POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY IN INDIA: POLICING CONTAMINATED by POLITICS
India is a union of 28 states and 7 union territories. Under the Constitution of India, the ‘Police’ are a State subject. This means that they are the responsibility of State governments. The organisation and working of the police forces are governed by rules and regulations framed by the state governments.
Each state/ union territory has its own separate police force. In addition, there are central police organisations set up by the union government for specialised work. The total combined strength of the state/union territory police forces on 1.1.2003 in the country was 14,68,776. In addition, the strength of the five central para-military organisations alone was 6,01,328.
This huge reservoir of trained manpower, more than two million in strength can become a very important catalyst of positive change in society provided they are made to serve the rule of law and held accountable for their sins of commission and omission, if any. The issue of holding them accountable is very closely linked to the type of control and superintendence exercised over them.
This paper discusses the subject of police accountability in India in four parts. The first part describes the main features of the police system established by the British in this country and shows how the idea of making the police accountable to anyone outside the establishment did not fit into the colonial model of policing introduced in this country. The second part argues that though the post Independence India witnessed changes on many fronts, the police system, in its basic structure, methods of work and lack of public accountability remained more or less unchanged. It also discusses some developments that resulted in strengthening the executive control over the police and leading to an increasing abuse of police forces and misuse of police powers. The third part talks about the need to make the police accountable, especially in the context of citizens’ complaints against police personnel and discusses the mechanisms that exist, both within and outside the department, to ensure accountability. The concluding portion sums up the discussion and suggests that the need for police reforms is too important to be neglected and too urgent to be delayed.
1. The Police System - A Colonial Legacy
The Police as an organised institution in this country came into existence with the Police Act of 1861. This legislation was passed in the wake of the Indian Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, when the Indian soldiers in the colonial army revolted against their British commanders. The mutiny later developed into a rebellion against British rule in India. Though the revolt was quelled speedily and successfully, it did jolt the British into taking many steps to consolidate their rule in India, including the establishment of an authoritarian police force to support the colonial government.
The British realised that to perpetuate their rule in this country, they must have a police force that was totally subservient to the executive. The executive must exercise complete and unquestioning control over the police force. Section 3 of the 1861 Police Act vested the superintendence of the state police forces in the state governments. The same Act introduced a system of dual control at the district level. It put the police forces under the command of the District Superintendents of Police, but subject to the “general control and direction” of the District Magistrates. This was done deliberately because the functioning of the District Magistrate as the chief officer of the district was considered essential for the maintenance of British rule in India. Under the system of police governance established by the 1861 Act, the police forces in India were unaccountable to anyone except their own hierarchy and the colonial political and administrative executive. Making the police accountable to the community or other democratic or local indigenous institutions did not fit into the British colonial model of control.
The British structured the organisation in a way so that the senior positions in the force would be occupied by them and the junior slots would be kept for ‘natives.’ Section 7 of the Police Act of 1861 uses the words “inferior officers” for those occupying the lower ranks in the police. Even when the senior posts were Indianised in due course, the elitist bias was not forsaken. Family background always weighed heavy in picking candidates for senior vacancies. They realised that a system based on feudal values prevalent in the Indian society would work effectively in ensuring that the rank and file, which constituted the bulk of the force, remained loyal, subservient and accountable to their seniors within the organisation and government.
This gave rise to a managerial philosophy, which was based on distrust of the lower ranks in the organisation. The natives were not to be trusted. This distrust is reflected in the provisions of law also. For example, under Section 162 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the statement of a witness recorded by the police during investigation is not to be signed by the person making the statement and it can not be used during trial for any purpose other than that of contradicting the witness if he differs from it. Similarly, Section 25 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 says that confessions recorded by a police officer shall not be admissible in evidence.
