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On November 21, 2021, the Madhya Pradesh government announced after a long discussion that the MP Police would move to a commissionerate system in Bhopal and Indore.
Apparently, the move is aimed at improving the law and order since the population in both the cities has exceeded 10 lakh. With these notifications, Bhopal and Indore are the first in Madhya Pradesh to get police commissioners.
Following this announcement, commissioners were swiftly appointed in early December 2021 in both cities. They have been armed with magisterial powers which were previously exercised by the district administration, including the powers to adjudicate proceedings under Section 106-124 and Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc) among others.
History of the police commissionerates
The police commissionerate system originated in the presidency towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in the late 1850s, and was first brought to Ahmedabad and Delhi in independent India in 1960 and 1978 respectively. The MP government’s notifications make Bhopal and Indore the 66th and 67th cities to adopt this system in India.
The stated intention behind the system is an efficient and effective operational response by the police to crime, and law and order issues that develop rapidly in large urban areas. In order to achieve this, the police are also given decision-making powers, thus centralising power.
There is broad consensus (including a recommendation by the sixth National Police Commission) over the need for this centralisation despite the obvious danger of loss of checks on the powers of the police. It is asserted that a centralised command, where the police have decision-making powers, streamlines its response and prevents disruptions to public order.
Due process implications
In this system, the commissioner of police (CP) is vested with the powers of an executive magistrate in a metropolitan area under Section 20(5) of the CrPC. The CP presides over the commissionerate and is assisted by deputy commissioners of police (DCP) and assistant commissioners of police (ACP) deployed across various zones.
Now the police in Bhopal and Indore are empowered to initiate and decide proceedings related to security for peace and for good behaviour contained in Sections 106-124 of the CrPC.
Previously, the police would issue a notice, but the proceedings would lie before the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) and the appeal with the sessions court. Therefore, adjudication of whether an accused person has to furnish a bond will hereon also rest with the police department.
Similarly, within the new system, those deemed ‘habitual offenders’ now have to appear before the ACP for proceedings on a notice issued by a local police station. Further, the police no longer have to wait for the collector’s order to implement Section 144, which is often used to quell protests and gatherings.
The CP can also now order the removal of “an individual outside the district or any part thereof or such area and any district or districts or any part thereof” for a specified period in the exercise of their externment powers under the MP State Security Act, 1990. These powers were thus far being exercised by the collector as the district magistrate.
The arguments might be made in favour of the efficient and expeditious disposal of such cases thereby addressing the issue of pendency. However, it is difficult to overlook the impact on the due process with regard to the rights of the accused which are compromised given the conflict of interest due to the concentration of powers with the police.
The implementation of a commissionerate system has given rise to a centralised system wherein powers of crime control, maintenance of law and order, and associated quasi-judicial functions vest within the same body.
Even decentralisation of powers within this very system through the creation of distinct allocations, for handling crime and law-and-order functions, still has the effect of concentration of powers within the system.
Previously, the system of separation of powers ensured checks and balances through the exercise of magisterial powers by the district-level bureaucracy. This system of checks and balances is crucial given that the exercise of these powers has serious implications on personal liberty.
Discretionary powers of the police such as those nestled in Sections 106-124 of the CrPC are often exercised to the detriment of oppressed caste communities.
For instance, being characterised as a ‘habitual offender’, a determination not contingent upon conviction despite jurisprudence to the contrary, under Section 110 of the CrPC, has the effect of being subjected to extensive surveillance and unchecked arrest powers of the police.
The term ‘habitual offender’ is often synonymous with those who were characterised as ‘criminals by birth’ by the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) i.e. the Vimuktas.
Being deemed a habitual offender is the basis of externment proceedings under the MP State Security Act, as stated above, where powers are now exercised by the CP. These externment proceedings have the effect of barring these ‘habitual offenders’ from a district or several districts for a minimum period of six months. Consequently, they lose access to their life and livelihood in places. This further entrenches the powers of the police and creates further impediment(s) in the endeavour of achieving the long overdue goal of police accountability.
Nikita Sonavane and Aditi Pradhan are both with the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project – a research-litigation intervention in Bhopal. Aditi Pradhan is a Thakur Foundation Fellow.