Police cannot be reformed by ignoring human rights

Policemen lathicharge members of trade unions during an agitation in Malda, West Bengal earlier this month. PTI

Legendary "thug hunter" William Henry Sleeman recorded his impressions about the Indian "native" police in 1836: "...they are tempted to conceal the real offenders by a liberal share of the spoil, and a promise of not offending again within their beat." 175 years later, a Mumbai newspaper reported on 15 November that the Bombay High Court was examining whether another version of this old practice existed. A division bench is asking the state government and the director general of police whether the "Economic Offences Wing" (EOW) of the Mumbai police is demanding money from the complainants to investigate fraud cases. The petition arose when the complainant was allegedly asked to pay 40% of the disputed amount.

An excellent narrative on this festering problem from the human rights angle can be found in a paper, "Are the Indian police a law unto themselves: A rights based assessment", published by Social Watch India. Written by a former IPS officer, Prof K.S. Subramanian, who is also a well known academic and human rights activist, it tells us why police reforms have failed in improving the force's handling of human rights and development issues. The paper asserts that police corruption and torture will not come down even if all Supreme Court directives are followed. The reason, according to Prof Upendra Baxi, former Delhi University vice-chancellor, who wrote the foreword, is because all efforts towards police reforms have been taken with a "closed shop" approach, excluding the voices of the sufferers. This exercise is confined only to the "experts" among the Union or state ministries or to the "regime-picked" outsiders or through "public interest litigation" (PIL). He laments that we have totally ignored the 1968 Khosla Commission's remarks: "The Constitution has laid down that people should rule, so the police must also be people's police."

Prof K.S. Subramanian gives the history of our police reform efforts. He blames the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) of being insensitive to human development issues. He had worked in the Intelligence Bureau and also in the Research and Policy division (R&P) of the MHA, established in 1967 by the late Home Secretary L.P. Singh, who was unhappy with the ministry's information processing and assessments. After R&P was wound up in the 1990s, because of what he calls "bureaucratic jealousies and rivalries", the MHA did not have the benefit of multi-disciplinary analysis on socio-economic problems that generate law and order crises. The MHA's policy is to ignore even Government of India's other agencies, like the Planning Commission or the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Commission, who lay more emphasis on human development issues. Instead, it relies more on secret Intelligence Bureau reports that give only the law and order angle. He recalls that the R&P division had "prepared a seminal paper on the then newly emerging Naxalite (now Maoist) movement and warned that 'the green revolution would turn into red revolution' in the absence of far-reaching agrarian reforms". He feels that the Maoist movement may be a manifestation of the "exclusionary processes generated by the market oriented capitalist reforms".

This writer agrees that the police has to be more sensitive to issues related to human development and human rights. He is also convinced that the present structure — in which too much power even on lower level police postings is concentrated on politicians assisted by the faceless bureaucrats of the Home Department — is not conducive to bridging the police-public gap. But he is not too sure whether the Maoist problem can be viewed only through a human rights or development paradigm, since Maoists also indulge in gross human rights violations. An example is the statement released in September 2011 by "Manas", Maoist spokesperson for the Northern Regional Committee on their proposed enquiry into the case of "death penalty" given on 2 March 2011 to Niyamat Ansari of Jharkhand "as per regulations/procedures of our lower level committee".

I recall that the late S.R. Sankaran, who had mediated twice between the Andhra Pradesh government and the Maoists, had told me in October 2007 that he found the Maoist top leadership dedicated, but they did not seem to know that some lower cadres were involved in extortion for personal gains. "In any case, for villagers it is the local militant who matters".


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