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PUCL Bulletin, November 2006

Reforming the police

How to combat anti-minority bias in the police?
-- By Asghar Ali Engineer

The Supreme Court has recently directed the Government of India to implement the recommendations of Dharma Vira Commission on the police reform. These recommendations were made nearly 25 years ago but the Government hesitated to implement it and some police officers filed a PIL and the highest court in the land took more than a decade to deliver its judgement on the issue.

It is a well-known fact that politicians interfere with police functioning and arbitrarily transfer inconvenient officers. It is hoped that the implementation of Dharma Vira Commission might give much needed relief to IPS officers to work with a degree of autonomy. However, there are differences among police officers on this question. Most of the police top brass has welcomed the Supreme Court directive, as it would make them independent in functioning. But police officers like KPS Gill have dissenting views. Mr. Gill feels that the police cannot function independently of political bosses.

According to Mr. Gill, “Reforms recommended can only enthuse the armchair administrator and will do little to improve the operation and efficiency of either the beat constable or his superintending officer.” Mr. Riebeiro, another top cop, on the other hand enthusiastically welcomes the Supreme Court directive. He holds politicians by and large responsible for malfunctioning of police. He says, “Selfish politicians choose the wrong persons for the top jobs because the corrupt and the ineffective are willing to carry out the dictates and wishes of their political masters for their own survival. It is classic case of two persons scratching each other’s back.”

Thus we see that police officers themselves are divided in their opinion on political meddling. However, I must say that most top officers may not agree with Mr. Gill and may welcome the Supreme Court directive. There is no doubt that there is too much of meddling today by politicians. Efficient officers find it very difficult to function professionally. However, we cannot judge the Supreme Court directive in pure black and white terms. There are grey areas, which cannot be ignored. We, in this article, are more concerned about police behaviour towards minorities and handling of communal riots and similar disturbances. The police officers are generally have their own biases for variety of reasons. It is, therefore, necessary to take this factor into account.

In fact there is dilemma either way, whether police is given full autonomy and transfers are controlled by a committee or police works under overall control of politicians. If the present system continues honest and secular police officers are likely to suffer. We see in most of the major communal riots, honest and secular police officers are not allowed to function in a professional way. If politicians want to benefit from communal riots they arbitrarily transfer those officers who are determined to control violence.

This has happened in number of major communal riots. The classical case now is of Gujarat carnage of 2002. The BJP Government headed by Narendra Modi was interested in provoking communal violence and arbitrarily transferred all those police officers who tried to checkmate communal flare up in their jurisdiction. I myself interviewed one such top officer who was arbitrarily transferred just because he was efficiently controlling outburst of violence. And there were number of such officers.

During Mumbai riots of 1992-93 too there were police officers who could not effectively function because of political interference, though not from ruling party politicians. However, situation was not as worse as that in Gujarat. In Mumbai riots there were many police officers who were under direct influence of Shiv Sena and Shiv Sena came to power just a couple of years after the 1992-93 riots and rewarded all those officers who had done its bidding through promotions and profitable postings. One such officer was even made police commissioner of Mumbai soon after Shiv Sena came to power.

After the Mumbai riots I had discussion with many police officers who felt that Dharma Vira Report should be implemented so that police could function more professionally as all those officers who had not done the Sena’s bidding were under cloud. If seen from this perspective the Supreme Court directive should be welcomed.

However, we also have to examine this matter from a different perspective. The police have its own anti-minority biases, as pointed out above. If there is no political control and police functions with these biases, minorities are bound to suffer. We can take recent example of harassment of Muslims by the police after train blasts in Mumbai. Large number of innocent Muslims were detained and interrogated without any substantial evidence except that they were Muslims. Their protests fell on deaf ears.

Many Muslims met the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi and drew their attention to how innocent Muslims were being harassed by the Mumbai police and Prime Minister assured them that he will speak to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra in this connection and that innocent Muslims will not be harassed. If the police is not accountable to the elected politicians such misuse of power by the police cannot be stopped. Even after the bomb blasts on 12th March 1993, there were serious complaints of harassment by the police and some police officers even tried to make money by threatening innocent Muslims to detain under TADA if they did not pay up.

Thus in a way the Supreme Court directive on the police reforms can be a double edged sword cutting both ways. The police officers are any way are not accountable to people and politicians are. But if politicians themselves take sectarian and communal view and depend on the votes of one particular community, there will be absolutely no remedy.

What is then to be done? Will the Supreme Court directive help improve police functioning or not? Should politicians retain their control over appointment and transfer of IPS officers? I think, despite problems pointed out above, the reform will be beneficial on the whole. In fact this much reform may not be sufficient, much more needs to be done. The present police act was enacted by the British rulers in 19th century (in 1861).

The main objective of this was to use the police for strengthening and protecting the British rule and to suppress the people’s movements. In other words it was pro-British ruler police. Unfortunately this colonial legacy is continuing, as our rulers also want to use the police force for protecting their own interests. They do not want to loose control over the police.

What we need today is people-friendly police. The police act of 1861 needs to be drastically re-caste and this should be done earlier than later. The intension of policing is not to suppress people but to help them. The police should be anti-crime, not anti-people as it is today. The whole outlook of the police has to undergo drastic change. Numbers of things are needed to be done for realising this goal.

First of all the training to be imparted to the police has to change radically. I often find that police attitude, due mainly to improper training, is often communal, casteist and gender-biased. They have hardly appreciation of human rights and their protection. Colonial philosophy cannot impart such sensibilities to them. The lower level officials are much more prone to these prejudices compared to IPS officers.

A glance at training schedule would show that there is hardly much in it to re-orient police thinking on secular and democratic lines. There is hardly any mention of secularism and its importance in multi-religious and multi-cultural society. Also, no concerted efforts are made to remove their caste and gender biases. On the contrary, in appointments, transfers and promotions caste and community factors become primary, and professional competence hardly counts.

Not only this, more often than not, bribery is the only way to get prime posting and politicians demand hefty amounts for appointing officers in good posts. Thus police officers can neither be honest, nor free from caste and communal prejudices. In this respect if transfers are controlled by committees which include persons of integrity and commitment, it may make lot of difference.

My experience with the police shows that the policemen are not inherently communal but most of them are horribly misinformed about minorities. They carry prejudices acquired in schools and colleges as well as in society around them. But if they are properly informed it makes all the difference. I have conducted several police workshops at different levels – from constabulary to high officials – and I always felt change of attitude at the end of workshops.

Coupled with implementation of the Supreme Court directive, if proper training is imparted to the police officials, I am sure it will produce good results in short terms and re-casting of the Police Act, will help things in the long run. It is indeed high time all these measures are taken with a sense of urgency. The country has already paid heavy price for neglecting these much needed police reforms and re-orienting of police attitudes through proper training .


People's Union for Civil Liberties, 81 Sahayoga Apartmrnts, Mayur Vihar I, Delhi 110091, India. Phone (91) 11 2275 0014