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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 11, March 11, 2023

Prakash Singh and the Future of Police Reforms in Independent India | KS Subramanian

Saturday 11 March 2023, by K S Subramanian



The Struggle For Police Reforms in India : Ruler’s Police to People’s Police
by Prakash Singh

Rupa Publications India
May 2022
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 432 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9355202474
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9355202475

Prakash Singh is a leading former IPS officers of India. He belongs to the Uttar Pradesh cadre of the IPS and was the state’s Director General of Police. He was also DG of the Border Security Force, a Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) such as the CRPF and others. He is known for his ability, integrity, and efficiency. As Chairperson of the Police Foundation, 2015 set up with the blessings of Rajnath Singh former Union Home Minister and current Defence Minister who also belongs to the same state as Prakash Singh, he can exercise influence and power over police forces in the country.

Padmashri Prakash Singh’s recent book is well written. The Struggle for Police Reforms in India (Rupa, 2022), narrates the story of the author’s 10 year-long litigation in the Supreme Court of India for the implementation of the National police Commission’s (NPC) recommendations (1979-81), deals with an almost forgotten topic: Police Reforms in India. His petition before the Supreme Court of India is well-argued and calls for the implementation of the recommendations of India’s first ever National Police Commission (NPC) after independence in 1947. Prakash Singh is to be congratulated for rare courage and commitment.

The legal luminary Upendra Baxi, commenting on an eighty-page monograph on police reforms written by the undersigned in 2012 (Are the Indian Police a Law unto Themselves: A Rights-based Assessment, Perspective Paper 3) stressed the need for human rights perspectives on police reforms in India (Upendra Baxi Police Watch: Random Reflections, mimeo). A discussion on the monograph at the India International Centre, was presided over by Supreme Court advocate Indira Jaising. NK Singh IPS too was present.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has reported that 75 percent the of all complaints received by the Commission related to police bad behaviour with the people on a daily basis. Prakash Singh has called for a discussion on the subject. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has talked about SMART policing.

 From The Police Act of 1861 to the present day, police policy in India, has been a highly centralised matter despite the Constitution of India stating that public order and police are state subjects. Independence in 1947 brought no big changes for the police because the ‘transfer of power’ from the British to the Indian hands meant that the colonial system of governance and policing would continue. One needs to discuss the issue with an open mind.

India in the 1970s opted for Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) at the district, state and central levels, which might have helped decentralise police administration in the country but this was not to be. The PRIs were confined to working on development activities alone with regulation left entirely to the colonial police structure.

Misgovernment under Indira Gandhi at the central level led to the imposition of the Emergency (1975-77). The Shah Commission next exposed the misdeeds of the Emergency administration. A change of government and led to installation of the Janata party government which set up the National Police commission (NPC) to probe the police excesses and suggest reform proposals. The Commission did so in eight volumes from 1979 to 81. However, in 1980 the Janata party government collapsed reinstalling Indira Gandhi in power. Understandably, she was not too keen to probe her own excesses highlighted in the NPC reports. The reports slumbered in the dark chambers of the North Block in the Union Home ministry.

Prakash Singh after retirement in 1996 was free to pursue his passion for police reforms having worked for long in an unreformed police structure. He went on public interest litigating to the Supreme Court of India and filed a petition on police reforms in India on the basis of the neglected recommendations of the NPC of 1979-81. He had the valuable help and support of the eminent Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan. After proceedings lasting ten years, the Supreme Court of India pronounced a judgment on September 22 2006 and issued seven major directions on police reforms to be implemented by the central and state governments.

In this book, Prakash Singh has narrated the full story of his struggle to get the Supreme Court directions on police reform implemented by state and central police institutions so as to deliver justice. The tale told by Prakash Singh is gripping.

The Supreme Court in its judgment ordered the setting up of three state institutions to insulate the Indian police from extraneous influences and to give it functional autonomy and ensure its accountability: i) State Security Commission to lay down broad policies and give directions for the performance of the preventive tasks and service-oriented functions of the police;

ii) Police Establishment Board comprising the Director General of Police and four senior officers in each state to decide transfers, postings, promotions and other service-related matters for officers below Deputy Superintendent of Police and recommend postings and transfers of officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above;

iii) Police Complaints Authority at the district and state levels to inquire into complaints of police misconduct.

The Apex Court also ordered that the Director General of Police shall be selected from among the three senior-most officers empanelled for promotion with the minimum tenure of two years. Police officers on operational duties in the field like the Inspector General of Police of a Zone, Deputy Inspector General of a Range, Superintendent of Police in-charge of a district and Station House Officers in-charge of a police stations would also have a minimum tenure of two years.

The Court also ordered the separation of investigating police from the law-and-order police to ensure speedier investigation, better expertise and improved rapport with the people.

The Union Government was asked to set up a National Security Commission for the selection and placement of heads of Central Police Organizations, upgrading the effectiveness of these forces and improving the service conditions of its personnel.

If only the Indira Gandhi government had been more reasonable and serious, Prakash Singh would not have needed to go to the Supreme Court India on a public interest litigation. Prakash Singh’s victory is truly impressive.

