Judge, Jury and Executioner

Representation image (Photo:SNS)

“I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,” said cunning old Fury: “I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death” (Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carrol). With education and enlightenment, people the world over demand a more democratic political system and a brighter economic future.

Therefore, the role and conduct of police, who are the most visible symbols of Government authority, are being re-evaluated the world over – not in India alone. In several countries, particularly dictatorships, there is hardly any difference between the police and the army, which would be unthinkable in a democracy.

However, there are aberrations, even in democracies. The police in the US have lately taken to killing protestors and suspects in cold blood and storming homes with battering rams. At the other end of the spectrum is the British Bobby, who patrols the toughest areas, mostly without arms.


A Bobby is almost always polite – the Metropolitan Police, officially apologised to a group of anti-royalist protestors, who had been detained during King Charles III’s coronation. Bobbies are tough also – they fined PM Boris Johnson and most of his cabinet (including current PM Rishi Sunak), for flouting Covid-19 restrictions.

Though we have adopted a host of British traditions, our policemen are not modelled on the British Bobby. The colonial administration in India wanted the police to be an agent of control to keep natives in check, and not to serve them in any manner.

Even after Independence, the public image of police has not changed much; the word ‘police’ evokes fear and apprehension, more than trust and respect. In line with popular perception, Bollywood caricatures policemen either as ‘Singhams’ or as super-corrupt debauches.

The present political and social climate of the country is not conducive to good policing, since the high and mighty see police as convenient tools to settle personal scores. Not a day passes without someone alleging defamation against some prominent person, mostly a politician, over some political statement.

The police and judiciary get activated; summons and warrants follow. Mostly, complaints are filed at distant and inaccessible places, so that the accused person has to make extra efforts to defend himself. Such machinations, perforce, thrust the police into the role of arbiters, which they are not qualified to perform.

Another variation of this template is also seen: after some distasteful tweet against some political person, the police go into overdrive, accusing the tweeter of promoting enmity between different sections of society, causing disorder, inciting people to violence etc. – the reaction of the police being directly proportional to the importance of the target of the tweet. Soon enough, the tweeter is marched off to jail, to wait for bail by some kind judge.

Genuinely incorrigible dissidents and politically inconvenient persons are often charged under stringent preventive detention laws, like NSA and UAPA, to be incarcerated in lice-infested prisons, for years together.

Courts being clogged with a backlog of around five crore cases, the law takes its own tortuous and time-consuming course, keeping the accused persons perpetually in jail, or at least on tenterhooks.

With three-fourths of the prison population in India being undertrials, it is apparent that the judicial process has itself become a punishment for the accused. One comes across shocking stories of a miscarriage of justice, for example:

“The court of Chief Judicial Magistrate, Surat acquitted 122 persons arrested in December 2001, for being members of the banned outfit SIMI for lack of “cogent, reliable and satisfactory” evidence.” One can well imagine the agony of innocent people facing trial for almost two decades, the fees paid by them to lawyers over the years, or the valuable time of the court wasted in the trial. In another shocking instance, a man was acquitted of false rape charges by the Allahabad High Court, after spending 20 years in jail.

At the time of release, this unfortunate man was aged 43 years; because of judicial delays, his entire youth had been wasted in jail. Justice Ranjan Gogoi, a former Chief Justice of India, called the Indian judiciary “ramshackle” and stated in an interview: “If you have to go to court, you will only be washing dirty linen in court and you will not get a verdict.

I have no hesitation to say so. You regret it if you go to court.” The inability of courts to provide quick and affordable justice has made the public look to the police to punish the guilty. The criminal history of mafiosi like Atiq Ahmed and Mukhtar Ansari reveals a shocking miscarriage of justice; they were only recently convicted of murders committed decades ago.

The inescapable conclusion is that trials against these criminals were deliberately delayed, through sloth, fear, or inducements, till the political scenario changed. Such instances explain the approbation for police ‘encounters,’ and the demand for more, in crime-ridden States like UP. The job of a police officer is made even more difficult by sub-standard physical infrastructure, and given the ubiquitous recruitment scandals, poor quality and quantity of subordinate staff.

With such limited resources, police have to satisfy both a public demanding immediate and mostly impossible results, and a political executive demanding unquestioning subservience.

There have been several initiatives for police reform; National Police Commission (1978-82), and the Supreme Court constituted the Ribeiro Committee, to review action taken by the Government on recommendations of the National Police Commission; the Padmanabhaiah Committee on the restructuring of Police (2000); and the Malimath Committee on reforms in Criminal Justice System (2002-03) and finally the Supreme Court’s judgement, and follow-up directions in the Prakash Singh case.

To elucidate: in the landmark Prakash Singh case, the Supreme Court had directed the formation of State Security Commissions, in all States, to lay down broad policies, as also, the formation of Police Establishment Boards to decide upon transfers, postings, promotions and other service-related matters of police officers.

The Supreme Court also directed the formation of Police Complaints Authority at the district and state levels, to inquire into allegations of serious misconduct by police personnel. The Court ordered the separation of investigating police from the law and order police. An elaborate procedure was prescribed for the selection of Director General of Police of States, along with a stipulation of a minimum tenure of two years on operational posts.

The Supreme Court constituted a Monitoring Committee, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, to oversee the implementation of its directions in the Prakash Singh case. The Committee, in its report submitted in August 2010, observed that “practically no State has fully complied with those Directives so far, in letter and spirit”.

The Committee felt dismayed “over the total indifference to the issue of reforms in the functioning of Police being exhibited by the States.” According to the Prakash Singh Case, a Model Police Act, to replace the antiquated Police Act of 1861 vintage, was drafted by the Soli Sorabjee Committee, in 2006. The Model Police Act was notified by the Central Government, only in 2015.

According to Prakash Singh, former DGP of UP and Assam, and petitioner in the case: “Seventeen states have drafted laws purportedly in compliance of Supreme Court’s directions. However, these laws have been enacted to circumvent the implementation of the Honourable Supreme Court’s directions.

The remaining states have dillydallied in the implementation of the Hon’ble Court’s directions. Even where the mandated institutions – the State Security Commission, Police Establishment Board and the Complaints Authorities – have been set up, their composition has been subverted, their charter diluted or their powers curtailed.”

Thus, not much has changed on the ground, which is freely acknowledged by the Government. The ‘Status Note on Police Reforms,’ available on the website of the Ministry of Home Affairs, begins with the following words: “Police reforms have been on the agenda of Governments almost since independence but even after more than 50 years, the police are seen as selectively efficient, unsympathetic to the underprivileged. It is further accused of politicization and criminalization.”

The current police ethos is such that an ordinary person loses his human qualities once he dons khaki, which is far at variance with Mahatma Gandhi’s vision: “The police of my conception will, however, be of a wholly different pattern from the present-day force. Its ranks will be composed of believers in non-violence.

They will be servants, not masters of the people… The policemen will be reformers (Harijan, 1-9-40). Probably, the time has come to implement Gandhiji’s vision.

(The writer retired after teaching English for several years in Government schools of Rajasthan.)