The police was raised on a militaristic and authoritarian pattern. There was tremendous emphasis on maintenance of a type of discipline, which bordered on regimentation, requiring the lower ranks to obey orders blindly. The system did not require the constabulary to put on their thinking caps while performing their duties. They in fact were not required to have any. That is why recruitment to constabulary stressed on the requirements of brawn and not brain. The taller and heftier the recruit, the better. During training, his physical fitness and endurance must improve. It was for this reason that the training programmes in the police were biased heavily in favour of outdoor activities, like drill. He need not be educated, but he must have an intimidating presence, that should deter not only the criminals but also ordinary citizens. In his presence, nobody should raise questions or demand answers.
All the above factors combined to produce a system, which situated the bulk of the police force at a distance from the community. Understandably, the 1861 Act failed to produce an efficient, professional and an accountable police force in the country. This was realised by the colonial rulers themselves. For example, the Indian Police Commission appointed in July, 1902 under the chairmanship of Sir A.H.L. Fraser concluded:
”The police force is far from efficient; it is defective in training and organisation; it is inadequately supervised; it is generally regarded as corrupt and oppressive; and it has utterly failed to secure the confidence and cordial co-operation of the people.”
The Commission made many recommendations but either failed to recognise or conveniently ingnored the fact that most of the ills afflicting the organistion could be ascribed to the system established by the Police Act of 1861 and the philosophy of policing that was prescribed. The Commission, despite themselves unearthing massive evidence to the contrary, concluded that the system introduced in 1861 was on the whole a wise and efficient system.
2. Post Independence Developments
The advent of Independence changed the political system, but the police system remained more or less unaltered. The Police Act of 1861 continued to govern it. Its managerial philosophy, value system and ethos remained what they were. The powers granted to politicians and bureaucrats to exercise control and superintendence over the police remained the same. They were a ruler or establishment supportive police force, considerably distant from the community and they continued to remain so.
Though the country has been independent for more than 57 years, till now, no government, central or state, has taken the initiative to replace the Police Act of 1861 with new legislation, which would be in tune with requirements of democratic policing.
It is not as if no new legislation has been passed. Some state governments have enacted new legislation since Independence to govern the functioning of their police forces. For instance, the Police Forces in Maharashtra and Gujarat are governed by the Bombay Police Act of 1951, in Kerala by the Kerala Police Act of 1960, in Karnataka by the Karnataka Police Act of 1963, in Delhi by the Delhi Police Act of 1978. Some State Governments have also framed separate legislation to regulate the working of their State Armed Police Forces. The enactment of these laws after Independence has not brought about any significant improvement in the organisational structure, performance or behaviour of the Police Forces. The reason - the new enactments were patterned on the model of the old 1861 legislation. They are as silent and remiss about the new requirements of democratic policing as the colonial legislation was. In fact, some of these state Acts, like the Bombay Police Act, 1952 further tightened the executive control over the police force, without introducing any safeguards to prevent the misuse of police force for partisan purposes and without incorporating effective mechanisms to ensure police accountability. How this Act failed to prevent the misuse of police force was clearly seen during the communal riots of 2002 in Gujarat
Police during the Emergency
For a couple of decades after Independence, it did not matter much, as the standards of leadership, in both politics as well as police, were quite good. Gradually, however, the standards started declining, with politics becoming increasingly contentious and criminalised, leading to a perceptible decline in the quality of control exercised over the police and increasing misuse of the organisation by people in positions of power for partisan interests. Almost all the State Police Commissions, the National Police Commission and other expert bodies, which inquired into the problems of the police in India, found overwhelming evidence of misuse of the police by politicians for narrow selfish ends. This was particularly seen during the period of Emergency (1975 – 1977) when the police committed atrocities on a wide scale. The brazen manner in which the police were misused during this period prompted the government that came to power at the center after the Emergency to appoint the Shah Commission of Inquiry. The Shah Commission unearthed considerable evidence to prove that during the period of Emergency, some police officers behaved as though they were not accountable at all to any public authority. In its report, the Shah Commission told the government: “employing the police to the advantage of any political party is a sure source of subverting the rule of law”, and asked the central government to take measures to insulate the police from illegitimate political and executive interference.
