Smell The Coffee: Indian Civil Police Is Facing Existential Crisis

Law and order, and crime control charter of the Indian police is the fundamental public good. It is the principal responsibility of the state to guarantee a society free from crime and to have a stable law and order. Policing is a non-rival and non-excludable public good similar to health and education. Policing suffers from myriad challenges which need urgent fixing.

The proposition ‘Indian police needs reform’ has become a trite suggestion. Multiple recommendations of numerous Committees on Police Reforms by eminent administrators, police professionals and jurists, are either gathering dust or, worse, have been selectively applied. This selective application has rendered the proposals irrelevant or had limited impact. Several of these recommendations, judicial interventions and other diktats merely serve as scaffolding to strengthen an edifice that has a very weak foundation; some of these frames themselves are ineffective. It is imperative to realise that the makeover is unsustainable and would eventually collapse with the structure unless the foundation is strengthened. The reformational steps seem to be layered on the basic colonial attitude of function, the objective of which was perpetuation of foreign rule rather than community security or wellbeing of the population. The need of the hour, therefore, is to ‘transform’ Indian Police, and not merely ‘reform’ it.
Attitudinal change should be the first step in this transformation. Indian civil police carry the gendarmerie ethos of colonial police which places disproportionate emphasis on armed aspects of policing. The quasi-military culture is exemplified in police forces adopting camouflage uniforms with formation signs and insignia. It is important to note that the civil and the armed police are profoundly different in their techniques, tactics, and procedures. Armed police mimic the Army in the civilian world and work on away-from-the-public-eye philosophy. Civil police work amidst people through the Police Station or Thana. Every act of violation of law of the land – be it affray or a terrorist act – ultimately lands in the lap of the civil police to register, investigate and launch prosecution as per procedures established by law. The civil police are the ‘guardians’ of the community sheltering it from the depredations of criminals and antisocial elements. It goes without saying then that if the avowed goal of modern India is to serve its people, it is the civil police which should be the primary focus of all efforts at improvement.

Indian police are overburdened and understaffed. Criminal cases – fresh and old – are mounting. This pendency implies securing justice in India can take an awfully long time. Pendency in the police is driven by a lack of means. Paucity of resources is palpable in the civil police wing. Interaction with the police is a frustrating, time-consuming, and expensive experience for the citizenry.

UNODC defines police personnel as those “personnel in public agencies whose principal functions are prevention, detection and investigation of crime and the apprehension of alleged offenders” (UN-CTS M1.2). UN standards of 222 policemen per lakh of population is benchmark for efficient police delivery. The states in India have responded to match up the ideal police -population ratio by increasing the strength of the armed police. However, in the recent past, growth of the armed component of the police has outstripped the civilian force. The Bureau of Police Research and Development data reveals that during the five-year period 2014-2019, the sanctioned strength of civil police in India decreased from 18,22,358 to 16,69,907, denoting a reduction of 5%. During the same duration, the strength of armed police, including District Armed Reserve, Special Armed Battalions, and India Reserve Battalions, more than doubled from 4,40,864 (2014) to 9,53,318 (2019). As a result, there were 124 civil policemen per lakh Indians in 2019, as against 147 in 2014. This misplaced priority puts the entire concept of police service on its head. If the aim is of better crime prevention, improved detection, and prosecution, it matters critically whether the increase is in the form of a Battalion or in the civil police force. A victim is denied his due as a citizen if a policeman is not available in the police station in times of need. Even in insurgency, the role of civil police is significant, and they cannot be compensated by the armed policemen.

Increased emphasis on armed police conveys an attitude of ‘policing by force’ rather than ‘policing by law’, in a true democratic spirit. The realisation that “You cannot (use) arrest (as) your way out of a problem” is imminent and indispensable for the police. This is one of the attitudinal shifts required for the transformation. This would also reduce misuse of law and spare the likes of Disha Ravi, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, etc., vivacious youth, and the octogenarian priest Father Stan Swamy from incarceration by extrapolation of law. Such zealotry police practice based on the ‘Zero tolerance’ hypothesis accentuates the problem by disrupting relationships with society instead of solving it, besides diminishing faith in law.

One of the avowed objectives of police forces, apart from prevention and detection of crime, is to preserve internal security in the country. The concept has undergone a metamorphosis in the post-cold war era. At the height of the Cold war, security was compartmentalised into external and internal. While external threat dealt with territorial integrity and nuclear deterrence, and was synonymous with national security, internal risks denoted domestic strife. The 1994 UNDP report on Human Development has advised that, National Security, the concept which was hitherto revolving around territorial security, arms for protection and nuclear holocaust, should consider the feeling of insecurity arising from ‘worries of daily life’. These anxieties trigger individual and societal ferments leading to conflict. This aspect of Human Security is not divorced from National Security but is a subset of it. The mission statement of the police needs to change from preservation of internal security to provide for Human Security in the overall context of National Security through mitigation of ‘worries of daily life’.

The role of the police needs to be transformed to a protector of Human Security rather than merely an upholder of order. Police would then become a stabiliser, not enforcer. This shift in strategy would call for service orientation with a mindset of cooperation and compassion, rather than merely being the strong arm of the government of the day. The fact that such orientation can be brought about by civil police cannot be emphasized enough.

The 1861 organization of the Indian police adopted a quasi-military approach. Ironically, this approach was abandoned in Britain itself following the adoption of Metropolitan Police Act in 1839, on the principles enunciated by Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern police. The Peelian principles rested on prevention of crime rather than repressing it with force. These principles were –
1. basic mission of police is to prevent crime and disorder,
2. ability of police to perform their duties depends on public approval,
3. police must secure willing cooperation of public in voluntary observance of law,
4. degree of public cooperation proportionally diminishes necessity to use force,
5. police seek public favour by demonstrating impartial service to law,
6. police should use force as last resort,
7. police should create an atmosphere of interdependence with community by impressing that the police work in the interest of community,
8. police should not use extra judicial methods, and
9. the test of police efficiency is in the absence of crime, not in visible action in dealing with it. (Urban safety and Good Governance: Role of Police; Maurice Chalom, et al).

A transformative change in police can be brought about by suitable adaptation of above nine principles in Indian context as the fundamental tenet of modern policing.

Acceptance of the strategic and attitudinal shortcomings open a whole new range of policing approaches such as Community Policing, Problem-oriented Policing, and Intelligence-led Policing. Community policing is central to Peel’s model. Working to identify and neutralize causal factors with the help of community is wholesome police – community effort. Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) is a meaningful managerial approach with its primary focus on crime rather than criminals. POP, which is based on analysis of crime, redresses ‘Broken windows’ by tackling even minor delinquencies and could be beneficial in tackling major issues like that of radicalisation. Intelligence-led policing is a new buzzword in police lexicon. This enables police to efficiently organize its job to maximize capacity. That intelligence-centric activity cannot be effective without community participation is axiomatic. This professional approach is not only helpful in predicting disorder but also helps in all processes of crime investigation. The idea of separating Law and Order, and Investigation wings is, therefore, flawed. India had a tryst with Intelligence-led policing methods in the Anti Thuggee campaign by WH Sleeman in the 1830s even before police force was organized in the country. The campaign resulted in elimination of the menace.

As a prescription, we need to work at a strategy to ‘demilitarise police and humanise policemen’. The State should incentivise trends to have more policemen in the police station rather than in the barracks, armed outposts, and police camps. This change will itself usher in better crime prevention, investigation, and policing in general. For the state governments, it would not mean any significant increase in their budget outlay on the police. An armed policeman will be replaced by a civil equivalent. It would reflect in a larger presence of policemen in the community infusing an increased sense of security amongst the people. With the same strength of policemen, states will enable more efficient delivery of police services to the community, and certainly, better control over crime and criminals.

The mandate of the police force having two wings, that is, the civil and the armed wings, was a response to the then existing political circumstances and ethos, which in today’s world and time is an anathema, decadent and warped in time. Indian police must emerge out of the shadows of its yesteryear counterparts and evolve into a more citizen-friendly community-oriented arm of the State. The soft underbelly of the Indian state is symbolized by the depredations of few of its citizens against their own fellow citizens. It is the police station staff which must stand up to this challenge posed by this miniscule number of depredators. Many functions of the armed police like escorts, guards, providing bandobast, duties with VIPs, etc. can all be performed with equal ease by the civil policeman. In fact, his presence on such duties can be a force multiplier as he is also attitudinally an organic part of the community as compared to armed components with different expertise and mindset. While the Armed component waits for a situation to become riotous or unlawful to get into action, the civil force reads and processes the developments in real time playing a critical role in nipping the developing situation in bud. There is no other symbol of the State which comes even close to the civil policeman in the myriad of roles that he can play to defend the life and property of the citizens. He easily dons the role of a crime branch constable, court constable, traffic policeman, beat constable, special branch constable, railway policeman, computer/IT constable, man in mufti, etc. It is this talent and inherent capacity of the civil policeman which needs to be harnessed.

Developed democracies all over the world are trying to reorient their policing strategies around the objective of ‘primacy of community’. President Obama’s Task force on 21st Century Policing recommends that “Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian – rather than a warrior – mindset”. The UK Home Department Report on “Better Police Service for 21st Century”(2004) envisages “greater involvement of communities and citizens in determining how their communities are policed.”

To save the Indian Police from extinction a holistic change in strategy and attitude is required. “Policing with the community, not unto community”, should be the bedrock on which the edifice of policing should be raised with service orientation, proficiency, accountability, responsiveness, and transparency as attitudinal pillars.