Ever since I joined the police in 1966, I have been hearing about police reforms and changes in the criminal justice system — generations of brilliant police officers and others in and outside government have raised this demand. Debated in public and private forums, gone to the highest court in the land, deposed before Commissions and Commissions have submitted their voluminous and valuable reports. Courts have also pronounced their verdicts with due consideration and solemnity. What is the result of all these attempts at reforms and are we asking the right questions?
The criminal justice system comprises primarily the police, which is the investigating agency and is also responsible for maintenance of law and order. It reports to the executive head (minister heading the department). Then there is the prosecution branch. It was earlier supervised by the Police Department but on the directions of the judiciary, the supervision is now vested in the District Magistrate (also reporting to the minister heading the department). Third is the judiciary, which of course is independent of the executive. The prosecution branch is literally unsupervised because the DM does not have enough time. Earlier the SHO (Station House Officer) and the prosecutors used to examine cases jointly, assess the evidence and the witnesses and prepare chargesheets. Today, there has been a great fall in the conviction rate of criminal cases. The police investigation has become shoddy. Lack of coordination has resulted in poor prosecution of cases and the attitude of the judiciary has changed. The constant adjournment and delay in finalising cases leads to a fall in faith. Also, sad to say, today litigants are less interested in finding good advocates — they search for those with good connections. This fall in professional efficiency and integrity is seen all across the administrative system, but we have to pay great attention to the criminal justice system as it is the primary duty of the state to ensure security of citizens and the rule of law. I wish to concentrate on the Police Department, but it needs to be emphasised again that the criminal justice system has to be tackled as a whole.
Things have only got worse. The behaviour of the police at the cutting-edge level has not changed as per the expectations of a democratic, free India. It is difficult to get cases registered and properly investigated and prosecuted. Instances of torture have only increased and third-degree methods are still used in investigation. The lack of coordination between the prosecution and the police results in poor conviction rates. A large number of acquittals in criminal cases leads to loss of faith in the police and the judiciary. It is very clear that all sections of society, especially the marginalised, are unhappy with the working of the police. Why did we reach this stage, who led us here? Well, the only section of society that is happy with the police is the political class and that also the party in power. Through a policy of stick and carrot, it ensures that the police carry out their legal and illegal orders and that they are answerable to them only and not to the law of the land or their administrative hierarchy. It is the police station that carries out their demands at the local level and vis a vis the common citizens. In the cases of more important people, the government uses its specialised agencies like the Vigilance, CBI, NIA, etc. Again, officers are specially picked to fulfil the demands of the party in power. Increasingly today, the judiciary is not pro-active in these matters. Why this gradual erosion of the rule of law, to the point that encounters are the norm and not the exception?
The blame to a large extent sits with the political class. The Constitution vested great power in Parliament. We are a democracy and it should be so. But, what do you do when our elected rulers’ lust for power and greed leads to the abuse of law at every level of society. There is introspection required within the three components of the criminal justice system. Why have they allowed the politician to become all-powerful? Our system has provisions for checks and balances — the judiciary is largely independent and the judicial activism of the ’80s was a great counter-check on the politician. It led to the evolution of an independent Election Commission. However, ever since a strong majoritarian government has been established, we find that a ‘quiet’ has descended on the judicial camp. Silence, my lords, is not an option. Why have our institutions got bulldozed to the point that the chiefs of police and administration are unable to defend their team, unable to protect the legal and good actions of their juniors from the demands of the political set-up?
Can encounters on a large scale over a long period of time take place without the tacit support of the government? The Naxalites in Bengal, the Maoists in the tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, MP, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, the militancy in Punjab, the terrorists in J&K — these were situations beyond the scope of normal policing. The Indian state was threatened by foreign and domestic enemies. All these threats went on for years and some are ongoing, and so are encounters. Have the police done all this on their own or did they have the full support of whatever government was in power? Why did we not bring in new laws to deal with the situation? Why did we involve the civil police in these situations and why did we bring in the culture of encounters? The police have now accepted this as a valid weapon to fight crime and people also welcome these in some circumstances. The police escape the tedious investigative work and a probable failure in court after years of litigation. Encounters also give the aggrieved people instant ‘justice’. This is why encounters are happening now even in cases of rapes and murders. However, people want shortcuts and the government obliges. How come criminals have careers spanning lifetimes and gather riches and respect? They are the products of our social system looked after by political leaders, who then build them into mafias and use them to terrorise opponents and help in elections. Would this be possible without a friendly police and benevolent government? So who wants reforms? The political parties certainly do not.
The fulcrum in our system of government is the executive, i.e. the government, the party in power. It is the political head of government who can change the state of affairs overnight without even bringing reforms. It is all a question of posting the right officers, right heads of department and right ministers for Home Affairs. The political will has to be there and the message should go out to the officers that they have to uphold the law and not listen to the diktats of a party. Since law and order is a state subject, it is the Chief Minister who calls the shots and if he acts as above and monitors closely, things will improve 80 per cent overnight.
The Police Department has excellent officers of proven integrity at all levels and given the opportunity and freedom to act, they will bring about the change. If this is not done, you may bring all the reforms you want to and all the judicial pronouncements, but nothing will change. The power to bring this change is with the political class. They have to change, they should show the will and then whatever reforms are needed, these can be brought about. Without this pivotal change, things will go further downhill and become irreversible. So the question is: does the pivot want to change, reform? Do parties want an apolitical police or do they want to continue on the present suicidal path? The answer and the solution lie with them.
— The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC, former Manipur Governor and served as J&K DGP
Most Read In 24 Hours
Don't MissView All
Flight UK954 and Flight UK928 from Mumbai to Delhi diverts t...
Sarvjeet Sidhu, pleaded guilty to attempted murder, while Su...
The temporary ceasefire, which was initially reached on Nove...
What is posthumous sperm retrieval? And how it offers solace to families whose men have died in Gaza war?
Posthumous sperm retrieval (PSR) is a procedure that involve...
The student's murder and the letter warning of more such kil...