National Police Commission
In response, the Government of India appointed the National Police Commission (NPC). The NPC was asked to make a comprehensive review of the police system, having regard to the far- reaching changes that had taken place in the country after the enactment of the Indian Police Act of 1861, the report of the last Police Commission of 1902 and particularly those changes which had taken place since Independence. The NPC had fairly wide and comprehensive terms of reference, including a fresh examination of the role and performance of the police, both as a law enforcement agency and as an institution to protect the rights of citizens enshrined in the Constitution. One of its most important terms of reference required it to recommend measures and institutional arrangements to prevent misuse of powers by the police and misuse of the police by politicians or other pressure groups.
During the period between 1979 and 1981, the NPC produced eight reports. Some major recommendations centering around the problem of insulating the police from illegitimate political and bureaucratic interference included: (i) setting up of a Security Commission in each state to see that the government exercises its superintendence over the police in an open manner within the framework of law; (ii) prescribing a selection procedure that would ensure the appointment of the best officers to head the state police force; (iii) giving these officers a fixed minimum tenure so as to reduce their vulnerability; (iv) amending rules so that arbitrary transfers of police officers done without authority would become null and void; and (v) replacing the Police Act of 1861 with a new Police Act.
None of the above recommendations of the NPC has been implemented. These recommendations perturbed the entrenched elite at the prospect of losing control over an organization, which they have been misusing for so long. Politicians and bureaucrats have developed a great vested interest in retaining control and superintendence over the police organization and in letting the status quo continue.
Criminalisation of Politics
In fact, the situation has become worse since the NPC made its recommendations. Over the last few decades, there has been a large influx of criminals into the Indian polity. The Election Commission of India estimated in the late 1990s that 40 members of Parliament and 700 members of State Legislative Assemblies had criminal records.
As the nexus between the criminals and politicians becomes stronger, it is able to subvert the loyalty of the functionaries at different levels in the government, including the police. Criminalisation of politics has gradually led to undermining the authority of the police leadership and consequently the discipline of the force. The police are a hierarchical organisation. If the effectiveness of the leadership is undermined, the entire force becomes vulnerable to wrong influences, with the functionaries at different levels looking elsewhere for protection and rewards. Besides breeding indiscipline in the force, it promotes a climate in which impunity flourishes. It ultimately shakes the confidence of the public in the police.
Failure of the criminal justice system
The public are unhappy not only with the police but with the functioning of other agencies of the criminal justice system. Crime has registered an increase. For example, the total cognizable crime registered under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), according to Crime in India figures, increased from only 6.25 lakhs in 1951 to 17.2 lakhs in 2003. The total cognizable crime in 2003 was about 55 lakhs, including 37.8 lakh offences registered under the local and special laws.
When there is an upsurge in criminal activities or a particularly heinous crime is committed, the public tend to blame the police. The general tendency is to hold the police solely responsible for any increase in crime. This attitude is reinforced by the manner in which the police react to public criticism. They either quote crime statistics, which are not too impressive or point out inadequacies of manpower and equipment at their disposal.
Crime statistics in any case are not very reliable. A common complaint against the police is that they do not register crime fully. Concealment or burking of crime is quite common. One major reason for this is that police performance is evaluated on the basis of crime statistics. This, according to the NPC, encourages “the police to adopt questionable methods of recording and controlling crime and even resorting to illegal acts.” They suggested that “correct registration of crime” be adopted as one of the yardsticks to evaluate police performance. However whenever this is done, it leads to a tremendous increase in crime figures, resulting in an outcry in the press and the legislature and causing considerable embarrassment to the government. The police revert again to the old evil of concealing crime by not registering it. This results in denying access to justice to a large number of people, particularly those belonging to poor and marginalised sections of society.
