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Police Versus The People:TOTAL AUTHORITY, NO ACCOUNTABLITY!, by Ashok Kapur IAS (Retd), 25 May 2009 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 25 May 2009

Police Versus The People


By Ashok Kapur IAS (Retd)

The fall is precipitous. Even by the standards of the Indian police. Hardly a day passes when the national dailies do not report horror stories of police behaviour and conduct at its worst. These reports are not allegations by interested parties and vested interests but mostly indictments and verdicts of the nation’s independent and fair judiciary, by and large. Indeed, it has become the last buffer between an increasingly rapacious police force and a hapless citizenry. Praise be to the Lord.

The primary cause of the growing malignancy is the total lack of accountability of the force to any executive authority or external agency. It is a basic principle of democratic governance that authority and accountability are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, authority without accountability is the textbook definition of an authoritarian state. If brute authority, vested by law in a force armed to the teeth ceases to be held to account, can the police State be far behind?

The problem can be viewed at two levels, symptomatic and substantive. At the former level, it makes for frightful reading. A random sampling of news reports filed mostly by legal correspondents of national dailies and culled from the High Court proceedings of the nation’s Capital are truly revealing. The police roughed up juveniles for a petty offence, over which they had no jurisdiction in the first place. They tried to extort money from newly-weds whose only “offence” was a peck on the cheek.

There is more. A seniormost police officer was accused of criminal negligence in licensing a place of public entertainment in gross violation of prescribed rules. The lapse led to the burning alive of dozens of innocents. Another senior officer, rather brazenly, expropriates the immovable property of a respectable citizen in the very heart of the Capital. But the mother of all misdemeanours - a senior officer, head of the “Anti-Corruption Branch” of the police of the nation’s Capital is himself caught with both his hands in the till! God save the nation.

All this is happening in the heart of the Republic. And it is under the Police Commissioner system, if at all it can be called a system. It is touted as the most efficacious “system”. Because of persistent and widespread cases of police misdemeanours, the capital has been branded the ‘crime capital’ of the nation. The ordinary citizen, finding no cure to the ailment has become apathetic and cynical. Unlike the rich and the influential, he cannot seek a remedy in the courts of law, being expensive and time-consuming.

At the substantive level, it is a strange paradox. The nation boasts of arguably the most comprehensive criminal code in the democratic world, a fair and independent judiciary, by and large, and a zealous guardian of the citizen’s rights. A police force armed to the teeth, with a budget increasing at a rate faster than that of the Armed Forces. And yet, a virtual collapse of the criminal justice system. The rate of conviction for serious offences is ludicrous-- in single digits, believe it or not.

The primary reason for this abysmal state of affairs is the total lack of accountability of the police. Increasingly in urban and metropolitan areas, the ‘police commissioner’ system is being introduced. In actual working, it is a negation, if not subversion of the nation’s criminal code. Under the “system”, the police are vested with the powers of magistrates. The police are further vested with powers of licensing, a purely executive function.

There is more. All complaints against the police force, not only involving venality and corruption but unlawful conduct are investigated by the police themselves. In other words, the accused is the investigator and the judge. That such a state of affairs is a virtual negation of rule of law itself is best illustrated by the open lament of a former prime minister of the nation, no less. ‘Whenever I receive a complaint against a police officer, it eventually lands up on his desk.’ Further comment would be superfluous.

That such a “system” is working against the hapless average man is a matter of daily experience. What is worse is that the  society at large is paying a heavy price for it. Take the example of the recent serial blasts in the nation, mostly in prominent metros. It is no coincidence that the blasts, in which hundreds perished and thousands were maimed took place in cities under the ‘police commissioner’ system-- Bombay, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Surat, Hyderabad, and Bangalore.

Apologists for the police, mainly some retired policemen and policewomen have an endless litany of alibis, largely self-serving. Lack of sufficient manpower, inadequate training, political “interference”, under-equipped et al. The irony is too stark to be missed. They are working overtime to bring about “police reforms”. To the extent that some of them have even misled the Supreme Court in a case filed against the government-- Prakash Singh versus the State.

Take the case of the “crime capital” itself. International norms prescribe 200-plus policemen for a lack of population. Delhi has several times that number. Wherever the ‘police commissioner’ system is in vogue in Europe, investigation is done under the supervision of magistrates. But in the nation’s capital the police have succeeded in overthrowing all magisterial supervision. As the force does not report to the elected government of Delhi either, it is virtually without any accountability – a parallel government.

The crime situation in Delhi itself is a microcosm of the malaise afflicting the national polity. As investigation is unsupervised, it is often shoddy and frequently doctored. The Delhi High Court recently directed the prosecution of several police officers for mala fide prosecution of some innocent citizens for 12 long years. Reportedly, the police department’s own internal inquiry had found the accused falsely implicated by a senior officer. And yet, the latter had been posted as head of a most sensitive police station.

And now reported by a senior officer of the Intelligence Bureau is the mother of all revelations. Senior sleuths of the supposedly premier investigating agency of the nation, the CBI, were frequently visiting Geneva to enquire into the irregularities in the import of crucial hardware for defence forces. The matter had rocked Parliament. And the nation’s attention was riveted on it. The CBI investigators were spotted wining and dining with the accused in Geneva!

The demand is frequently echoed by some senior police officers that unless draconian laws are enacted, crime cannot be controlled. It has been effectively refuted by a profound observation of a former Chief Justice of India: “It is never the severity of punishment but it’s certainty that deters crime”.—INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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