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Colonial nostalgia

POLICE reforms in India and Pakistan are more talked about than practised. In post-independence India, police reform commissions included the Gore Committee, the National Police Commission (NPC), the Ribeiro Committee, the Padmanabhaiah Committee, the Malimath Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System, the MHA Review Committee on Police Reforms, the Soli Sorabjee Committee on the Model Police Act and the Prof Madhava Menon Committee on the Draft National Policy on Criminal Justice. Between 1971 and 2007, there were nine national-level commissions including the NPC and Soli Sorabjee Committee. State-level commissions were also set up.

The NPC report provided guidance for future police reform commissions. It observed that “Increased political interference … meant the increased division of police personnel into different cliques and groups with different political leanings” and advised depoliticisation. But its advice was shelved by the next government. In 1996, retired police chiefs Prakash Singh and N.K. Singh filed a petition in the Indian Supreme Court for operational autonomy and implementation of the recommendations. To examine the NPC recommendations, in 1998, the court appointed a committee headed by Julio F. Ribeiro. To identify the gaps between police response and public expectations. In 2000, the Padmanabhaiah committee was appointed.

In 2003, the Police Performance and Accountability Commission was formed to assess the impact of the autonomy granted to the police and political interference. The Malimath Committee was appointed to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system. The commission’s findings showed that police autonomy did not have much impact. Unilateral autonomy to police chiefs could lure them towards corruption. It discussed the prevention of the misuse of autonomy by police chiefs. To draft a model police act in 2005, the Soli Sorabjee Committee was notified.

In 2006, the supreme court issued seven directives to the centre and states regarding the selection and tenure of police chiefs, separation of investigation and operations, promotion and posting of junior officers, and formation of police establishment boards. To probe complaints against officers above DSP rank, the court ordered a state-level authority to be headed by a retired superior court judge. State and national security commissions were to evaluate police performance. But a committee formed in 2008 concluded that despite the lapse of almost four years no state had fully implemented the directives. In 2018, the court banned the appointment of acting police chiefs and instructed the states to send a panel of eligible officers to the Union Public Service Commission to shortlist three names for the state to select one.

Police reforms require public support.

The report of the Roundtable Conference on Police Reforms observed that the Kerala police had secured partial freedom from political control but that “faceless middlemen” had replaced corrupt politicians and that “insulation from illegitimate political control has not resulted in reducing police corruption”. The Kerala experience, in fact, suggests a balanced approach between operational autonomy and police accountability.

Interestingly, the British preferred to model India’s police on the Irish Constabulary that isolated the law enforcers from the public. Here, the objective was to protect the Raj and control the locals, while in the UK, police were subservient to the courts and democratic control. In true democracies, interactive policing brings the public and police closer. The police strive to uphold the rule of law and do not bow to outside influence. Four decades after promulgating Police Act 1861, in 1902, the colonial power itself concluded that “the police force is far from efficient … it is generally regarded as corrupt and oppressive…”. And yet, after independence, the elite class clings closely to the colonial recipe.

Active public engagement remains a weak link, and police confront a low image and low level of public understanding about policing issues. Besides political ownership, police reforms also require public support.

As in other ex-British colonies, the challenge lies in eliminating bureaucratic-cum-political control; if police are placed under democratic oversight, then what about the capacity and neutrality of the members of safety commissions? The real irritants are structural and attitudinal. Addressing both is a gigantic task. Structural and attitudinal flaws are historical and difficult to remove. Structural and legal readjustment lies in the domain of the political elite while attitudinal and professional readjustment is the senior police leadership’s responsibility. Recognising that making history is a more viable option than living in the past, the political and police leadership and public stakeholders should collaborate to bring about positive change.

Mohammad Ali Babakhel, "Colonial nostalgia," Dawn. 2022-02-11.
Keywords: Police reforms , National police commission , Criminal justice system , Police performance accountability , National security commissions