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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What police reform should be all about

Draft bills to reform the police system are pending in many states. But while most of them include independence from political interference and more autonomy, they almost all leave out the crucial reform that must make the police accountable to the people.

The power of the State is often institutionalised through legitimacy-building mechanisms such as elections, as well as through the coercive arms of the State. The most obvious form of coercive power of the State is expressed through the police. The very term ‘police’ implies ‘order’ and ‘power’, through the maintenance of ‘law and order’ and security. As the coercive arm of the State, the police are expected to ensure security and the rule of law for all citizens. The police impact the social, economic and political situation in a country in many ways and play a significant role in the process of governance.

In a diverse, multi-religious, multi-ethnic country like India, the process of policing has huge implications for the integrity and security of the country and the people. Though policing in a democratic country is expected to be an enabling public service to ensure security, freedom and human rights of all people, the very sight of the police evokes fear, terror or cynicism in citizens of this country. This is primarily because the police are still a force used to control the people by instilling fear and sometimes terror. The use of abusive language, torture and violence are perceived as part of ‘normal’ police conduct. Despite India gaining independence in 1947, the character and nature of the elite Indian bureaucracy and the police are still influenced by the ghosts of colonial power -- the power to control, oppress and regulate, rather than the enabling characteristics of public service. In spite of the importance of the police in maintaining law and order and the rule of law, there is hardly any adequate public debate or discussion on the role of the police in democratic governance. In fact, the criminal justice system as a whole is little discussed and debated in various studies and research on governance. There have been relatively few empirical studies on the Indian police. Except for the reports of the National Police Commissions of 1904 and 1978, and the reports of various state police commissions, there is hardly any comprehensive or detailed independent analysis or research on policing in India. Serving or retired police officers have written books, but there is little, if any, critical evaluation or monitoring of the performance and practice of the Indian police. The major government source of information still remains the annual Crime in India report which provides statistical information and official data about various crimes and police resources. Most discussions and debates on policing take place among the policy elites or retired police officers and there has been hardly any public scrutiny or systematic citizen monitoring of policing in India.

The few ongoing discussions and debates on police reform need to expand to include debates on the relevance, implications and impact of the police. However, the agenda and advocacy for police reforms is yet to catch the attention of the public and the media. While civil society organisations such as the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and some other human rights groups have played an important role in advocating for police reforms, the primary proponents of police reforms are retired police officers. These important initiatives need to be appreciated and supported. However, they have not spurred wider political and public debate on the role and character of policing in India. For example, there is hardly any public debate about the much-needed administrative reform of the police force and of the criminal justice system in India.

Despite India being an independent country with its own Constitution, its criminal justice system is still driven by its colonial legacy. The administrative and police systems first developed by the East India Company and then institutionalised by the imperial power were primarily extractive and repressive in nature. So the Police Act of 1861, enacted to strengthen the repressive authority of the police in the aftermath of the first war of Indian Independence in 1857, still remains the cornerstone of Indian policing in the 21st century – after 63 years of freedom! The Act of 1861 was accompanied by a whole range of new laws that still define our criminal justice system in India. The Indian Penal Code of 1860, the Criminal Procedure Code of 1862, the Evidence Act of 1872 and the Criminal Tribes Act of 1868 form the defining base of our criminal justice system. Though a Police Commission was appointed by Lord Curzon in 1902-03, the British did not make significant changes in the police system as recommended by the commission. In fact, the very first report of the National Police Commission in 1904 pointed out that “the police force is far from efficient; it is defective in training and organisation; it is inadequately supervised; and it is generally regarded as corrupt and oppressive.” A hundred years later, nothing much has changed.

Read more: InfoChange India News & Features development news India - Just, democratic, accountable: What police reform should be all about

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