When a large number of persons, after committing crimes, are allowed to get away and justice is not meted out to victims or cases drag on in courts for umpteen number of years, it results in eroding the faith and confidence of the public in the effectiveness of the system.
More than an increase in crime, it is the failure of the system to deal promptly, justly and effectively with those who commit it that has been responsible for the loss of faith and confidence of the public in the effectiveness of the system. There has been a steep decline in the conviction rate. While in 1971, the conviction rate of IPC offences (number of cases convicted to total number of cases tried)was 62%, by the year 2003, it had declined to about 40%. Justice is being denied as well as delayed. The courts are clogged with huge arrears of cases under trial. According to the 61st report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, 25 million cases were pending trial in different courts in the country.
The citizens expect the State to establish the rule of law and provide them freedom from crime and violence. The State’s failure to do so gives rise to public fear of crime and criminals. Fear of crime feeds on itself and always grows at a rate faster than crime. It is public fear of crime, which sometimes provides a license to the police to ignore the law and deal with crime and criminals by using rough and illegal methods. Blinding of criminals done by Bhagalpur Police way back in early eighties was one example of such license. This has been followed by other incidents. Police deviance is bound to increase whenever the fear of crime whips up the rhetoric of war against crime, criminals and terrorists. What the public want is a feeling of security and are not always willing to question the methods used by the police in achieving their success in the fight against crime and criminals.
Terrorism and organized violence
It becomes all the more difficult to hold the police personnel accountable for their misdeeds committed in areas affected by the problem of terrorism or other forms of organized violence. A number of states, like Punjab and J&K witnessed considerable terrorist violence in the last few decades. In such areas, rule of fear reigned supreme and people did not come forward to give any support or cooperation to security agencies. The functioning of courts was affected badly and cases against terrorists if brought before the courts by the police did not get settled. The government in such situations invariably used the opportunity provided by the accelerating fear of crime and violence to arm itself with repressive powers. It introduced ‘black’ laws, which enhanced the powers of the police and curtail citizens’ rights. The police got virtually a free hand and frequently committed violations of human rights. Complaints of human rights abuses received against police personnel from such areas often included arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, excessive use of force, disappearances, custodial violence and extra-judicial executions. The government generally overlooked complaints against security personnel on the ground that action taken in such cases would demoralise the police forces and weaken their resolve to crush organised violence with a heavy hand. This has happened in several areas. For example, in Punjab, gross violations of human rights during the hey-days of terrorism were overlooked by the State and to some extent even by the public.
Usually, where the police are needed by government to deal with serious or significant law and order problems of political significance such as terrorism, police excesses get state implicit or even explicit approval, if not encouragement and support. In some cases, the assurance of impunity is granted in advance. An example could be found in the address given on April 30, 1998 by the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP) Mr. Kalyan Singh. The Chief Minister, while addressing the state police officers at a law and order review meeting in the state capital, said:
“I want performance results. I want you to take a vow that you will create a dhamaka (explosion) in the state. If noted criminals can be liquidated in encounters, do it. If you take the life of one person who has taken the lives of 10 others, then people will praise you. And I am here to protect you.”
This concern for maintenance of law and order does not inspire confidence in the public because the credentials of political leaders expressing such concern are themselves questionable. As an editorial in a newspaper said in connection with a similar call made to the police force in the same state by a different Chief Minister: “As it is, many of his ministerial colleagues, cutting across political affiliations, have a criminal background. Surely their presence in positions of power can only encourage criminals….…..The right place for criminals is neither jungles nor the Assembly but behind bars.”
When the assurance of impunity comes from the highest quarter in the State, police officers become emboldened to misuse their powers or to become silent spectators to incidents involving major violations of law. They know that they cannot be asked to account for their acts of dereliction of duty or misdeeds. This was particularly noticeable during the incidents of communal violence in Gujarat that occurred during February-April, 2002 The police were not able to control the riots, which continued for more than three months and caused tremendous loss of lives and property of the members of the minority community. There is considerable evidence to show that the police were complicit in many cases and did not come to the rescue of the victims. There are reports that the state government was biased against the minority community and did not want the police to quell the riots effectively.
