Even as the situation in USA has crept towards normalcy, the scars left by the recent violence appear to be very deep and may take quite some time to heal. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis several agencies and police forces in USA are putting their heads together to address unbridled, disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force.
Things have been moving fast as President Trump has called for legislation on police reforms. In fact, on June 16, he signed an executive order on reforms. Though this does not meet all the demands of the day, it is a step in the right direction. While lawmakers from the Democratic party are known to have brought a Police reforms bill separately, the house judiciary committee has also held meetings on preventing police brutality.
All this is fast work indeed. Consider the situation in our own country where despite the specific orders of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in 2006, state governments have not only been tardy but have also shown a general reluctance to implement any meaningful reforms.
In this context, the Union government has more or less allowed the situation to drift on the grounds that law and order as well as police, as per our Constitution happen to be on the State List. While some aspects of police reform have been addressed, these are essentially of a peripheral nature. The core issue of restructuring the police so as to insulate it from the political executive still remains to be appropriately addressed.
We had inherited a flawed legacy from the British. It is quite a paradox that the laws and police procedures which enabled a colonial power to subjugate our people and perpetuate its rule have been allowed to continue even after independence. It was only the post emergency trauma which had resulted in the constitution of the National Police Commission in 1977. As is well known, its recommendations had not been implemented by successive governments resulting in a reference to the Supreme Court, which led to their directive of 2006.
Since the response from the state governments was very slow the Hon’ble Supreme Court has had to repeatedly intervene. In the meantime most of the states have gone ahead and introduced Police Commissionerates, which was an original recommendation of the NPC but had been omitted from the Supreme Court order. In the given situation quite a few of the serving officers would be happy at this recognition and a higher level of autonomy.
This may also, to an extent mute their demand for implementation of police reforms on priority. This is, however, in general a positive development, though the real objective of police reforms – of doing away with political interference – continues to remain elusive. According to a recent survey carried out by a respected independent agency, of late the credibility of the police in general has shown a vast improvement as a result of their performance during the stressful period of the lockdown. The positives which used to be around 30 per cent have gone up to 70 per cent.
The performance of the police personnel risking their own lives, staying away from home, serving the community and even delivering food and rations etc., have all won wholesome praise. The point to be noted here is that whenever police personnel are deployed on community service or such duties, for instance at large melas, fairs and festivals, they invariably win laurels. On the other hand, the moment they switch over to the core of policing, the police station and crime work, they usually tend to get brickbats. What it simply means is that police personnel are highly disciplined, intrinsically humane and community service-oriented but it is the system and the framework of rules along with the procedures which makes them appear as if they are indifferent or unsympathetic to the problems of the public and thereby lose their credibility.
Sometimes, individual acts of deviant behavior bring a bad name to lakhs of honest, hardworking policemen. In this context, the recent Tamil Nadu case of police brutality is not only a black mark on khaki, it also shows that after the event, efforts were made to manipulate and distort facts, to which some senior officers might be a party. While this is highly condemnable, it is also important that criminal proceedings are initiated on priority against those culpable without any consideration for rank. Police is an important organ of the state executive but at the same time being integral to the criminal justice system most of its actions come before the court and are liable to judicial scrutiny. For instance, in the context of the riots in Delhi earlier this year, the Supreme Court had observed that the violence in Delhi could have been prevented had the police acted independently.
The Apex Court bench of Justices Sanjay Krishan Kaul and KM Joseph went on to comment “unfortunate things have happened. The problem is total lack of independence of police”. Very strong words indeed, which were only in the nature of obiter dicta but clearly reflective of the true state of affairs on ground. Numerous other cases where extraneous interference in police work is obvious continue to be reported from almost all states. Only last month, there was a very serious case of a leak of a hazardous gas from a polymer plant near Vishakhapatnam. While initially the police did very well to evacuate the area, later the FIR, according to the media, omitted some of the vital aspects of the case and only reported that there was smoke and bad smell.
It was only later that the expert group squarely indicted the management. The role of the police prima facie, does not appear to be impartial in many such cases. In fact, curbing the recurrence of such situations and enabling prevention of extraneous influence in police work through structural changes would be the real police reform. As mentioned earlier, Hon’ Supreme Court had commented that the police was not independent. But in the present situation how can the police be independent? Amongst the pillars of the Constitution – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – the first two have been more or less acting in unison while there are a lot of expectations from the judiciary which can always ensure that the constitutional scheme does not get completely disbalanced.
The Supreme Court is held in high esteem by all of us. Being the custodian of our Constitution and of all the ethical and moral values attached therewith, a responsibility is thus cast at all times to uphold the rule of law and come down heavily on the slightest hint of political or any other influence impacting police work. Soon after assuming office, the Chief Justice of India had asked various states to file affidavits with suggestions for reforms in the criminal justice system as well as the police. The matter has now been pending since long and needs to be addressed most expeditiously to usher in the much delayed reforms.
(The writer is a former Governor and a Sr. Advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation)