Sunday, April 19, 2009

Why We Need Police Reform in India. Badly.

I argued all day. But in the end the assailant won.

He was a police officer.

In February 2006, my cameraman and I had been assaulted by a senior police officer and his henchmen (not policemen) while filming their brutality trying to put down a protest on an engineering college campus in Chennai.

In an irony of Indian bureaucracy, I had to plead with the same police officer to write a complaint against himself in his own police station!

Of course he didn’t.

Instead, I was given a useless piece of paper that said a Revenue Officer would investigate my claims because my allegation was against a Police Officer.

No action was taken. Nothing happened.

And that in fact is also the two-word summary of police reform in India.

Business leaders should join civil society groups to lobby the government to overhaul our police system. Thousands of Indians live below justice and a corrupt, ineffective police adversely affects us all. It affects the health of our democracy and also our economic growth.

Police reform is crucial in three main areas.

First, India’s basic police law needs to change. Commerce Minister Kamal Nath has triumphantly dedicated the 21st century to India. We seriously need to ask why then are we are still using 19th century laws?

The Indian Police Act in use today was written in 1861 by the British Empire whose primary use of the police was to protect their commercial interests against the rising tide of nationalism. Descendants of that Imperial Police, our policemen in 2009, continue to behave as though they need to tame the natives rather than maintain order for citizens.

Acting as a stooge of the ruling party, the Indian police is often brutish and insensitive, siding largely with the powerful rather than protecting the weak. After Independence, several states introduced their own laws governing the police but many of these laws are modeled after the 1861 law and some in fact are even worse, requiring little police accountability. That’s why India needs a new law structured around democratic policing and human rights. This imperial, 19th century law belongs in a history text book.

Second, policing needs to be depoliticized.

It would be unfair to lay the entire blame for the abysmal law and order situation on the Indian Police Service (IPS). The police is crippled in large part because of its bosses – the parliamentarians and legislators – many of whom are corrupt to the core. Any honest police officer who stands up to them is promptly transferred. The threat of transfers hangs over every policeman’s head and for officers with families, constant transfers takes a huge personal toll. Avoiding transfers in turn breeds a culture of conformity and corruption.

According to Transparency International’s 2005 report, the value of petty corruption in the police is estimated at Rs.3,899 crores (approximately 800 million dollars). The report also found that 80% of people who had contacted the police had paid a bribe. That percentage should set off alarm bells but there is absolutely no political will to change the status quo.

Politicians have resisted legislation to make the police more independent because it threatens their power directly. After Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency ended in 1977, the government set up a National Police Commission which made several important recommendations to shield the police from political interference. Over 30 years later, many of those recommendations are still in cold storage.

As governments come and go, police officers go through a merry-go-round of transfers. This practice has become so entrenched that there are reports of corrupt police officers in turn, bribing politicians for powerful positions. The whole thing stinks.

Third, the Indian police needs to be sensitized to human rights, gender rights and constitutional guarantees of equality. People constantly talk about how we need tough terror laws. I think, in fact, what we need is a kinder police. Statistics on police brutality quite naturally don’t reflect the scale of the problem. But there is plenty of anecdotal and video evidence to show that police officers at best stand by silently during mob attacks and at worst, participate in violence themselves.

In a rapidly changing rural landscape, the traditional forums of justice like the Panchayats (local village councils) are fast vanishing and the police are required to step in to solve disputes. But the police, with their own caste and communal baggage, act in partisan ways. In a milieu where people have a higher consciousness of their civic rights this creates further turmoil because traditional forums don’t always work and the police take sides further inflaming the problem.

Economic and social changes are placing a much heavier burden on the police and the threats of terrorism and insurgency are only too real. Of India’s 611 districts, 172 are said to face tribal and Maoist insurgencies and urban India is still recovering from the latest shock of the Mumbai attacks. Our police forces are hopelessly unprepared to meet the challenges of policing modern India.

After the Mumbai attacks many angry protesters carried posters saying they would not pay their taxes. Disengaging is unfortunately not the solution if we want a robust democracy and a stable political and economic climate. Indian business has a strong stake in this and should use its leverage in government to push for police reform.

For the business community, this is a great way to help India while helping itself.

This op-ed was published in a Kellogg School of Management publication, brought out during the 'India Business Conference.'


Anonymous said...


For a controversial topic with legal and other technical connections too, this was lucidly written and I think the three areas of improvement you have prompted as ways forward for the Indian police are right on target.

Of the lot, I believe de-politicising would go a long way in giving the force (or at least the good facets of it) an autonomy that seems to have been enshrined in recommendations without anything "real" being done about it.

An informative read, thanks:). And I hope, someone's listening!

Sathej said...

Hmm..hope somebody's listenening, yes! Nicely written, Alaphia. The engineering college incident - pathetic really.


Alaphia Zoyab said...

Thanks Srini and Sathej.

Unknown said...

The police are the first port of call for most human beings in distress. However as my dad says they are the also the first perpetrators of crime at-least in chennai. I can personally vouch for that.

If a police person who is meant to be an example of upholding and safeguarding the law is caught doing the dirty, there should be no leniency in the punishment. Because his act of being partisan or corrupt has disillusioned or destroyed a persons faith in fairness of the law. And this further has knock-on effects down the line to people not bothering with police complaints. This could be the beginning of the end of whatever semblance of civil society that is still left in India.

The police is not the personal fiefdom of the politicians to make them behave as they please. Also half the fault lies with the police personnel themselves for pandering and patronizing the politicians. Certainly they need to be better equipped and trained. The lack of such facilities is no excuse for abuse of power. The recent communal trends that police personnel are demonstrating is even a graver trend towards breakdown (what little of) civil society.

However in a broader context we still predominantly tend to behave in a tribal manner and that permeates also into the people who should be upholding the law.

We may perhaps have just about solved the first order issue of national border definitions, but the second order issues of solving corruption, poverty and development are at its infancy. This will not be solved until India defines its identity clearly ? religious theocracy, ? plural multicultural? One only needs to look at the current campaigns.

India has made enormous progress for the 60 so years as an Independent country. But all this can come apart quite rapidly if we take one wrong step somewhere. One of the most important pillars of this progress is law and order which needs to have very high degree of fairness and integrity. This is a "cancer" which is gradually eating away at civil society. Unfortunately the so called "Educated" in India are unaware of this at this current point in time.

Hopefully I haven't digressed to far from your topic. Apologies.

Unknown said...

Cant NDTV help U out on this one ? Or is it stale news ? Probably a Expose with hidden cam would be of some help ? A 'la the TOI medical donation expose ?

Nagesh.MVS said...

Nice post.
Work From Home

Unknown said...

hey i m doing police reform chapter in my public administration paper and found your article interesting!!

Alaphia Zoyab said...

Thanks Nutan.