Sankar Sen, The Statesman , 2 November 2006
The landmark judgment by the Supreme Court in the Prakash Singh V Union of India case marks the beginning of a move to insulate the police from extraneous political pressures and influence and allow it to function with some measure of autonomy and accountability to the law of the land. The Police Act of 1861 India, enacted in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, was an imperial one, essentially meant to promote and uphold the colonial agenda.
The political parties and their leaders who came to power at the centre and states found the police a convenient tool to serve their own interests. After tasting the real advantage of having the police at their beck and call, they had no real interest in any substantial police reform. In the event, the Indian police carried the old baggage of a hostile citizenry, servility to the establishment, and an oppressive attitude towards the common citizen. The politicisation of the entire internal security system brought in its wake a wrong kind of leadership pushing competent and honest officers into insignificant slots. The police became a tool in the process of subverting the rule of law, promoting the growth of authoritarianism (as witnessed during the emergency), and shaking the very foundations of democracy.
Though between 1947 and 1977, several states had appointed police commissions to examine the reform needs in the internal administration, none of them examined the basic structure of the police. It was only in 1977 that the then Janata Government at the centre constituted the National Police Commission. Severe strictures passed by the Shah Commission in respect of the illegal and illegitimate use of the police by the politicians in power during the emergency prompted the government to act. It was chaired by Dharam Vira who held some of the highest positions in the government. Some of its key recommendations include:
1. Insulating the investigation wing of the police from external political pressures with a view to ensuring freedom in the operational functions of police administration;
2. To remove Damocles' sword of transfer constantly dangling over the head of chiefs of police of states and assure them of a statutory tenure after proper and careful selection;
3. Constitution of a State Security commission to help the state government to effectively discharge its superintending responsibility under the framework of law.
The National Human Rights Commission, in its reports, while roundly castigating the police for violation of human rights also strongly endorsed the core recommendations of the NPC to insulate the police from extraneous pressures and influence. It also took the unique step of involving itself in the public interest litigation filed by Prakash Singh, a former DG of Police in the Supreme Court as early as in 1996 for implementation of the recommendations of the NPC.
The NHRC in its affidavit before the apex court, referred to the doctrine of "constabulary independence" in the United Kingdom and endorsed the observations of the Royal Commission of Police (1962) and of Lord Denning regarding constable's responsibility and answerability to law alone. NHRC felt that an efficient and honest police force is the principal bulwark of the nation against violation of human rights. However, while the PIL was in the Supreme court, the government appointed at different periods of time, three committees ~ Ribeiro Committee in 1998, Padmanabhaiah Committee in 2000 and Malimath Committee on Criminal Justice Reform in 2002. All these unambiguously urged the need for police reforms and endorsed the key structural changes recommended by the NPC.
The Supreme Court took the view that the stage has come for issuance of appropriate directions for immediate compliance so as to be operative till a model police act is enacted by the centre. The seven-point directive of the Supreme Court included a fixed tenure for at least for two years for the State Director General of Police unless promoted or removed on disciplinary grounds. The DGP will be selected from officers, who have been empanelled by the UPSC for promotion to that rank. The chief minister will no longer be able to remove any inconvenient DGP at his sweet will and pick up a pliant officer of his choice. Police officers, on operational duties in the field like IGs in-charge of zones, DIGs in-charge of the Ranges, SPs in-charge of districts, SHOs of police stations will also have a minimum tenure of two years. Nowadays, every time with the change of political regime there is en masse transfer of these officers.
The court has also ordered that the investigating wing of the police will be separated from the law and order wing to ensure speedier investigation, better expertise and improved rapport with the people. This will address the serious and persistent problem of poor and shoddy police investigation because of law and order and other miscellaneous commitments of police officers. This will also help thorough and scientific investigation of criminal cases.
The Supreme Court also disclosed setting up of a Police Establishment Board in each state to decide on transfers, postings and service-related matters of officers up to the rank of Deputy Superintendent of police, comprising the DGP and four senior officers of the police department. The court has also asked the centre to set up a National Security Commission for selection and placements of the chiefs of central police organisations and also for upgrading the effectiveness of these forces and improving the service conditions of its personnel.
However, the cornerstone of police reforms directed by the apex court, is the setting up of a new state security commissions in every state to ensure that the state government does not exercise unwarranted influence or pressure on the police. The SSC shall be headed by the chief minister or the home minister. But the independence of the commission has been sought to be ensured by the inclusion of the leader of the opposition, a retired or sitting judge and some important non-political citizens. It will also function as a forum of appeal for disposing of representations from police officers of the rank of superintendent of police and above regarding his being subjected to illegal or irregular orders in the performance of his duties The chief of police will function as the ex-officio secretary of the commission. The apex court hopes that the SSC will be able to insulate the police from constant political pressures and influence.
Moreover, to ensure that police autonomy is matched by police accountability, the court has ordered that a Police Complaints Authority be set up in every district headed by a retired district judge and at the state level by a retired judge of the Supreme Court or High Court. It will enquire into allegations of serious misconduct by the police, including custodial death, rape or grievous hurt. The Supreme Court has further ordered the state and central governments to file affidavits of compliance by January 3rd 2007. This judgment is not only historic but will also have a significant impact on the administration and image of the Indian police in the coming years.
However, the transition is not going to be a smooth. Ruling political party leaders, who had earlier opposed de-politicisation of the police will now try to scuttle or circumvent it. During the hearing of this decade-long reform petition, most of the states, barring Orissa, pleaded for rejection of the PIL. Some did not even bother to make an oral submission. As the existing arrangement ideally suits the political masters, stubborn rearguard action from them is expected. Therefore, unless the civil society, the press and police leaders remain vigilant, there will be insidious efforts to delay or dilute the refo
rm process. The present generation of police officers, in turn, will have to stand up to the pressures and blandishments and prove that they no longer want to be a part of the ruler-appointed police but would like to serve as members of the police service that champions the democratic rights and aspirations of the people and at the same time remains accountable to law.
The author is former Director General, National Human Rights Commission