Law Takes a Backseat as Police Officers Pander to Politicians, Parties

The elite within the police service cultivate a quasi-feudal culture of command that ensures they remain within political favour.

Policemen keep watch during a protest rally organised by various trade unions in Mumbai. Credit: Reuters

Policemen keep watch during a protest rally organised by various trade unions in Mumbai. Credit: Reuters

Next month, it will be ten years since the Supreme Court gave its judgement in the Prakash Singh Vs Union of India case, directing the union and state governments to implement ‘seven binding principles’ that were expected to reform the police in the country. In the last decade, what has changed and how has the police fared?

In search for an answer to these questions, it would be appropriate to ask members of the Indian Police Service (IPS), our police leaders, to look at the mirror and examine their claim to leadership and greatness.

The IPS has given the country Prakash Singh, Julio Ribeiro, Kiran Bedi and other eminent leaders. But occasional flashes of brilliance from a few individuals here and there can’t make the IPS a hallowed group beyond legitimate questioning. I won’t play a game of whataboutery: what about the IAS? What about the judiciary? What about the MLAs and MPs? I will ignore these questions. At present, I will limit myself to the police. Individual officers don’t matter, institutional sanctity does. Ranjit Sinha, the controversial former CBI chief, and his visitors’ logbooks are too recent to be forgotten so quickly.

What ails the IPS today? If an insider asks this, he will be called many things: ‘khaki grapes gone sour,’ ‘an angry young man,’ or perhaps ‘a rebel without a cause’. For an outsider raising this question, the answer will invariably start with the cliché: a society gets the police it deserves.

The hard facts and the harder political economy of policing is quite different. In New Delhi and in the state capitals something as objective and as scientific as criminal investigations can be fine-tuned by the investigators to meet the political and economic requirements of their political masters. The elite among the IPS have behaved as lackeys for political masters of their choice. With the right political connections, the accused can choose the charges of their liking.

Related to this IPS-driven lackey-ism is the illegal practice of the police picking up innocent people and keeping them in jail for years before the courts finally acquit them. Three things happen in the process. The real culprits go free and the victims live with the stigma of imprisonment. The investigators are never held accountable for their criminal misdeeds. How Delhi police officials fabricated a terror case (according to the National Investigating Agency) against Liaquat Ali Shah of Lolab and went unpunished is a case in point.

The frequent about-turns made by investigating agencies in numerous high profile cases show how fiction writing has become a part of criminal investigations.

The police organisations are headed by leaders who are handpicked by political masters. This is true for organisations both at the Centre and state levels. Political and financial considerations play a huge role in deciding an officer’s suitability for a coveted post. The transfer industry is a thriving business for the politicians in India. The elite members of the IPS are a part of this murky business. There is not only politics in policing but also large-scale corruption in police administration. From the point of view of the IPS, it is business as usual.

Criminalisation of the police is the disorder of the day. Take for instance how liquor baron and real estate developer Gurdeep Singh Chadha, a.k.a. Ponty Chadha, was provided with security cover by at least three different state police organisations when he was killed in a shootout. Organised crime syndicates thriving on land-grabbing, illegal mining and cricket betting can’t prosper without active support from the police. More often than not, police leaders perform their duties in politically strategic ways over what is necessarily legally correct. Conspiracies between the IPS and their political mentors are a given. Attesting this is the fact that no IPS officer get punished for dereliction of duty in cases like the Delhi riots of 1984 or the Gujarat riots of 2002.

The disjunction between the IPS and the constabulary in the police is an in-built feature of the system. Among the police personnel, 88% are constables. Their sub-human living and working conditions reflect the indifference of the IPS officers towards the police personnel working at the lowest level of the pyramid. The IPS, as leaders, thrive on a feudal culture perpetrated in the name of discipline and paramilitary command and control. No wonder primitive practices of ‘badakhana’ and ‘darbar’ are still an integral part of police sub-culture in the country. The paramilitary culture of the police in India works against the possibility of democratisation of the civilian police in India.

The politicisation of the IPS as a collective entity is rampant. Every time there is a change of guard in Tamil Nadu, one set of IPS officers leave Chennai for New Delhi and another leave New Delhi for Chennai. This drama takes place in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana as well. Other states are no different. If you have the right caste surname, you can get yourself transferred from other states and into the most powerful posts.

The quality of research on policing in India is pathetic. No researcher, with or without an American degree, grant and accent, has ever explored the political economy of policing. The seminar specialists from the IPS – serving, retired or gone abroad to become so-called domain experts – are high on feel-good homilies and low on data-based findings for communalism, corruption and criminalisation. Evidence-based policing and the political economy of policing  are no-go areas for the IPS leadership. Because truth hurts. The role of IPS officers during numerous communal riots and caste-based killings is an indication of how rotten the situation is. How many IPS officers have been made accountable for the so-called fake encounter cases?

The IPS today are afflicted with four deficits. Knowledge, integrity, accountability and trust. The IPS don’t encourage evidence-based policing. The extent of corruption in the police and the role of the IPS in it needs to be discussed. The kind of money the police stations make in India, where this money goes and how the police leadership is a part of the organised loot, are questions that need to be addressed. Police accountability must start with the elite among the IPS.

And then comes the trust deficit. Most of the IPS officers, having studied in India’s premier colleges and universities like JNU and IIT, don’t find it crucial to cleanse their organisations of sexism, casteism and communalism. Because they themselves don’t hesitate to play their caste and community cards to survive and prosper in their career. The constabulary run to the politicians because the IPS themselves indulge in politicking. Needless to mention, the syllabus in the National Police Academy is morally and intellectually blind to these four deficits.

Can the IPS afford to be blind to the state of policing in the country? What have been the success stories post the Prakash Singh judgement? What is holding this country from making its police citizen-centric? Are there different models that the country needs to look at? Will the IPS look within instead of singing the dirge of political interference? These questions are important. And urgent. A decade is long enough. Painfully long enough.

Basant Rath is 2000-batch Indian Police Service officer who belongs to the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. The views expressed are personal.