Comprehensive Police Reform the only Remedy

The rape and murder case of the 19 year old woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, besides evoking outrage throughout the country has once again brought to the fore the dire and immediate need for police reforms, which have been hanging fire for long.

Far too much powers have been increasingly given to the Police across the country without imparting the necessary training to the force to respect the law and the constitution, and instilling in it a sense of responsibility and attitude of service to the public.

The Hathras tragedy is only an offshoot of a chain of incidents, which had begun ever since the Yogi Adityanath-led Government came to power in Uttar Pradesh in March 2017. Within a month of assuming power, the Chief Minister had famously declared, “if you commit a crime, you will be knocked off”. In the following tweet of December 2019 the Uttar Pradesh Police boasted:

“UP POLICE
@Uppolice

The figures speak for themselves. Jungle Raj is a thing of the past.
No longer now. 103 criminals killed and 1859 injured in 5178
police engagements in the last more than 2 years. 17745
criminals surrendered or cancelled their own bails to go to jail.”
[Emphasis added]

Contrary to the claim that “jungle raj is a thing of the past”, the crime scene since then has worsened, if anything. The deliberate reluctance and failure of the Police to work within the legal framework and enforce the law without fear or favour , and its propensity to simply liquidate alleged criminals without trial, have aggravated, not abated the situation.

A whole lot of people – among them some highly educated individuals – believe that that is how criminals should be ‘punished’, to put the fear of God into the others. Following the Hathras incident too some people are raising similar demands.

Their angst stems from frustration with our sluggish criminal justice system where even the simplest of the case takes decades to come up even for preliminary hearing. Naturally, when the Police kills a criminal in a fake encounter, people are elated that “justice is done”!

One can expect such reaction from the common man and can even justify it to some extent, as we saw when the Police shot down in an “encounter” the four accused in the 2019 rape and murder case in Telegana.

It is understandable when a distraught mother cries for instant justice for her brutalised daughter, or a half-educated politician-to-be bays for the blood of the alleged criminals without trial.

However, if a law enforcing agency starts believing in such extra-judicial extermination of citizens, and boasts that they have put down so many criminals, it hardly projects a modern country that respects the rule of law and seeks to draw foreign investment. Who will invest in a state where the Police themselves behave like outlaws?

This needs to be seriously looked into and addressed through reforms and corrections to the system. It should not lead us to lose our faith in the rule of law and to giving more draconian powers to the Police, who are already having enough powers to virtually beat the common man down into submission.

It is because of such a wrong approach that the Police feel that they are above the law, and the common man feels like subjects of a medieval tyrant, not like a citizen of an enlightened democracy.

The answer to the inordinately long time taken by the criminal justice system does not lie in resorting to the police being empowered to carry out “encounters” without legal sanction. Such blanket licence to kill only makes the Police answerable to none, not even to their political masters.

An extremely terrifying fallout of condoning extra-judicial killings is the possibility that in a case where the criminal may have the right political connection, the Police can easily “knock off” any citizen who has absolutely no connection with the case, and pass it off as a legitimate “engagement”.

A Magisterial enquiry will find the Police version of the incident as the Vedic truth and will ultimately close the case. The common man will therefore have no safeguard against arbitrary action by the Police.

The Police are there to uphold and enforce the law within the bounds of the constitution. If they are allowed to apply the short-cut of eliminating alleged violators of the law in so-called engagements instead of solving a crime and getting the criminals punished by a judge, a time will come when the chain of command within the force will break down and it will become a band of uniformed thugs terrifying the common men.

We were horrified to see a glimpse of such an eventuality in case after case in UP, Rajasthan, MP and elsewhere. In the Hathras incident, as widely reported in the media, in total and arrogant violation of the law the police refused to register an FIR at the first instance when they were approached. Even the first medical examination was done only after several days had passed.

As if that was not enough, after the poor girl succumbed to her injuries, her body was burnt down under the cover of night, without allowing her family even to have a proper funeral. From where did the police get the encouragement for such blatant and brazen disregard to the very minimum of human rights and constitutional rights of a citizen?

The answer is self evident. Every time the system – right up to the political bosses – shields a police official breaking the law, every time such an official is given immunity from trial for carrying out fake encounters (in “good faith”), every time he goes unpunished after maltreating a citizen on the basis of sex caste, or religion, that official is encouraged to repeat such offences with impunity. We have seen this happening throughout the country. UP is neither unique nor is it an exception.

The question of a comprehensive police reform in India has been kept pending for a long time. The Vohra Committee set up in 1993 had reported, ” various crime Syndicates /Mafia organisations have developed significant muscle and money power and established linkages with governmental functionaries, political leaders and others to be able to operate with impunity and suggested steps to stem the rot .

The Second Administrative Reforms Commission in its report (2007) , after a detailed and in-depth study, also gave a host of recommendations for a comprehensive police reform. Several other committees set up on related matters also gave their recommendations.

The Supreme Court’s directives in the Prakash Singh case (2006) are also yet to be implemented. A model Police Act 2006 was circulated among all the states to elicit their views. Its fate is unknown.

In many countries in the west the Police are supervised by a civilian overseeing authority generally headed by a distinguished citizen, precisely to ensure that (a) in case the people have a complaint against the Police they can approach an independent body; and (b) any unlawful action by the Police can be investigated by that authority and appropriate recommendations given to the Government.

To this end, the Supreme Court had directed the Government to:

  • Constitute a State Security Commission
  • Ensure a fixed two-year tenure for the Director Generals of Police, SPs and SHOs
  • Separate Investigative and Law and Order functions
  • Set up Police Establishment Board
  • Set up Police Complaints Authorities at State and District levels
  • Set up National Security Commission at the Centre

These are yet to be implemented.

While it is easy to target the Police and blame them for their unhelpful, brusque and arrogant attitude to the members of the public in general and the poor and the oppressed classes in particular, in finding a solution the socio-economic milieu of the policemen must not be overlooked.

Members of our police force do not come from a foreign land. They are our own sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. They carry with them the prejudices and behaviour pattern that they acquire from their families. Those preconceived ideas and prejudices and conduct do not suddenly vanish when they join the Police. They naturally come to fore depending on the situation and circumstance.

Education, of course, plays a major part in shaping the conduct of a person; but that education starts right from the family. Given our unique socio-economic situation it will be naive to expect that simple school education, however well-intentioned, can erase the negative and prejudicial notions acquired by a child from the family.

Therefore, while the long-term solution is of course imparting the right kind of education at schools, the importance of proper training of the Police force needs a closer look. The repeated failure of the Police to absorb the simple instruction that they are public servants recruited to uphold the constitution and rule of law, and are not a private army of the politicians, shows that a total revamp of both the contents and methodology of police training is overdue.

Now is the time for the public to demand, and for the Government to undertake the long-overdue Police reforms.

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