Police and Politics in India: Colonial Concepts, Democratic Compulsions: Indian Police 1947-2002
P.R.Chari ·       

Recent outrages and travesties have highlighted the prevailing rot in the system of criminal justice that is on the road to collapsing. The acquittals of the well heeled accused in the Jessica Lall case, the denial of justice to common citizens due to the courts being clogged, the rapid conversion of residential colonies into gated communities-a testimony to public loss of faith in the police to protect them, the organised crime syndicates ruling over the real estate and film industry, and the wildfire spread of Naxalism over a fourth of the districts bespeak the shocking, even frightening, state of internal security in India. But its decision makers remain immersed in narcissistic dreams of the Indian economy becoming the third largest in the world by 2050 and similar distant visions.

The reasons underlying this dismal state of affairs and its steady deterioration over the decades since Independence are well known, and the reforms needed to remedy this situation have been discussed in dozens of reports and inquiries by eminent persons. Still this diseased system endures. True, we do have an increasingly active judiciary, a vigilant media, a growing public awareness of their rights in a democratic society, and a growing appreciation that good governance is the critical issue. This growing public consciousness only addresses the surface of the problem, but its underlying causes remain unaddressed. To lay the blame at the door of that familiar culprit-lack of political will-is the easy way out; indeed, an over-simplification of a complex problem. But inattention to its roots lays open the possibility of alternative forms of criminal justice emerging that are often being shown in Bollywood movies and could become real life experiences viz. vigilante and communal justice replacing the police and the courts. Naxalism embodies this shift. It is generally believed to be driven by socio-economic causes, ethno-political reasons, and bad governance. In a good part of tribal India, however, where this phenomenon is acute, the underlying motivation force is injustice in its several hues, which leads common citizens to take up the gun against the State and its ruling classes.

Why this diseased system continues unaddressed is the subject of enquiry in this volume. It is a sequel to the author's earlier book Defenders of the Establishment: Rulers-supportive Police Forces of South Asia wherein he had traced the history of the Indian police from earliest times until India's independence. In this volume he carries this history onwards from the trauma of Partition to present times. The challenge in this book arises from the need to make judgments on recent events, compounded by the need to embed this recent history of the police within the larger challenges that confront India's evolving democratic structure. No public service is an island within the national polity. Its effectiveness derives from the prevailing social ecology and political dynamics in the polity, a theme which Bollywood films diligently explore to delineate the criminal mafia and corrupt bureaucrat-politician nexus, and the role played by honest police officers to fight this unholy combine.

The problematique dealt with in this book is that, "the credibility of the Indian ruling classes, whether political or bureaucratic, is at its lowest ebb since independence… the height of irony [is] that the pre-independence colonial governments enjoyed much higher levels of credibility than our own homespun governments in free India." The governing environment, however, is hardly conducive to reforming an "antiquated system of policing….so as to make it less ruler-supportive and more people-friendly," since the political executive has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. A devastating indictment, but the author traces this critique to the British colonial period when the basic function of the police was designed to ensure the King's (or Queen's) peace and serve the imperial interests.

Accountability, transparency and human rights were alien to this system. The author is clear that, " Post-Independence imperatives necessitated that police reforms address the pressing issues of functional autonomy, insulation from illegitimate political interference, prevention of abuse of human rights, complete transparency and accountability as well as an unshakable commitment to the rule of law." The reaction of the State and Central Governments to these problems confronting police administration in India has been to enlarge the police forces and modernize their equipment without considering "the software part consisting of methodologies, techniques, skills, approaches and cultural orientations." Thus, it is a matter of practical observation that, despite huge investments made in the para-military and police forces, considerable deterioration has occurred in individual security and public safety within the country. What happened in Gujarat is a metaphor of this worsening situation, revealing not merely incompetence, but the complicity of the police machinery and political executive in the pogrom against Muslims.

The constant refrain in this book is that the parent law governing police functioning in India continues to be the 150-year old Indian Police Act of 1861, which is completely outdated. It was framed immediately after the Indian Mutiny in 1857, and reflects the contemporary angst of the British to maintain internal order with an iron hand and perpetuate their rule over India. In consequence, this Act was designed to establish a force to protect the rulers, and not one for the community to claim ownership. The brutality, unresponsiveness, and other vices associated with the police in India derive from this limited charter of their duties, which distinguishes the rulers from the ruled. Incidentally, the major enactments concerned with the administration of criminal justice like the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act were framed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Except for a few amendments these enactments, along with the Indian Police Act, provide the basic framework for administering criminal justice in India, as if the country has remained cocooned in a time warp all these years.

To remedy this situation the author has commended the Report of the National Police Commission (1977-81) and its major recommendation to establish State Security Commissions in the states and the centre to exercise superintendence over the police. The thrust of the Commission's proposals "was to completely depoliticize the mechanics of law-enforcement," [emphasis in original] and it is unsurprising that its wise counsel has been ignored by governments in India, irrespective of their political coloration. It is a cynical but truthful observation that politicians in all these governments have generally achieved power using the "mechanics of law-enforcement" to serve their personal and party objectives. Since the political class itself constitutes this problem, it is naïve to expect them to pass a self-denying ordinance upon themselves by encouraging reform in the prevailing system. Hence: "Whether [the] Indian police will ever come of age as a….modern law-enforcement organization, remains open to question."

There is much else in this book that would profit the serious reader. Large chapters are devoted to the workings of the State Police and the Central Police Organizations, training and development, sectarian conflicts and socio-political violence, besides specifically discussing the Panjab militancy, the imbroglio in Kashmir, and finally suggesting reforms in the Indian police. This broad sweep acquaints the reader with the gamut of issues before the police while interacting with the political system in India. Written lucidly this book would be of professional interest, both in India and abroad, to the bureaucracy, but also to students of modern Indian history and public administration. For them, it would serve not only to instruct, but also as a work of reference to be dipped into from time to time.