The danger of the public also turning a blind eye towards the use of illegal methods by the police is particularly manifest in areas where the terrorists or insurgents or criminals belong to minority communities and their crimes of violence are targeted against members of majority community. The public in such cases may not take serious notice of violence committed by police personnel against people suspected to be terrorists or their supporters.
There is a provision in law that enables the government to provide impunity even in proven misdeeds. This provision is contained in Section 197, Criminal Procedure Code, under which a public servant cannot be prosecuted without the sanction of the appropriate authorities for acts done “while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of his official duties.” The purpose of this provision of law is to ensure that frivolous and vexatious complaints are not filed against police officers to demoralise them and dissuade them from performing their duties. However, it is a fact that this provision of law has been abused to provide protection to police officers even in serious cases of misconduct. This happens because of nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and police officers, which deliberately delays or denies sanctions for prosecutions. The National Police Commission’s recommendation that protection available to the police officers under Section 197 of the Cr.P.C. 1973 be withdrawn has not been accepted.
The police feel that the government as well as the public sometimes adopt double standards in dealing with them. When the problem of terrorism is at its peak, they are given a free hand to deal with it the way they think fit, but once normalcy and peace return, their methods are questioned. This happened especially in Punjab, where after the state was rid of the problem of terrorism, the civil society groups became active and started demanding that police personnel be held accountable for all the wrongs they did during the earlier days. The Times of India in September 1997 cited figures from the Union Home Ministry stating that 123 police officials were facing trial for using illegal methods against terrorists. In addition, 2,555 petitions had been filed against Punjab police officers by individuals and human rights organisations. The grievance of the police was that no one came forward to support or assist them during those difficult times when they and their families had to bear the brunt of terrorist onslaught. As many as 1500 policemen lost their lives while fighting terrorists during the five-year period 1988-1992 in Punjab, but once the problem was over, mainly due to police efforts and sacrifices, they were being asked to account for the methods they used.
3. Police Deviance and Accountability mechanisms
There is ample evidence of increasing police deviance in India. Incidents of brutality, extortion and other crimes committed by police officers in different parts of the country are reported in Indian newspapers. The National Human Rights Commission’s data shows that the number of complaints relating to ‘deaths in police custody’ reported to them increased from 136 in 1995-96 to 183 in 2002-03. During the same period, ‘illegal detention/arrest’ increased from 112 to 3595, and other ‘police excesses’ from 115 to 9622.
The majority of complaints received by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) are against police personnel. Even the official statistics indicate that the number of public complaints against the police received by police departments is very high. The report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a Government of India organisation, shows that during 1997, as many as 1,23,523 complaints against the police were received from the public, though by the year 2003, the number had declined to 55115.
The existing mechanisms for calling the police account for their actions can be discussed broadly under two main headings:
1. Internal Accountability Mechanisms.
2. External Accountability Mechanisms
Internal Accountability Mechanisms
The internal mechanisms for holding individual police officers accountable for their actions are contained in the Police Act of 1861, the state governments’ Police Acts and in rules laid down in state Police Manuals. The Police Act of 1861 authorises senior police officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above to dismiss, suspend or reduce the rank of any police officer of subordinate ranks whom they think remiss or negligent in the discharge of his or her duties or unfit for the same. They are also authorised to impose one or more of the other punishments, including (a) fine not exceeding one month's pay, (b) confinement to quarters not exceeding 15 days, (c) deprivation of good conduct pay, and (d) removal from any office of distinction or special emolument.
In addition, the Police Act of 1861 lists the following offences for which a police officer can be disciplined: (i) a wilful breach or neglect of any rule or regulation or lawful order; (ii) withdrawal from duties of the office or being absent without permission or reasonable cause; (iii) engaging without authority in any employment other than his police duty; (iv) cowardice, and (v) causing any unwarrantable violence to any person in his custody. The penalty for these offences ranges between fine of up to three months' pay to imprisonment up to three months or a combination of both.
