Union Home Minister Amit Shah is addressing a fundamental issue- police reforms. The issue is central to the country’s security situation, but since law and order is a state subject in the Indian Constitution, successive Home Ministers have failed to address it. Yet, Shah is looking to address the very mindset of Indian police forces while realising the need to change the British-origin structure of Indian police forces due to which they have been reduced to private militias of state governments.
Overhaul of the criminal justice system and police reforms:
Speaking at the 51st Foundation Day celebrations of the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD), Shah said that the Centre received suggestions from various states, UTs, central forces and NGOs on the reform of the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Evidence Act and the Code of Criminal Procedure.
More importantly, 14 states, 3 Union Territories, eight Central Police organisations, six Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), and seven NGOs have suggested changes in the British era laws in the forces.
— Amit Shah (@AmitShah) September 4, 2021
Now, it is probably the first time that the subject of police reforms as a prerequisite to the overhaul of the criminal justice system is being addressed at the top levels. The traditional practice has been to make radical changes in the Penal and Procedural laws without reforming the primary enforcement agency of criminal laws- the Police Force.
British-era origin of police laws:
If you are a movie buff, you probably feel that the central duty of the police forces is to serve the ordinary citizen and to protect people from anti-social elements.
However, the Police Act, 1861, which primarily deals with the powers, functions and duties of the police forces, tells a different story.
If you noticed the year of enactment of the Police Act- 1861, you would find that the Britishers enacted the key legislation that still deals with state police forces in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion. The British Crown had just taken over from the East India Company and therefore it needed an institution to curb revolutionary activity and dissent.
The British government often faced violent manifestations of all the hostility that was building up against its repressive policies. Therefore, the Police Act, 1861 designed the police forces on the lines of private militias whose primary job was to protect the ruling elite. The police forces functioned as the personal security teams of the British officers and cracked down on the Indian subjects at the time at the slightest of provocation.
So, these were takeaways from the British era:
- Police forces were formed to protect the British from the public rather than protecting the public from anti-social elements.
- Police forces cracked down on revolutionary activity and dissent to avert an independence movement.
- Police Act, 1861 is still in operation and British-era policies have continued:
Britishers left India in 1947. On January 26, 1950, India became the Democratic Republic. However, the colonial character of the police forces remains unchanged. The Police Act, 1861 remains in force through its blatantly colonial character has been diluted with ornamental amendments and modifications. The Model Police Act drafted by the National Police Commission, 1979-81 (NPC) hasn’t been adopted by many states either.
However, the basic policy of the British-era legislation is the reason why police forces continue to be perceived as tools of oppression in the hands of the political elite. This is also the reason why police forces have failed to get shaped as organisations for ensuring peace and security and ensuring a dignified life for individual citizens.
The Britishers used the police forces for cracking down on revolutionaries. The ruling political elite now uses it for harassing its opponent leaders and activists or for curbing public demonstrations through undemocratic lathi charges and other forms of brutality.
The Police Act, 1861 is the parent legislation relating to police forces. Despite drafting numerous police manuals and training protocols, at the end of the day, the functioning and hierarchy of police forces continue to get governed by the Police Act, 1861.
The mindset problems of unruly behaviour or lack of responsiveness emanate out of the British-origin laws and traditions which designed police forces as the handmade of the political elite and not the protector of the citizens.
The colonial origin of police forces is the core issue, but there are other problems too. Lack of independence of the police forces, and excessive control on transfers and promotions by the state Home Ministeries effectively compels the police personnel to give in to the wishes of their political bosses. Along with a serious lack of effort to improve integrity in the police forces.
Practically speaking, it is difficult to ensure integrity amongst police personnel unless they are paid well enough to afford a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. Even otherwise also, it is not prudent to treat a police officer at par with other government officers, and they ought to be given special allowances.
Finally, there is a lack of resources in terms of infrastructure and human resources. This issue goes beyond the recruitment of police personnel. The biggest bottleneck in access to timely justice is the lack of strict separation between police officers who serve as general law and duty officers and those who function as investigation officers.
When the same man is deployed on both law & order duties and investigation of criminal offences, he fails to properly discharge either of the duties. This is the reason why an ordinary citizen doesn’t feel safe on the streets, and filing charge sheets or closure reports gets unduly delayed.
Finally, India has a Union Home Minister who is ready to improve the country’s decades-old police system. Law & order will remain a state subject. But once mindset changes are institutionalised in the police forces, their colonial character would be replaced by a responsive, accountable and democratic structure.