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Netas cop out

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The police is under the scanner following recent controversies over shoddy terror investigations, Binayak Sen's conviction and the Aarushi Talwar murder case. Even as the need for police reforms acquires urgency, political leaders have banded together to oppose any dilution of their control over this vital arm of state power

It is a disturbing comment on the quality of our democracy that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's call to accelerate police reforms went unheeded at the recent conference of chief ministers. Most CMs maintained a stony silence on an issue that has been hanging fire for over three decades while two, Gujarat CM Narendra Modi and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, virtually rejected the idea. The irony is telling. Despite belonging to different political persuasions, both trotted out the same argument: that the police must remain directly under the control of the state government for effective maintenance of law and order.

The argument flies in the face of two key reforms suggested by the National Police Commission and reiterated in detail by the Supreme Court in a 2006 order. Stressing the need to insulate the police from political interference and introduce the all important element of accountability, they had advised the Centre and the states to set up two external mechanisms. One is an independent State Security Commission that would ensure functional autonomy for the force and lay down broad policy guidelines. The other is an empowered Police Complaint Authority to look into public grievances of abuse and misconduct by the men in uniform. It is obvious from the discourse at the CMs' conference that neither recommendation has been implemented. As the prospect of terror investigations gone horribly wrong looms following Swami Aseemanand's confession in a Delhi lower court of a Hindutva angle to at least five different sets of bomb blasts since 2006, the need for police reforms has acquired a special urgency. The issue can no longer be brushed aside in a rhetorical debate on the powers of the states versus the Centre. It explodes in multi-dimensional questions about governance and accountability in a country that prides itself on being the world's largest democracy.

Swami Aseemanand's revelations are particularly relevant to a debate that has bedeviled successive governments since the 1960s. He has confessed to masterminding bomb blasts in Malegaon (2006 and 2008), at Ajmere Sharif in 2007, at Hyderabad's Masjid also in 2007 and in the Pakistan-bound Samjahauta Express in the same year. All these terror attacks were initially dubbed to be the handiwork of Islamist extremist organisations for which dozens of Muslim youths were rounded up from various cities and towns in the country.

A different story is now unfolding in courts across Rajasthan and Maharashtra with the police serving up evidence of the involvement of Hindu extremist groups in the very same blasts. In an amazing volte face following these developments, Andhra Pradesh chief minister Kiran Reddy recently expressed regret for the largescale wrongful arrest of Muslim youth in the state after the Mecca Masjid blasts. But while he offered compensation to the victims and their families for the harassment and torture they have suffered for the past three years, he said nothing about reprehending the police officials responsible for what now appears to be a complete miscarriage of justice.

The chilling accounts by victim families of police torture and harassment are recounted in a recently released compilation titled "What It Means to Be A Muslim in India Today", published by ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy). The booklet is a stark reminder that policing methods have hardly changed in the 64 years since Independence. Leather belts and rubber tubes are still used to beat those arrested into confessing, electric shocks on private parts remain part of the torture routine, the same midnight knocks happen on the doors of unsuspecting victims and records of the time, date and place of arrest continue to be fudged to skirt charges of illegal confinement. "If you read a 1903 report on torture and policing in India, written by a British officer, you'll be amazed to find that very little has changed in over a century, " says Maja Daruwala who heads the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an NGO that focuses on police and prison reforms.

The Muslim community is not alone in its angst over the way the police function. Tribals, dalits, women and all other vulnerable and marginalised groups suffer the same fate when the long arm of the state touches them. Binayak Sen, the celebrated doctor-social activist who was recently sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of being a Maoist sympathiser, is one of the high profile victims of the kind of policing culture that continues to plague governance systems in the country.

The irony is that police reforms have been a hot topic of debate since Independence. As many as nine state police commissions were set up in the 1960s, culminating in a National Police Commission in 1977. A Janata Party response to police excesses during the Emergency, the NPC was the first real attempt to overhaul and modernise the police force. It is important to point out here that the police in India still function under the Police Act of 1861, which is more suited to colonial demands than the needs of a sovereign republic and a flourishing democracy.

