on the lines of the model Act drafted by the National Police Commission. The petition was moved to ensure that the police is made accountable primarily to the law of the land and the people. An eminent lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, represented the petitioners.
Now, isn’t passing an Act and its implementation the roles of the Judiciary and the Executive, respectively? Where do the Courts come in? In the words of the judgement: “Having regard to (i) the gravity of the problem; (ii) the urgent need for preservation and strengthening of Rule of Law; (iii) pendency of even this petition for last over ten years; (iv) the fact that various Commissions and Committees have made recommendations on similar lines for introducing reforms in the police set-up in the country; and (v) total uncertainty as to when police reforms would be introduced, we think that there cannot be any further wait, and the stage has come for issue of appropriate directions for immediate compliance so as to be operative till such time a new model Police Act is prepared by the Central Government and/or the State Governments pass the requisite legislations.”
The Supreme Court gave seven directions:
(i) Constitute a State Security Commission reasonably independent of the political executive, which will insulate the police from undue interference.
(ii) Transparent, merit–based process of appointing the DGP and giving him two–year tenure.
(iii) Two–year tenure for Zonal IG, Range DIG, SP of district, and SHO.
(iv) Separate Investigation wing from Law & Order wing.
(v) Set up a Police Establishment Board consisting of DGP and four other senior police officers to decide transfers, postings and other service related matters up to the rank of Dy. S.P. and recommend regarding posting and transfers for higher ranks.
(vi) Set up a State–level complaints authority to inquire into serious complaints against police.
(vii) Set up a National Security Commission for selection of chiefs of Central Police Organisations with a minimum tenure of two years. It took ten years after the petition for the judgement. It has been another ten years since. Has anything changed? Some states have found inventive and creative ways to violate the order.
Seventeen states have passed new Acts. Some of the new Acts make one hanker for the 1861 Act. Almost all states entered impassioned objections to the Supreme Court ruling. Some states have set up State Security Commissions. Some have omitted, and some have “forgotten” to include the leader of the Opposition and/or a member of the judiciary. In direct contravention to the Supreme Court directive, many of the Commissions are predominantly made up of official appointees.
To my knowledge, West Bengal is the only state which has given a two–year tenure to the incumbent DGP. However, all states have miles to go regarding merit–based selection of DGPs. None of them is inclined to implement two–year tenure for other operational officers, Zonal IGP, Range DIG, and so on.
On the ground, the Investigation has not been separated from Law & Order, although some states have passed executive orders with riders. A senior IPS officer of Uttar Pradesh carried out a study and found that a negligible percentage of a police officer's work time is devoted to investigations, while that is supposed to be his primary task.
The issue appears to be workforce provisioning. What will it cost a ruling dispensation to treble the police force one day? What might be the benefit? Tremendous. But the benefits will come three to five years, hence. Political view span in India–-one to two years of efficient government, rest in feeling good or preparing for the next election.
Most states have set up Police Establishment Boards (PEBs). However, the members sign up or sign out after the orders of postings and transfers are issued. This is the only directive that seems to have been implemented. Since Prakash Singh was visiting IIPA, where I am currently pursuing an M. Phil. course, I asked him whether asking the Supreme Court to direct video recording of the proceedings of the PEBs would be a good idea. His reply: “Agar aap DGP ban gaye ho to spine kyon nahin ho sakta hei aap mein?”
An active Police Complaints Authority has not been created in any state. On paper, anything may masquerade as one. Police are the very institution vehemently opposing it.
A National Security Commission has not been set up. This is one directive where the government has objected to everything—the nomenclature, the composition, the functions and even the mandated two-year tenure of the chiefs.
So, is there hope? Well, as I mentioned earlier, Prakash Singh visited us recently and addressed the participants of a study course I am attending. What struck us all was, despite his 80 well–lived years, the fire and brimstone are intact. It need not be one man’s crusade.