Can We Please Get On With Real Police Reforms?

by Sudesh Verma - Dec 2, 2014 07:08 PM +05:30 IST
Can We Please Get On With Real Police Reforms?

The Prime Minister clearly wants to give a reformist direction to the police, but Modi’s vision will not work unless the 1861 Police Act is repealed and replaced by a law in tune with a modern democracy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address at the annual DGP conference in Guwahati on 30 November tried to focus on changing the image of police and the need to make them efficient. The film industry has presented an adverse image of the department, he said, and while there may be faultlines, there were many positive stories that were ignored. He advised every police station to have a website in which such positive stories be posted to restore public confidence.

One wished Modi had underlined the need for the much-needed police reforms. The adverse image of the police is a result of the conflict between the value system of policemen shaped by colonial needs and a modern model of governance that demands the police to be sensitive and citizen-centric. Modi believes in positive talk to reform the men in uniform, but these are hardened people who thrive on their bad image. And bad image pays! Why change and invite trouble?

Can We Please Get On With Real Police Reforms?

The police report to the civilian administration, which means the political establishment of the day. And what is the point of having an instrument (the police) that does not have teeth? What is police without its coercive powers that can help the political party in power settle past scores? This comes in the form of filing or not filing an FIR, giving a particular direction to an investigation, and raking up old cases.

This explains why very few state governments are interested in doing anything to reform the police. Law and order being a state subject, police reforms have to be initiated at the state level, unless the Union comes out with an omnibus direction to restructure the police system. So all talk of police reforms is mere lip service paid regularly to keep the hopes of common people alive.

Modi knows there is an urgent need for police reforms. But having been a chief minister, he also knows well the complexities involved. Perhaps, this is why he is trying to deliver results by lifting the morale of the police force. However, it’s time the government took the bull by the horns.

If there is one thing that needs to be changed drastically to bring relief to ordinary citizens, it is the police. The men in uniform do not instil confidence; they are feared. Citizens do not have control over the police. In many countries of the West, citizen control has led to accountability in the department and sane behaviour by the police. It brought the police and citizens closer.

Taking a leaf out of Kautilya’s statecraft, the Prime Minister spoke of the need to strengthen the intelligence network if modern policing had to succeed. A strong intelligence network would obviate the need for use of force, he said. But one also needs to stress that a strong intelligence network would not be possible without citizen participation, which would not happen unless the element of fear was removed and trust restored.

When something wrong happens in the neighbourhood, one does not complain for fear of being harassed. There is every possibility of someone from the police getting bribed and the identity of the person giving the information getting revealed. It is an issue of trust in the police, which is completely missing. Hardened criminals can pay to roam about scot-free whereas innocent people are scared of being put in jail for petty crimes.

The biggest reason for the chasm between police and public is the FIR. Getting an FIR registered should be a matter of right for any citizen, but this is the most difficult task. Why should an FIR be linked to preliminary inquiry and why should not the version of the aggrieved party be taken as final until proven otherwise? Maybe the police is too short-staffed to launch a probe into every case. Maybe the tendency to evaluate the performance of a police station by the number of FIRs is the reason for not filing FIRs. Introduction of online filing of FIRs through simple complaints would be a corrective step.

The police have acquired the image of being protectors of most illegal businesses running in the country. Whether it is the coal mafia, the liquor mafia or the land mafia—all thrive via police protection rackets. Even roadside vendors are not spared. Ask any hawker in Delhi; he will tell you how much weekly protection money he gives to the local police even when he has broken no law.

Another example is the special markets that are organised routinely on footpaths. The market mafia takes money from all vendors and gives a share to the police. When such illicit activities can’t be stopped in the National Capital Region that prides itself on heavy police deployment, what can one expect of the hapless people in other parts of the country?

The Police Act of 1861 was enacted to give coercive powers to the law enforcement agency and wield the baton without fear. It was meant to use the men in khaki to ensure that the average Indian would live in awe of the British Empire. It was reflective of a colonial order which is dead and buried, and totally out of place in a modern democracy.

The Prime Minister’s concept of SMART police at the DGP conference was a welcome articulation:  S for Sensitive and Strict, M for Modern and Mobile, A for Alert and Accountable, R for Responsive and Reliable, and T for Techno-savvy and Trained. He clearly gave a reformist direction to the police, but it will not work. Policing in India requires a drastic overhaul. Modi’s vision of a modern police needs the 1861 Act to go.

Sudesh Verma is a senior journalist and president of Debating India Foundation, a Delhi based think tank. He has authored Narendra Modi: The Game Changer, a bestseller on the life and career of the Indian Prime Minister.
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