The NPC submitted eight reports between 1979 and 1981, all of which were thrown in the dustbin when Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1981. Ved Marwah, who was joint secretary of the Commission, blames vested interests for this tawdry treatment of the effort to give the country a professional and accountable police force. "Neither the political leadership nor the bureaucracy wants dilution of their power over the police, " he says. The controversy surrounding former Maharashtra CM Vilasrao Deshmukh is a case in point. The Supreme Court pulled him up recently for pressurising the state police via a phone call not to register a case against a moneylender who was also a Congress MLA. In a blatant effort to shield politicians, the state home department subsequently issued a circular asking the police not to record phone calls from politicians in their diaries.

"The roles and powers of the political executive and the police should be clearly laid down in law so that there is no illegitimate interference, " says Daruwala.

It was Prakash Singh, former director general of the Border Security Force, who revived the debate over police reforms by filing a PIL in the Supreme Court in 1996. Ten years later, the SC ordered the Centre and all states to immediately comply with a set of seven directives that would have changed the face of Indian policing had they been implemented.

Daruwala says compliance by the states is poor and grudging. She adds, "Police reforms would have been buried again but for the determination of the Supreme Court not to be disobeyed. " Chief Justice S H Kapadia has taken a dim view of the dilly-dallying and the SC is currently hearing a series of contempt cases against errant state governments. His no-nonsense attitude has revived hope that the process of reforming the police may finally move forward.

READING THE RIOT ACT

Supreme Court directives for reforming the police, issued in 2006

A state security commission in all states to ensure that state governments do not unduly influence and pressurise the police All DGP appointments through a merit-based, transparent system with a fixed two-year tenure Fixed two-year tenures for all policemen on operational duties Separate investigation and law and order functions A Police Establishment Board to decide transfers and postings A Police Complaints Authority at the state and district levels to look into complaints against the police A national security commission to prepare a panel for selection of chiefs of central police organisations who should have a fixed two-year tenure

Ved Marwah, who was joint secretary of the National Police Commission, laments that politicians and bureaucrats have joined hands to scuttle police reforms


What happened to the recommendations of the NPC?

The political leadership and the bureaucracy were so annoyed with our suggestions that the NPC was wound up without any notice when Mrs Indira Gandhi returned to office in 1981. Many of our recommendations diluted their power over the police and they didn't like that. We were given just two days to wind up and leave. The Commission staff was dismissed without jobs. I had no posting and no salary for six months. I was literally on the road and had to borrow money from relatives to survive. I'm recalling this just to tell you how annoyed the government was with our recommendations.

Are you blaming vested interests?

Absolutely. There is total unanimity among political parties and the bureaucracy that the police should remain under their control. This was obvious at the recent chief ministers' conference. They all want the present system to continue.

Can you briefly outline what needs to be done today?

We need total overhauling. The job description of the police has changed. The first NPC set up by the British in 1902 took a conscious decision not to pattern the Indian police on the lines of the London Bobby. It envisaged a colonial force, cheap and unskilled. The attitude towards the police has not change much after Independence. The police has immense powers but low pay, low self-esteem, low social status and poor training. The living conditions in police barracks are worse than in slums! We need to rethink all this.

What key reforms would you suggest?

The police has three main functions: intelligence gathering, investigation and prosecution and maintenance of law and order which today includes dealing with extreme forms of violence like Naxalism and terrorism. All three need different sets of skills and different training. Not everyone can be a policeman and one policeman can't be competent in all three areas. We need to factor these things in at the recruitment stage itself so that we get the right people for each job. I have seen officers run away from the field in Naxal-affected areas in Jharkhand because they were too scared to face Maoists. So we need proper recruitment and relevant training. You can't recruit a policeman simply on the basis of the same exam that IAS recruits take.

Why do the police rely heavily on torture and physical brutality to extract confessions?

I would say that the workload is the basic problem. Each policeman has too many cases to investigate. It leads to shortcuts. Scientific interrogation, taking blood samples, lifting fingerprints, all take skill and time. Often, an investigating officer doesn't even have transport to get to the scene of the crime. The government doesn't seem to have the will or the interest to change this. When I was special secretary in the home ministry (after the NPC was wound up), I found that most officials hadn't even read the NPC reports! It's unfortunate that that there is so little interest in police reforms.

Reader's opinion (2)

Pratik Feb 22nd, 2011 at 16:49 PM

I didn't even know that some one had taken up the pains to think about police reforms.But now after reading the article and what the NPC could have done I have nothing but apathy for these fools who don't want us to develop.

Athar HusainFeb 14th, 2011 at 18:57 PM

Police reforms are much needed,enforcement of law and order and investigation of crime and prosecution be done by separate arms of policing.

 
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