Ironically, Justice KT Thomas Chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed Monitoring Committee reported in August 2010 that practically no state in India had fully complied with the directions of the Supreme Court on police reforms in letter and spirit. Justice Thomas also ‘expressed dismay about the total indifference to the issue of reforms in the functioning of the police’ exhibited by the states.

Thus, the limitations imposed on the Prakash Singh — supported reform measures of the NPC in the Supreme Court of India tells its own story about the nature of Indian society and its post-colonial governance. Society had to change hand in hand with the reform measures initiated in the Supreme Court. This did not happen.

 On the issue of police accountability, Prakash Singh seems to accept the uncritically and loosely drafted positions adopted in the 8th Report of the NPC which said that accountability of the police was three-fold: to the people, to the law and to the organisation. But the ultimate accountability was to be to the people. This was too generalised.

On the other hand, the report on ‘Public Order’ submitted by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (SARC) in 2007 unexamined by Prakash Singh, takes note t that in the UK, there is a three-fold accountability. While the NPC is wishy-washy, the SARC states that accountability means an obligation to accept responsibility or willingness to account for one’s actions. Accountability is achieved through political, legal and administrative measures. SARC examines the system of accountability in the UK and the USA. The UK police is not a unitary body: 43 police forces undertake territorial police on a geographical basis. There is a tripartite system of police accountability. Accountability to Parliament is through Home Secretary. Police is accountable to the local bodies through local police authorities, comprising elected local councillors, magistrates and eminent persons. The third arm of accountability is through the Chief Constable.

The US, on the other hand, has 17000 police forces each under the control of the respective local government. India may emulate the US model of decentralised police management. What prevents India from learning from this international experience?

Police accountability in India is hampered by systematic police deniability arising from absence of records, post-mortem examination; the record of arrest and detention are not available in India despite the existence of National and State Human Rights Commissions. Investigations undertaken by the police or at the behest of other agencies are hampered by an unwritten ‘code of silence’ that makes it unlikely that police would disclose incriminating evidence. Further, section 197 of the CrPC provides immunity from prosecution to all public officials without government sanction. Efforts by human rights commissions have often resulted in police investigating themselves. The 18 State Human Rights Commissions (SHRCs) vary in resources and willingness to act with local lawyer, describing the staff as inadequate in number, lacking in human rights training and biased against complaints.

To go back, in the 1860s, the Board of Governors of the East India Company noted that the Indian police are all but useless in the prevention and sadly inefficient in the detection of crime and unscrupulous in the exercise of power with a generalised reputation for corruption and oppression. This description fits the Indian police today very well. More recently in the 1980s, David Bayley, a leading scholar on the Indian police, noted that the Indian police were ‘preoccupied with politics, penetrated by politics and participate in it individually and collectively’ an apt description.

 Crime control and public order management were important for David Bayley (1969), but another scholar David Arnold (1986) noted the Indian police were part of the efforts of the colonial government to establish control, coercion and surveillance over a subject population. Strict subordination to the civilian administration, secrecy and political significance of the intelligence wing, unaccountability to the public and their elected representatives, coercive strength and disposition with frequent use of high levels of state violence, institutionalisation of a paramilitary wing within the police organisation with quasi-military arms, training and discipline were the other telling characteristics, relevant to the study of the Indian police today.

Anandswarup Gupta (1974) an IP officer, has noted that the penal and procedural codes enacted in the 1860s made it clear that suppression of the people was their primary aim. The IPC begins with a chapter on criminal conspiracy and ‘offences against the state’ including sedition but the common preoccupation of the police everywhere was the prevention and detection of offences against person and property. These find a place in the IPC only from chapter XVI and section 299. In the CrPC, the chapters on security for keeping the peace and maintenance of public order including the use of force by the police take precedence over provisions for the investigation and trial criminal offences. In the Police Act of 1861, priority is given to the collection of political intelligence. The prevention and investigation of crime came in the later sections. These points deserve more attention from Indian police reformers.

The IPC, the CrPC and the Police Act 1861 would need fundamental legal restructuring in the context of postcolonial democratic India. The NPC never examined these issues in the light of the democratic Indian Constitution. The thrust of the NPC recommendations was mainly to create an organisational structure to prevent direct political interference in police functioning. The 2006 Supreme court guidelines on police reforms were of a ‘superstructural’ kind liberating the police hierarchy from political interference.

The NPC needed to pay attention to ‘infrastructural’ issues relating to the subordinate ranks such as living conditions or associational rights. The ignoring of depressed and despised conditions of the subordinate police, the cause of several strikes since independence, was ironical in view of the critical role the police play in the sustenance of the post-colonial political system.

Prakash Singh needed to move away from the supreme court guidelines to address other key issues in police reforms.

The report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (SARC) though not officially accepter so far, is innovative and combines the wisdom of the NPC, the Sorabji committee and the Supreme Court directives. It recommends decentralisation and suggests the role of local bodies or Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in local police management.

