A judicial nudge to long-overdue police reforms
MAHMOOD BIN MUHAMMAD
The issue is too serious to be left entirely in the hands of myopic politicians
JUDICIAL ACTIVISM in India is very much alive and kicking. By an unprecedented intervention on the issue of police reforms recently, the Supreme Court has jolted the government into action. Police business is far too serious to be left entirely in the hands of myopic politicians.
There is no human institution in India which inspires so much distrust and enmity as the police. Recommendations for reform made by several police commissions, at national as well as State levels, are kept in cold storage, all because of vested interests, bureaucratic and political.
But, to be sure, can society survive without the police? We may not love policemen. But we like chaos less.
The public perceive the police as a "closed fraternity"; they are rude, cruel and corrupt; they are partisan during communal riots; they are not "popular"; they are politically pliable; they are "inactive if there is no pressure, excessively reactive if there is pressure and rarely professionally proactive"; they are "criminals in uniform"; they are also "immoral."
The reason for this perception is to be sought, not in individual policemen but in the outdated police system. The police is the coercive apparatus of the government. It is the most visible symbol of state authority. It functions in an authoritarian setting. It is under constant public gaze.
Rightly or wrongly, an impression exists in the public mind that it is the only agency which can redress all wrongs. People helped do not remember; those punished never forget. By the very nature of its tasks, the police cannot aspire to be the most popular profession. But there is no reason why it should not be a respected profession.
While the directions of the Supreme Court will now be thoroughly examined and necessary steps taken by the government, it would be useful to identify some of the priority areas for consideration.
(i) Recruitment: "If the foundation stone is crooked, the wall cannot be straight," said the Persian philosopher Sheikh Saadi. The recruitment policy in the police force is, in my view, the proverbial Achilles' heel and there is a peremptory need to restructure the selection process.
As most of the qualities required in a successful police officer are emotional such as courage, compassion, humility, patience, a sense of humour and reverence for life, the importance of a selection machinery based on some kind of psychological and aptitude tests (as recommended by the Gore Committee in 1971) cannot be overstressed.
(ii) Training: One of the basic problems of national training institutions is that the training inputs given to individual officers do not make the necessary impact, because the organisational culture is not receptive to change. In other words, there is a dichotomy between the idealistic assumptions of the training institutions and the ground realities of the organisation itself. To this end, it would be necessary to undertake an Organisation Development (OD) exercise so as to make the police responsive to the social imperatives.
(iii) Police-public-media relations: The importance and efficacy of the "trinity of the police, press and public" as a bulwark against crime and disorder have to be recognised. The trinity should always meet in a spirit of mutual solicitude and cooperation. There is need for an open-door policy aimed at a better understanding of police problems.
(iv) Shortage of resources: Diversion of police staff to non-police tasks, for whatever reason, must stop. Clerical, mechanical and other ancillary duties of a specialised and technical nature are best handled by civilian personnel. The emphasis should always be on optimum utilisation of scarce resources.
Police expenditure must be made a plan subject. In line with international practice, a crime prevention expert should be inducted into the Planning Commission as there is sufficient evidence to show that development and crime grow together.
(v) Legislation: The outdated 1861 Police Act must be revised. The police are agents of the law, not of the government. The District Magistrate's intervention is more a hindrance than a help. Police behaviour is directly related to the authority to which they are accountable. The present law makes the police responsible to their political masters, which is a British legacy and an anachronism.
(vi) Police board: A police board may be set up in every State. The board should be independent of the police and include at least five respected, high profile, high calibre and non-political members. The police chief should be the convener. Its key role should be advisory in the area of improving selection procedures, promotions and senior appointments to minimise the risk of political interference at senior level.
Police reforms in India are long overdue. The opportunity is here. The climate is right. The time to act is now.
[The writer, IPS (retd.), is former Ambassador of India to Saudi Arabia]
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