Friday, August 25, 2000



There is ample evidence of increasing police deviance in India. The newspapers everyday report incidents of brutality, extortion and other crimes committed by police personnel in different parts of the country. A media scan entitled “ criminality amongst police personnel” done a couple of years ago by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an international NGO mandated to ensure practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth countries, revealed that there was considerable involvement of police personnel in committing crimes. Two findings of this scan were important. One, the police personnel were found to be involved in committing even heinous crimes, like murder, rape, robbery, extortion, grievous assault etc. Two, the involvement was confined not only to junior ranks; even seniors were involved.

The annual reports of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) contain details of cases of police atrocities investigated by them as well as statistics received from different States and Union Territories. The NHRC data shows that during the year 1998-99, the Commission admitted for disposal 183 complaints of ‘deaths in police custody’, 27 of ‘disappearance’, 436 of ‘illegal detention and arrest’, 634 of ‘false implication’ and 2252 of other ‘police excesses’. The majority of complaints received by the NHRC are against police personnel. Even the official statistics indicate that the number of public complaints received by the police departments against their employees is very high. The Crime in India, an annual publication of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of the Ministry of Home affairs, Government of India shows that during the year 1997, as many as 1,23,523 complaints against police were received from the public. The Union Home Minister, in reply to a question, informed the Rajya Sabha that the Delhi Police alone had received 34,947 complaints against the police officials during the year November 1997 to October 1998. Considering that the total strength of the Delhi Police is 57,497, it works out to a staggeringly high figure of about three complaints per five policemen.

What happens to these complaints? According to the Home Minister’s reply to the Parliament question, of the 33,384 complaints investigated by the Delhi Police, only 150 police personnel were punished. The remaining complaints were presumably found false or unsubstantiated. This brings into focus an important problem- who polices the police and how is it done?

In India, the police are policed mostly by themselves. The system has two major faults. One, it does not allow the entire dirt in the police department to come to the surface. The street cop culture, which is built around a strong sense of camaraderie and group loyalty amongst police personnel, ensures that all their sins of commission or omission do not come out in the open. Then there is the management cop culture, which sometimes tries to suppress incidents of misconduct by individual policemen because of apprehension that revelation of facts will demoralise the force, besides bringing it a bad name. Two, even where an inquiry into a citizen’s complaint against the police is done, it lacks credibility. The public distrust the police and feel that the department is incapable of conducting inquiries into public complaints in a fair and effective manner.

The citizens can, of course, go the courts to seek redress. This, however, is generally not done by them. Involvement in court cases is time consuming and costly. The courts are clogged with huge arrears of cases under trial. In a hard hitting speech delivered on the occasion of the golden jubilee celebrations of the Supreme Court in November last year, the Prime Minister of India mentioned that “the exasperating and increasingly expensive delays of the judicial system justly invite derision and contempt.” The system has lost its credibility.

AThe other institution to which the citizens can go with their complaints is the National Human Rights Commission, which has been in existence for about seven years now. The problem, however, is that an institution like this in a country of India’s size becomes too remote from the scene to be effective in many cases. A large number of police atrocities are committed in small towns and villages of India, where people are not aware either of Commission’s existence or of its procedures. Most State Governments have yet to set up their own Commissions. In addition, the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, under which the National or State Human Rights Commissions are set up, is known to be weak and inadequate in its present form.

Elsewhere in most parts of the democratic world, special integrity cells within the police departments, police complaint boards, civilian complaint boards, ombudsman, community liaison committees etc have been set to ensure the existence of effective multiple mechanisms of police accountability. Civic oversight of, and community inputs, into policing are increasingly being accepted as the most essential requirements of democratic policing.

Policing in India has never been democratic. The Police as an organised institution in this country is about 139 years old. It was set up through the Police Act of 1861, which brought into existence a police force governed by the need of the colonial power to ensure their suzerainty over a subject population and to perpetuate their rule in the country. In this system, the police remained unaccountable to anyone except their own hierarchy and the executive. The idea of the police being a part of the community and accountable to it thus never grew in the Indian soil.

No attempt was ever made to change the system inherited from the colonial days. Though we adopted a democratic structure of polity, most institutions of governance and value systems have still remained feudal and colonial in character. The Police is a perfect example of such an institution. That is why it has been so easy for the politicians and bureaucrats to manipulate the organisation for their narrow partisan purposes. The situation has only become worse during the last few decades because of increasing criminalisation of politics. The worst victim of mafia politics and ignoble politicised policing that we see in this country is the common man, who really wants efficient and reliable policing, but is not being heard.

The need for police reforms is self evident and urgent. It is essential for the establishment of good governance, protection of human rights and economic progress. The reforms will not come on their own. Resistance to the idea of police reforms is deeply entrenched, as Mr Indrajit Gupta, the former Union Home Minister realised to his dismay and disappointment. Mr. Gupta in his famous letter of April 3, 1997 warned the Chief Ministers that the “day may not be far off when the judiciary may intervene decisively to force such socially desirable changes down the throat of the political executive.” More than the judiciary, it is the public, which will have to do so. As someone has rightly said: “The real protection of civil society can only come from its own creators: the people.”