Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi
The recent string of events surrounding history-sheeter Vikas Dubey’s chase by the U.P. police, which culminated in his being shot dead while attempting to flee custody under suspicious circumstances, has once again raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the police force as an institution. Activists and intellectuals have pointed to the striking parallel with the 2009 Meghalaya encounter case, the absence of a transit remand while the accused was being taken to Kanpur from Ujjain, and the suspected involvement of political office-holders, all three accusations corresponding with larger flaws in the system.
The Menace of Extrajudicial Killings
Not so long ago, the gang-rape and murder of 27-year-old veterinary doctor Priyanka Reddy in Hyderabad shook the ‘collective conscience’ of the country. Two weeks later, the four suspects were killed in a shootout during a reenactment of the crime scene. Police claimed they had been trying to escape, even as people took to the streets in celebration and showered the officers with flower petals to thank them for carrying out ‘instant justice’.
“The law has done its duty”, local police Chief V.C. Sajjanar told reporters.
This reflects a dangerous trend in India’s law-and-order situation. The police is only an executive instrument of the government, created for the “prevention and detection of crime” as mentioned in the Preamble of the Police Act, 1861. It has been entrusted with the task of catching hold of offenders and producing them before a Magistrate, not meting out punishment as deemed fit. “Over the decades, extrajudicial killings and custodial torture have assumed legal sanctity in India,” senior Supreme Court advocate Colin Gonsalves said in a statement to AFP news agency. With mass media glorifying ‘encounter specialists’, the practice now seems to enjoy public approval.
This is largely a direct consequence of citizens’ lack of faith in the judicial system, wherein legal proceedings usually take years to reach a conclusion and convict the guilty. The doctrine of “collective conscience of the community” was first cited by the Supreme Court in Machhi Singh and Others vs. State of Punjab (1983) to expand the scope of the death penalty. In such cases, public restlessness tends to give way to the police taking the law into its own hands, promoting a culture of impunity arising from bloodlust. This leads us to a problematic slippery slope- where do we draw the line?
Indeed, staged encounters have often been used by the police for malignant purposes like covering up botched investigations and quelling armed insurgencies in Punjab, Kashmir and the Northeast. In response to a petition filed on behalf of aggrieved families in 2012, the Supreme Court examined 1,528 alleged cases of extrajudicial killings by police and security forces in Manipur from as early as 1979 and gave two landmark judgements in 2016-17, establishing that any allegation on the use of excessive force by uniformed personnel resulting in death required a thorough inquiry into the incident and that use of such force was not permissible in the first place, including in operations led against suspected gangsters and terrorists.
The apex court ordered a special CBI probe into the cases and recommended the active involvement of the National Human Rights Commission. However, progress has been slow and proceedings often interrupted.
The Paradox of Accountability
Police is a state subject under Entry 2, List II, Schedule 7 of the Constitution of India. This means that each of the 28 states has its own police force, some governed by individual state police Acts apart from the central Police Act of 1861, the Indian Penal Code of 1860 and the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973. The centre is allowed to maintain its own forces (such as the CRPF and the RAF) for policing the union territories, assisting state police etc.
The police has been granted wide-ranging powers for law enforcement; to ensure that such power is only used for legitimate purposes, it has been made accountable to the political executive. However, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission has noted that this authority that state governments enjoy over the forces in the name of accountability has often been misused, and ministers have used the police for personal as well as political reasons.
In Prakash Singh vs. Union of India (1996), a petition was filed before the Supreme Court that raised various instances of abuse of power by the police, and alleged that police officials perform their duties in a politically partisan manner.
On December 15, 2019, Delhi Police forcefully entered the campus of Jamia Milia Islamia University and lathi-charged dozens of students, also firing pellet guns and releasing tear gas in enclosed spaces, including the library where many had been studying peacefully, in order to break up anti-government protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Though acting under orders from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), this example goes on to show how the police force has been reduced to being a stooge of political incumbents. The same evening, similar events unfolded in Aligarh Muslim University at the hands of Uttar Pradesh Police.
