Something drastic needs to be done to reform the police

Something drastic needs to be done to reform the police

Representative image. Credit: iStockPhoto

The brutal torture of an elderly man and his son, leading to their deaths, at a police station in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu once again raises the larger issue of police reform. As if by custom and habit, these gruesome incidents, recurring with increasing frequency, are followed invariably by a discussion on police reform which goes round and round in circles, focusing on former Uttar Pradesh police chief Prakash Singh’s petition in the Supreme Court, the only case in the country on the subject.

The first part of the Prakash Singh case, which seeks to ensure that the normal tenure of DGPs in the states is not cut short by political maneuvering is a fair point currently being sabotaged by the Home Departments in multiple states. The second point is better, namely that there ought to be an independent body to investigate cases of police criminality and to recommend punishment that would be binding on government. To this, the Supreme Court responded by directing that these Police Complaints Authorities (PCAs) would be headed by retired judges. Not a single government liked this order, which was binding on them, and they have sabotaged this part of the order throughout the country.

What the state governments did was to make administrative officers the chairpersons of the PCAs, and in some very bold cases, police officers themselves were made chairpersons! The second big change made by governments was to make the recommendations of the authorities non-binding on government. In this manner, the very clear judgement of the Supreme Court was emasculated. A contempt petition is pending in this regard and has been languishing for a deplorably long time.

The root of the problem lies in the recruitment at the state level, where local politicians interfere at will and where criteria such as a person’s innate attitude towards women, Dalits, poor people and minorities and other vulnerable sections of society is hardly tested. Focusing on only physical – height and weight -- standards, all kinds of anti-social elements get in easily. And then there is the usual presence of politicians and others who get in a large number of their own people. Finally, there are the usual stories circulating of persons paying those in the hierarchy of power to get appointed, and after that to get plum postings where the income is considerable and can be shared upwards.

With this kind of a mess, is it any wonder that policemen merrily commit terrible crimes -- whether the merciless assault on students, breaking bones, cracking skulls and blinding a student at Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia Milia or the torture and custodial deaths in Thoothukudi.

At root also is the pervasive control that the minister has over all aspects of police functioning, which makes the policeman a servant of the politician. There is no protection for an honest police officer to do his duty in accordance with the law and also rise in the hierarchy. A good officer must necessarily suffer and quit.

The higher judiciary has given hardly a glance at the precipitous decline in police integrity over the last decade. Not many cases are now reported on police criminality as compared to the earlier decades. It does not figure in the judiciary’s agenda of important public interest issues that require internal discussion and a plan of action. Freed from the earlier scrutiny that the judiciary exercised over the police, the latter have become law unto themselves. By the time the judiciary wakes up to the danger of large-scale police contempt for the rule of law, it could well be too late.

Against the general trend, the Supreme Court in a recent judgement held that it was usually unnecessary to arrest any person for any offence which carries a sentence of less than seven years. Investigation can be done without incarceration. This was suggested as a measure to control arbitrary arrests as well as to control the ever-expanding undertrial population in prisons. Nevertheless, unnecessary, and worse, politically motivated, arrests continue and the police pour people into jails in ever increasing numbers using the power of arrest to spread terror and to extort money. Despite the ruling in Madhu Limaye’s case that no arrests should be made merely on suspicion that a crime may be committed in the future, thousands of innocent persons, including workers returning home late at night after a shift’s work, are picked up by the police and money taken from them or they are jailed.

The only Supreme Court decision in the recent past that stands head and shoulders above all others is the decision in the Manipur case relating to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act where the court ordered the prosecution of the police and army personnel for allegedly engaging in fake encounters. Even men in uniform are not immune from prosecution in a criminal court for crimes they have committed.

Something drastic needs to be done. Perhaps like in Minneapolis, where a White police officer killed a Black man, George Floyd, recently, entire police forces must be disbanded. Certainly, the entire Sathankulam police station, at the very least, must be disbanded. At least half the existing force should be purged of all elements who have been corrupt, anti-woman, anti-Dalit anti-minorities or have engaged in violence of any kind against the public. Then, advertisements ought to be published calling for women with post-graduate degrees to apply, with priority given to those sections that are traditionally the victims of police violence. Millions of qualified women, with perhaps a far greater degree of integrity than men, will apply. Once this great influx of woman power takes place and the men in the police stations are put in their place, we will begin to have the first semblance of reform.

Within the present political system, where the police serve as agents of the rich and powerful and those in political power, this is nigh impossible. Only a people’s movement can force such change. But in the meanwhile, the proper constitution of the Police Complaints Authority throughout the country, with judges heading the authorities and hearing people’s complaints against police officers, will go a long way towards keeping rogue policemen in check. But even this is going to meet with the stiffest of resistance by the police force.

(The writer is a well-known human rights lawyer and activist)