PUCL Bulletin, November 2002

Reforming the police
-- By Rajindar Sachar

It is a common perception that human tights violations will continue to persist as long as there are no significant police reforms. But the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, L.K. Advani, proclaimed without embarrassment at the seminar organised by a human rights organisation in New Delhi on October 4 that his "Government had the political will to bring police reforms but in a different perspective from that of human rights activists". Advani rebuked the activists: "For you it is important from the point of view of human rights. For me it is important from the point of governance."

Now this assumption of Advani that human rights are antithetical to governance is a dangerous mindset in a society governed by rule of law, apart from being legally and sociologically flawed. Failure to protect human rights is the surest index of poor governance. One of the most urgent measures to protect human rights is to effectuate police reforms. But Advani's concept of police reforms would bode ill for human rights because he went out of his way to warn that if the police were reformed from a human rights perspective "then there is resistance from within". "The tendency to put the police in the dock is not fair." This approach of Advani is undemocratic. It is not that the people are prejudiced against the police. It is unfortunate that Advani should think that good governance demands a lukewarm response to human rights. If that view prevails it would be a tragedy because good governance anywhere is judged by one universal rule - how much is it able to promote human rights. But then Advani's approach fits in with his divisive agenda, which requires total police connivance like we are witnessing in Gujarat under Narendra Modi.
Terrorism has never been curbed by the state terrorism, (the latter is never permissible both under out Constitution and international human rights law) but only by public opinion turning against the senseless killings, rapes, and extortion by the terrorists.

It is legally unacceptable for any state or official to assert that the victims must suffer in silence human rights violations by state agencies on the specious ground that it will demoralize the latter. On the contrary, it must be emphasised that if we are to have real peace, there must be double guarantee of no violations, either by the state agencies or by terrorists.

In this connection the observations of Britain's Secretary for Northern Ireland (in 1960) are worth recalling: "Our adherence to the rule of law, in the face of the most atrocious provocation, sustains our civilisation… It is one of the terrorists' main objectives… to provoke the authorities to measures that will be judged oppressive and cause us to lose the confidence and support of the community at large…"

The inter-American Court of Human Rights has affirmed the obligation of the state concerned to investigate, prosecute and punish crimes against humanity. A consequence of that state obligation is the concomitant legitimate expectation (if not a right) on the part of the victim to see justice done.
In India, the public has faith in Governments of different political hues as reforms have not been undertaken because that would means placing the police outside the clutches of the politicians who will then not be able to use them against opponents.

A history of various attempts at police reforms and the fate of the respective commissions will show an inbred resistance among all Governments to embark on real reforms. The Government of India appointed a National Police Commission in 1977 to undertake a review of the entire system. The Commission remained in existence till 1982 and submitted eight comprehensive reports to the Government, containing recommendations covering almost all aspects of police organisation and work. But such was the cloak of secrecy over them that the Peoples Unions for Civil Liberties and others had to move the Supreme Court for making the reports public, in the face of the stout resistance from the then Government.

No real action was taken for the next decade and a half till Inderjit Gupta as Union Home Minister in the United Front Government wrote to the State Governments in 1997 expressing his sadness that they had so far not even made any attempt to implement many of the basic and salutary recommendations of the National Police Commission to bring about the required changes in police performance and behaviour pattern. In the note accompanying the letter, Gupta suggested that keeping in view the major aberrations which have crept into the police system and its malfunctioning all over the country, some important recommendations of the National Police Commission need to be implemented urgently at the State level to check any further deterioration in the policing system affecting the lives and liberties of the citizens: (i) constitution of a statutory commission in each State called the State Security Commission; (ii) laying down broad policy guidelines and directions for the performance of preventive tasks and service-oriented functions by the police.

The State Security Commission should have the Minister in charge of Police as Chairman and six more members. Two of these should be from the State Legislature (one from the ruling side and the other from the opposition) and four should be appointed by the Chief Minister, subject to the approval of the State legislature, from amongst retired High Court Judges, retired senior Government officers and eminent social scientists or academicians.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had also called for reforms as it felt that "an efficient, honest police force is the principal bulwark of the nation against violations of human rights". And one of measures for this purpose was to provide a statutory tenure of office for the Chief of Police in the State.
Thereafter the Ribeiro Committee was constituted in May 1988. Nut its recommendations remained in cold storage. Again we have the Padmanabhaiah Panel constituted by Government in January 2000. But the same inertia continues.

We have regular seminars in this regard. But somehow the basic point is swept under the carpet - namely, the police reforms are an urgent necessity. If the police are to act as a friend of the police and not an instrument of oppression, they must be rescued from the clutches of politicians by constituting security commissions in the State. But no Government wishes to deny itself the power to use the police for political manipulations. Tolstoy wrote of the hypocritical sympathy expressed by Russian landed gentry for the serfs: "I sit on a moving back, chocking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means except by getting off his back". The present rulers are worthy descendants of the Russian aristocracy - let them at least now learn from what happened to the Tsar.

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