There’s no transparency in police action in terms of being answerable to the people whom they’re supposedly meant to serve.
The report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission also noted that police-public relations are in an unsatisfactory state because people view the police as corrupt, inefficient, unresponsive and biased. In 2019, Common Cause, a non-profit, in collaboration with the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), a Delhi-based research organisation, surveyed 11,834 police personnel across 21 states about their perceptions, attitudes and professional skills. Results from the survey prove that police forces across states are riddled with prejudices against religious minorities, Scheduled Castes/Schedules Tribes, migrants and poor people.
Section 46 of the CrPC authorises the police to use force, extending up to the causing of death, as may be necessary to arrest a person accused of an offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life. This and other such provisions (like the amended Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967) confer the police with extensive powers as well as legal impunity, even as training levels remain abysmally low. Only 6% of all police officers have received in-service training and more than 10% have never had exposure to seminars on human rights/caste sensitization.
Since the very first National Police Commission in 1977, various committees have recommended more intensive training, greater investment and better oversight mechanisms for the police. But many of these reforms are yet to materialize, mostly due to weak political will. MPs and MLAs may see little value in reform when they themselves are often tied to crime and regularly interfere in investigations.
Even after the 2006 Supreme Court verdict in the aforementioned Prakash Singh vs. Union of India case, which directed better demarcation between politics and police, 65% of police personnel have experienced meddling from politicians. This may be attributed to the fact that many of the State Security Commissions and Police Establishment Boards that were set up as a result of the judgement are dominated by government and police officials themselves. Further, they seldom have the power to issue binding recommendations. An alteration in their composition might, therefore, bring about meaningful change.
Moreover, the primary legislation governing police recruitment, training, powers and functioning is archaic, to say the least. The MHA has constituted a national level committee to look into the matter and recommend reforms in criminal law but its short time frame (only 3 months), limited scope for public consultation (having started its work in the midst of a pandemic) and lack of diversity (all-male, Delhi-based panel) have irked quite a few jurists, lawyers and academicians. If the system is really to be transformed for the better, there needs to be a genuine attempt at inclusiveness and careful consideration of all facts.
Last but not the least, community policing is a great way to further the democratic principle of public participation in governance while effectively addressing local conflicts. It may include police patrolling for non-emergency interactions with the public, actively soliciting requests for service not involving criminal matters and creating mechanisms for grassroots feedback from the people. Various states have been experimenting with community policing, including Kerala (Janamaithri Suraksha project), Rajasthan (Joint Patrolling Committees), Assam (Meira Paibi project) and Tamil Nadu (Friends of Police project).
That we are in desperate need of structural reform in the institution of police as an executive agency of the state is a widely-acknowledged notion. How and when that will happen might be up for debate but one thing is clear, it will require public consciousness. A collective effort from the people is our only hope for political authorities to take cognizance of the situation and gradually usher in a long-awaited overhaul.
- “Machhi Singh and Others vs. State of Punjab”, Supreme Court of India, 1983
- “Extrajudicial Executions Victim Families Association vs. Union of India”, Supreme Court of India, 2017
- “Extrajudicial killing fears as Indians cheer Hyderabad shootout”, Al Jazeera
- “Public Order”, Second Administrative Reforms Commission, 2007
- The Police Act, 1861
- The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973
- “Prakash Singh vs. Union of India”, Supreme Court of India, 2006
- “Indian police storm Jamia, AMU to break citizenship law protests”, Al Jazeera
- “Status of Policing in India”, Common Cause-CSDS report, 2019
- First report, National Police Commission, 1979
- “Building Smart Police in India”, NITI Aayog, 2016
- “Committee for reform in criminal law to start online consultation soon”, The Hindu
- “Police reforms in India”, PRS Legislative Research
- “Police Organisation in India”, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, 2015
- “Model Police Manual: Volume 1”, Bureau of Police Research and Development
- “Model Police Manual: Volume 2”, Bureau of Police Research and Development