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Seize the opportunity

DEVIKA PRASAD AND CAROLINE AVANZO

AFTER DECADES, it can be said that a police reform process is finally set in motion. On September 22, the Supreme Court delivered a historic judgment in Prakash Singh and others vs. Union of India and others. Frustrated by the government's unwillingness to implement reform, the Supreme Court has taken the decisive step of instructing the Central and State governments to immediately comply with a set of seven directives laying down practical mechanisms to kick-start reform.

The judgment enshrines two very important principles of police reform — operational autonomy and accountability. The decision is a watershed for cementing police autonomy by prescribing measures to prevent illegitimate political interference in policing.

Notably, it directs governments to fix tenure for particular ranks; set up security commissions to act as buffers between the police and the executive; appoint the Director General of Police from amongst candidates chosen by the Union Public Service Commission on the basis of objective criteria; and bring crucial internal matters such as transfers, postings and promotions strictly within police control.

The accountability component — both for conduct and performance — mandates the government to create dedicated agencies to deal with public complaints against the police and empowers security commissions to regularly evaluate police performance.

Press coverage of this landmark judgment has mainly highlighted the ways in which the police are accorded greater autonomy, while strengthened police accountability has been less heralded. Crucially, the two principles must be thought of as two sides of the same coin: police autonomy must be tempered by robust accountability, and accountability can only be robust if the police are not able to pass the buck for misconduct or poor performance.

Kerala experience

It becomes important to recall lessons from Kerala, where the police were given operational independence between 2000 and 2003. At the end of this period, complaints of police corruption had risen. The Police Performance and Accountability Commission, set up to evaluate the State police's performance during this period, made a critical comment: "autonomy to the police is the ideal, but it should be tempered with measures to prevent its misuse."

Only a first step

While celebrating the landmark judgment, it should not be forgotten that it is only the first step towards police reform. Indeed, sustainable and systemic reform can only be envisaged through the adoption of a new police Act to replace the archaic 1861 Act. The Supreme Court highlights that its directions are only meant to fill the gap until governments frame "appropriate legislation."

Complying with these directions through executive orders should not serve as an excuse to further delay the adoption of a new police Act by State governments. On the contrary, it is hoped that the decision will have strong persuasive value in encouraging State legislatures to adopt progressive legislation reflecting the essence of the decision. The draft Police Act prepared by the Police Act Drafting Committee (commonly known as the "Soli Sorabjee Committee") provides a relevant and useful template.

Compliance with the Supreme Court's decision requires more than mere implementation of its seven directions; it requires wholehearted political will to bring about an efficient, responsive and accountable police service.

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