The rules divide punishments into ‘major’ and ‘minor’. Though the rules differ from state to state, generally, dismissal, removal, reduction in rank or pay and forfeiture of service are regarded as ‘major punishments’. They cannot be imposed on any police officer without conducting a regular departmental inquiry. It is only after the inquiry proves the charges against the accused police official that a major penalty can be imposed. Minor punishments include censure and reprimand. They can be imposed without conducting any departmental disciplinary proceedings.
To give major punishments to guilty police personnel is difficult and takes time because the procedure of conducting departmental inquiry is highly elaborate, cumbersome and time consuming. Even if the charges are proved, the delinquent police officer can and generally does go to the court against the findings and punishment imposed.
Unfortunately, the authority of police leadership in India has been eroded over time by political interference, leading to loss of discipline in the force and the promotion of a tendency at different levels within the police to seek outside patronage for rewards and to be shielded against punishment. This is one of the major reasons for the ineffectiveness of departmental mechanisms to ensure police accountability.
It is imperative that any arrangement for inquiry into complaints against the police should be acceptable both to the police and public as fair and just. This was recognised by the National Police Commission. In their First Report, the Commission suggested arrangements, whereby inquiries would be conducted by departmental authorities and also by an independent authority outside the police. The Commission felt that a large number of complaints against police should be looked into and disposed of by the supervisory ranks in the police hierarchy, but a judicial inquiry should be made mandatory in the following categories of complaints against the police:
• alleged rape of a woman in police custody;
• death or grievous hurt caused while in police custody; and
• death of two or more persons resulting from police firing in the dispersal of unlawful assemblies.
However, the government has not accepted these recommendations. The response of the government to the recommendations of the NPC has never been made public.
In any case, the departmental mechanisms for dealing with police misconduct do not always inspire public confidence. There are allegations that police departments sometimes suppress incidents of misconduct by individual police officers because the revelation of the facts could damage the image of the organisation. Inquiries into citizens’ complaints against the police are not credible. There is general public distrust emanating from the fact that the police themselves conduct the enquiries. In 2001, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) reprimanded the Delhi Police for treating shoddily public complaints against police officers referred to it by that office. According to the PMO “The field reports prepared at the district level are generally evasive, there is a lack of sensitivity, lapses of police are concealed and emphasis is mainly on statistical disposal.”
External Accountability Mechanisms
The courts constitute one of the most important external mechanisms of ensuring police accountability. While writ petitions and public interest litigations can be filed in higher courts, criminal prosecutions can be launched in lower courts. A number of significant judgments have been passed by the higher courts, prescribing safeguards or guidelines to regulate police conduct during arrest, interrogation and other stages of investigation, asking the government to pay compensation in cases of custodial violence, commenting adversely on the police for showing discrimination in the handling of communal and caste conflicts and passing strictures in many cases where defective or inadequate police investigation was noticed. On December 18, 1997, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgement aimed at insulating the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Directorate of Enforcement from outside influences so that they could function efficiently and impartially, to serve the rule of law. The Judgment also declared null and void, the Single Directive, which required the CBI to seek permission from the government before undertaking any inquiry or investigation against senior civil servants of the rank of Joint Secretary and above. However, the government has succeeded in diluting the effect of this judgement by passing the Central Vigilance Commission Act, 2003, which has brought the Single Directive back and put it on the statute book.
One major problem is the absence of any mechanism to constantly monitor the implementation of the courts’ judgements and take the defaulting government or other parties back to the courts.
Citizens can, of course, file private complaints to the courts to seek redress. However, this is rarely done. This is partly because of ignorance and partly because accessing courts is time consuming and costly and inhibits the average person’s ability to use the courts for redress.