A disturbing aspect was that between 1999 and 2001 on average about 5 million crimes were committed in the country. One-third of these were IPC crimes and the rest were under local and special laws. More than seventy percent of the cases belonged to the latter category. The conviction rate in this category, 86 percent, was higher than in the IPC category, 37 percent. In India, public order issues take precedence over other police functions.
Separation of public order from crime work would address this problem to an extent. Role of local bodies, entrusted by SARC with the management of such cases, becomes important in this context.

The momentum created on the Police Complaints Authorities (PCAs) at the district, state and central levels, has dissipated. So has the momentum behind the monitoring committee created to assess states’ compliance.

It seems that the Supreme Court’s directives with their focus on curbing political interference in police work, significantly failed to reduce arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other mistreatment and deaths in police custody. These abuses cannot be ascribed solely to political interference although the problems are linked due to de facto impunity provided by political patrons.

Encounter killings are frequent in India. The states most affected Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir.

The number of killings is larger in Northeast Indian states. My investigation in Manipur in 2009 indicated over 200 extra-judicial killings under the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act) 1958 (AFSPA). The DG of police who had worked under me earlier, told me that those killed had been ‘undesirable people’. The officer later joined the state Cabinet as a minister.

A number of police gallantry medals were awarded to policemen in Manipur who had killed many ‘undesirable people’; some had not even moved out of their airconditioned offices! The medals are attractive because the recipients do not have to pay income tax on pension.

Manipur is also the state which witnessed the heroic young woman Irom Sharmila’s sixteen year-long hunger strike from 2000 to 2016. Chanu was demanding the repeal of the draconian AFSPA. She was forced to give up her strike but the undemocratic law continues in the Northeast. Sharmila was only protesting the wanton killing of innocents by the men of the Assam Rifles in a violent incident in 2000.

Police are usually the only witnesses to unlawful killings. Unofficial sanction is said to exist for such practices. Members of minority communities are often the prominent victims.

Some key issues in police practices may be mentioned: i) Indian police are at bottom a government controlled department with no meaningful autonomy; ii) the existing Indian police organisation is a reproduction of the Irish colonial paramilitary police model, which had the specific purpose of putting down political resistance to British rule and not serving the public by professional investigation and detection of crime; iii) the provisions of the IPC, CrPC and Police Act still mainly focus on security of State, maintenance of public order and collection of political intelligence at the cost of human rights protection and service delivery; iv) decentralisation and democratisation of the police in India and empowerment of Panchayati Raj Institutions to deal with conflict management are difficult since Members of Parliament and state Assemblies are averse to share power with Panchayats and local bodies; v) the SARC report on ‘Public Order’ (2007) remains unaccepted; it recommends that police functions and organisation be divided into three separate areas of investigation, law and order and local police; vi) there is a the need to provide legal framework and charter of duties to IB and R&AW on the lines of the British MI5 and US CIA; not mentioned in the NPC Reports; vi) there is a need to review the role of the IPS and the IAS as recommended by some senior officials; viii) the redoubtable former IPS officer KF Rustomji when asked about the future IPS during a personal discussion told me that the service is ‘doomed’; ix) the legal luminary Upendra Baxi has expounded his concept of ‘people’s police’ in his learned Preface to my monograph on the Indian Police mentioned earlier.


Police facilitation of anti-minority violence across the country is disturbing.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 organised a discussion on Maoist violence in the Planning Commission attended by state Chief Secretaries and DGs of Police. A Planning Commission report on ‘Development Challenges in Extremist-affected Areas’ was circulated. Most participants accepted the findings though the IB representatives disagreed and presented a dissenting note that the Maoist violence is a national security threat. Prime Minister’s paper was side-lined. The Planning Commission report is on the Net.

A large trust deficit exists in India between the people and the Police which is part of the existing deficits in governance and democracy. Institutionalised impunity for human rights violations coexists with political democracy in India (Upendra Baxi, 2010, Police Watch: Random Reflections, Mimeo, New Delhi). Special security legislations such as the AFSPA 1958 and the UAPA are often misused. Credibility deficit must be reduced to meet the challenge of creating ‘people’s police’; there is a compelling need to implement the recommendations of the Second Administration Report on ‘Public Order’, 2007, which goes beyond those of the National Police Commission (1979-81). Police training is essential in view of police brutality in handling social conflicts. The quality of training imparted at the National Police Academy has been controversial. The training patterns, training manuals and training officers need careful examination from the point of view of social justice and human rights.

There is also a need to adopt and ratify the UN Convention on Torture; UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement officials; UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms; UN Standards and Principles on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice and all other UN Special Procedures.

The Indian Constitution must be viewed first and foremost as a social document. Despite many negative provisions it is capable of being amended from time to time. It has many provisions aimed at furthering the goals of social revolution. The core commitments lie in Parts III and IV, Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy. These are the conscience of the Constitution. Social transformation through the implementation of the constitutionally recognised socio-economic rights must be regarded as work in progress (Delhi High Court Writ Petition No. 7455/2001).

(An edited version of this review Article was published in Frontline on August 25, 2022)

October 25, 2022

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