JUDGES and lawyers take huge comfort from fatuous generalisations on the independence of the police force of India, its accountability to the law and the like. They heap these generalisations on hapless citizens whose misfortune it is to visit a police station and the fat thanedar. The citizen is subjected to a fusillade of verbiage, if not angry abuse. Matters have reached a stage where even the filing of an FIR has become dependent on the mere whim of that man. It is recognised at all hands that there is a problem to solve and that this problem is part of the wider challenge of police reform.
Contrast two altogether different approaches although one, the Indian, professed to be an imitation of the other, the British model. On Nov 15, 1977, the Janata Party administration had succeeded Indira Gandhi’s government after the emergency (read: dictatorship), set up a National Police Commission of six eminent persons to study and report on various problems which had come to the fore regarding police behaviour during her emergency. It submitted eight reports which Indira Gandhi promptly consigned to the archives on her return to power in 1980.
A high-powered committee is not needed to suggest reform.
The very first report of the commission discussed “modalities for inquiry into complaints against the police”. It said, “The complainant should be heard in detail and every effort must be made by the inquiry officer himself to ascertain the truth by examining such other witnesses as he may deem necessary, without insisting on the complainant himself to secure the presence of witnesses; (ii) important witnesses shall, as far as possible, be examined in the presence of the complainant so that he has the satisfaction of hearing what they depose; (iii) throughout the conduct of inquiry, the inquiry officer shall scrupulously avoid doing anything which might create a doubt in the complainant’s mind, about the objectivity and impartiality of the inquiry; (iv) the inquiry shall, as far as practicable, be conducted in an appropriate public building or place, in or near, the complainant’s resident village; (v) if the inquiry officer reports that the complainant himself does not want to press his complaint in any particular case, the facts and circumstances of that case shall again be verified by either the next superior officer or the district complaint cell.”
It also said that in the various categories of complaints against the police, a judicial inquiry would be compulsory in the event of the “alleged rape of a woman in police custody; death or grievous hurt caused while in police custody; and death of two or more persons arising from police firing in the dispersal of an unlawful assembly as defined in Section 141 of the Indian Penal Code”.
One can compare this with the recommended course of action of the British Royal Commission on the Police, 1962, which advised four primary responsibilities for the police. “The first is to provide an adequate police force for its area, properly paid, equipped, housed and administered. The second is to constitute a body of citizens concerned with the local standing and well-being of the police, interested in the maintenance of law and order, and able to give advice and guidance to a chief constable about local problems. The third is to appoint, and if necessary discipline or remove, the senior officers of the force. The fourth is to play an active role in fostering good relations between the police and the public.”
The upshot was the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, 1984, which came into force on Oct 31, 1984. Section 83 established a police complaints authority, as a statutory body with ample coercive powers.
To be frank, you do not need a high-powered committee to suggest reform. All you need is an experienced police officer of high rank and integrity who writes simple English prose. Tariq Khosa is one of the most outstanding police officers in the entire subcontinent. He reached the highest position in Pakistan. His book, The Faltering State: Pakistan’s Internal Security Landscape is a veritable masterpiece. Apart from the lessons he imparts, he covers all the major crises very objectively. His emphasis is on police accountability.
The chief justice of India was recently quoted in the media as saying, “We are very disturbed by what the bureaucracy, particularly police officers, are doing ... I was in favour of forming standing committees led by chief justices of high courts to look into complaints of atrocities committed by bureaucrats, especially police officers, in this country.” This has come at a time when several policemen in the country are being accused of crimes ranging from manhandling of citizens to custodial deaths. Here is a field on which Pakistan and India police officers of integrity can meet and device a statutory solution.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2021