Human Rights Commissions
The human rights commissions established under The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 (the Act) provide another means of holding the police accountable in cases of misconduct. The most important of these commissions is the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which was established on October 12, 1993.
The NHRC undoubtedly has some achievements to its credit, in terms of its efforts to make the police accountable for their actions. However, the Commission’s work has suffered due to certain infirmities and deficiencies in the law governing its functioning.
The Commission is supposed to be completely independent in its functioning, but there are certain provisions in the Act, which underscore the dependence of the Commission on the Government. The Act makes it dependent on the government for some of its requirements, like manpower and finance.
More importantly, the Act does not authorise the Commission to enquire into complaints of violations of human rights committed by the members of the armed forces. “Armed Forces”, as defined in the Act, means not only the naval, military and air forces but also some central armed police organizations, like the Border Security Force.. The Act obviously weakens the NHRC’s effectiveness in providing redress to the public in cases where violations have been committed by members of these forces, which are often deployed on law and order duty in disturbed areas. All that the Commission, under the Act, can do is to call for reports from the Central Government in such cases and then make recommendations to the Government or not “proceed with the complaint” at all. There have been cases where the central government has sometimes denied it even the records sought by it. In its latest report, the Commission regretted “the lack of cooperation extended to it through the denial of access to records requested by it in respect of trials conducted against members of the para-military forces accused of human rights violations.”
Furthermore, under the Act, the Commission has no power to enforce its decisions. According to the Act, where the enquiry conducted by the Commission discloses a violation of human rights, it can only advise the government to take action against the guilty persons or grant relief to the victim. If any State government refuses to accept the advice, there is no provision in law which empowers the Commission to force the government to implement its advice. It can of course approach the higher courts and seek directions.
In many respects, the human rights commissions have acted as a check. The problem, however, is that an institution like the NHRC 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 the Commission’s existence or of its procedures. Most State Governments have yet to set up their own Commissions. Till now, only fourteen out of twenty-eight states have established human rights commissions. Even where these bodies have been established, all of them are not functioning viably. The NHRC, in its report for the year 1999- 2000, expressed its disappointment with the slow pace with which State Governments were acting to constitute State Human Rights Commissions. It also noted that not all human rights commissions that had been established were being appropriately supported through the provision of adequate financial and manpower resources. More or less similar sentiments have been expressed in the latest report of the NHRC for the year 2002-03. The Commission has referred to the “unhappiness” expressed by certain state human rights commissions “over the difficulties they are experiencing in terms of lack of support, both financial and otherwise.”
It will take time and some amendments in law to make the human rights commissions in India sufficiently strong, independent and vibrant to ensure the accountability of state institutions and protection of citizens against violations of their rights.
NGO activities relating to the police are broadly of two types: (1) those concerned with violations of human rights committed by police officers and (2) those concerned with reforms in the working of the police organisation. The former group of activities include bringing police atrocities out in the open and putting pressures on the government to take action against the police. Police or government reaction to NGO allegations is usually that of denial. The government is generally reluctant to expose police abuse of power as it could be used against them by the opposition. However, where the documentation of human rights violations is authentic and supported by irrefutable evidence, the government is forced to take action. But documenting human rights violations committed by police personnel poses a major challenge to the NGOs. The task is quite daunting not only because of the intimidating nature of the work but also because of lack of expertise. The NGO’s lack of expertise makes it difficult for them to advocate successfully for concrete alternative plans for restructuring the police or recommend programmes for action within the existing framework. For example, during the communal violence in Gujarat, the police did not register the complaints of many of the victims of communal violence who belonged to minority ethnic groups. Many of these victims were denied compensation as well as access to criminal justice. While a large number of NGOs were very eager to help the victims, they could not do much because of their own ignorance of law, the police and court procedures.
One problem faced by NGOs advocating for police reforms is the non-availability of information about government’s plans and programmes concerning the police. The police are very reluctant to share information with outsiders, particularly the NGOs. This hampers the work of the NGOs, especially with regard to police reforms.
More importantly, there is an element of distrust between the NGOs and the government in the country. The government feels that although the NGOs are ever ready and willing to condemn the police at the drop of a hat, they have no alternative plans to suggest. Those NGOs that receive foreign funding are under greater suspicion. Generally, the government regards NGOs as the mouthpieces of the opposition parties or of international pressure groups. Another perception about them is that they are selective in denouncing human rights violations. While violations by security forces of the country are violently denounced by them, more heinous violations committed by terrorists are not even criticized. This perception is shared even by certain sections of the public.
One of the most vigilant watchdogs over the police functioning in this country is the media. The media in India enjoys a wide measure of freedom. It has enormous reach and power. Technological advances witnessed during the last few decades have revolutionized the world of communications and opened frontiers, which were hitherto unknown to the media or beyond its reach. Any violation of human rights occurring anywhere in the country can be known to the rest of the country in no time, provided the media takes it up.
The media has shown great interest in reporting on human rights violations committed by police officers. What happened in Gujarat during communal riots last year (2002) was known to the rest of India and the world mainly through the efforts of the media. However, the known incidents of police misconduct or abuse of power are far less than those that take place but are not known. The media’s coverage sometimes is inadequate and selective. Most media organisations in this country, as in other parts of the world, are either state or corporate owned. The media has taken interest in projecting issues and areas which are lucrative, not necessarily those that are of public interest. Political news, politicians and celebrities have dominated the media coverage. Bias and lack of sensitive appreciation of issues involved have affected the quality of coverage, the selection of subjects and contents. The tendency to sensationalise issues and events has often been noticed.
On the whole, the mainstream national media have been far better than the regional media in covering human rights violations and holding state agencies accountable. Some newspapers in Gujarat deliberately spread rumours, distorted facts and did their best to promote the hate campaign against the minority community. As the Human Rights Watch pointed out: “ While the national Indian press has played an important role in exposing the violence and official neglect or misconduct, sectors of the local press have been accused of inciting the violence.” It became difficult to hold the editors and management of the local press accountable for violating criminal law, besides infringing their own code of ethics, because they had the support of the state government.
The government has occasionally tried to pressurize or intimidate the media, which has exposed corruption or abuse of power by politicians and senior bureaucrats. Recalcitrant media persons have been subjected to raids by income tax and law enforcement authorities and harassed in other ways. For instance, this happened recently to the editor and staff members of Tehelka. Com, an internet portal that succeeded in video tapping some important politicians, bureaucrats and army officers accepting bribes and fixing arms deals with decoy arms dealers belonging to Tehelka. According to Vir Sanghvi, Editor, the Hindustan Times, a national newspaper: “The message in all this is quite direct: if anyone ever tries to expose corruption in the way in which Tehelka has done, they will face the full might of the government of India. It worries me that as journalists, we are allowing the government to get away with all this” (The Sunday Hindustan Times, 14 July, 2002).
4. Summing Up
Providing a sense of security to the ordinary citizens and attending to their grievances is dependent on the establishment of a police force, which is efficient, honest and professional to the core. The fact that such a police force does not exist in India is attested to by the findings of the various commissions and committees, the complaints received by the human rights commissions, the stories reported by the press and the experiences of the common people on the streets. The need for police reforms is self evident and urgent.
The reforms package must include the establishment of statutory institutional arrangements, which would ensure that the power of superintendence of the state government over the police force is limited to guarantee that police performance is in strict accordance with law. In other words, the police function to establish rule of law and not the rule of politics. This would require insulating them from outside illegitimate control and giving them functional autonomy. Once the police are given functional independence, they must be held accountable for the wrongs they do. The existing mechanisms of accountability must be strengthened and improved. In addition, new mechanisms, working independently to monitor the functioning of the police and to inquire into public complaints against the police, must be established.
(Original version of the article that was published in the Solidarity,September 2005- A publication of the Asian Human Rights Commission and Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong.)