Reform, Not Uniform: Why Modi’s Plan for the Police in India is Totally Off the Mark

The government and police leadership need to give deep thoughts to improve the delivery of service by the police rather than waste their energy on perfunctory issues like the uniform. 

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In a widely reported incident, Rahul Gandhi had walked out of the meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on Defence in December 2020 when the then Chief of Defence Staff General Rawat focussed on presenting about proposed changes in the uniform of defence forces personnel instead of more important issues like the security scenario on the India-China Border.

A similar inanity has been inflicted upon the nation by no less than the prime minister through his suggestion at the ‘chintan shivir’ of the home ministers of states to consider introducing a single uniform for the police throughout the country

It would be surprising if the prime minister doesn’t already know that the police in the entire country wears a khaki uniform except in the case of Kolkata Police and perhaps the police in Mumbai and some north-eastern states. The traffic police in most states does have a different uniform as they are required to perform a totally different role. Other than these variations it is only the insignia on the caps and belts or the accoutrements’ on their arms that distinguishes the police of one state from the other. Even these distinctions are not noticeable by the rural, marginalised and common people for whom khaki is the only visible symbol of authority of government which they hold in awe both for its potential to help him in times of need and also for its ability to inflict misery upon him.

Furthermore, imposing ‘uniform-ity’ may not be practicable because the weather conditions, terrain and operational requirements vary vastly in different parts of the country. For example, the extreme cold in the UTs Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh and states like Himachal and Uttarakhand mandates that many uniform articles be different in these areas from those of states like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra or the southern states where the weather is hot and humid. Again, a uniform stitched in the shape of a dungaree will be more suitable for states where the terrain is mountainous with thick foliage.

Representative image of police in Karnataka. Photo: PTI

Maintaining a similarity of uniform even within the same state is extremely difficult because the items of uniform are not procured centrally. The colour shades and quality of the uniform worn by police persons within a “thana” itself may be different because these are procured individually in almost all states. This problem has now started emerging even in the Central Armed Police Forces after the central procurement system was done away with.

Also read: Why Citing Post Boxes Is Not the Best Way to Call for a Single Police Uniform

It will not be out of place to mention that the uniform even in the defence forces is not the same except the colour and quality of fabric worn. Indian Army regiments, fighting and support arms display their own distinct identity by way of headgear, belts and accoutrements.

Another negative aspect of a single uniform for the entire police force of the country is that it will become difficult to identify them when they move out of their jurisdiction to arrest people, and the system of zero FIRs will gain currency – which is prone to misuse as was seen in many recent incidents.

Irrespective of all that has been brought out above, it would be naïve to think that the Prime Minister has just made an off the cuff remark. One can say with fair amount of certainty that the prime minister does know that the police is a state subject and decisions like type of uniform for police are to be taken by states. Further, there certainly are more important matters afflicting policing in India for the home ministers to discuss than the “uniformity of uniform”.

Prime Minister Modi exhorting state home ministers about the importance of police reforms mandated even by the Supreme Court, and finding ways to implement them, would have been more appropriate for a forum like that. Brainstorming on ways to make police functioning independent of political interference and debating ways to improve the image of the police in the eyes of the public by converting it into a “people’s police” instead of a “rulers’ police” are the matters relevant for forums like that. 

The police-public ratio of 152 per lakh of people is ab initio way below world standards and the fact is that a lot of this consists of the CAPFs which are not available for day to day policing jobs. We have been continuing with the system of recruiting home guards as causal workers to fill the human resources gap. This perhaps is one major reason for the lackadaisical policing in most states and should not be allowed to continue in perpetuity.

Representative image. Photo: PTI

Other aspects that need “chintan” are improving police training and soft skills. Modernisation of the police is an important matter which receives very little attention. Except for the honourable exceptions of some states, the acquisition of swanky vehicles and computers is considered the be all and end all of modernisation. 

There is lot of scope for improving personnel management amongst the police forces by providing them with a conducive work place and improving housing satisfaction. 

It will be to the peril of the federal structure of the country if we get deceived into ignoring the latent object of the prime minister’s remarks – which are clearly aimed at guiding the narrative towards constituting a single police force for the entire nation by ignoring the constitutional scheme of things. 

There have already been instances of Central police agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation, Enforcement Directorate, etc. being misused to target opposition voices and silence them in the past but more so during the past decade. A centrally controlled police will further enhance the scope of such misuse, which in the present constitutional scheme is counterbalanced to an extent.

Also read: Why Opposition’s Claim of Central Agencies Being Misused Rings True

A contrary point of view is that police being a state subject is not a divine order. It is a human construct, and as fallible as anything could be. It is suggested that we must not take the constitution to be the final word in shaping human destiny. Many legal experts maintain that the basic structure theory also is an artificial judicial construct. If we the people of India have reconciled with the idea of a strong Centre, we might as well accept a national police force. It is argued that this would also effectively defeat the local power nexuses. 

The problem with this point of view is that it ignores the federal structure that our constitutional makers had envisioned and ignores the reality of the essential diversity of culture, language and ethnicity of the nation. The other problem with this view is that while it may be easy to manage the Indian Police Service and make it a true All India Service with officers liable to be posted anywhere, it will be very difficult for personnel management of those below officers’ rank. Finally, assuming it insulates the police leadership from undue influence by the local or state politicians, they may have to face the even bigger threat of pressure from Central authorities and the consequences of not yielding to such pressures may be even more severe than present with an all India liability of posting and transfers.

The bottom line is that the government and police leadership has to give deep thoughts to improve the delivery of service by the police rather than wasting their energy on perfunctory issues like the uniform. 

Sanjiv Krishan Sood retired as additional director general, Border Security Force.