India’s 1861-Model Police Force Insufficient for the 21st Century

April 15, 2009

April 15, 2009

Those who knew him saw India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as the quintessential “Brown Englishman.” Nehru typified the intention of Lord Thomas Macaulay, one of the architects of British rule in India, to create a class of Indians that, in the words of his 1866 “Minute on Education,” would be “Indian in blood and color but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” So tentative was Nehru of the capacity of himself and his fellow Cabinet colleagues to administer the former British colony that he requested the last Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, to stay on as the newly independent country’s first governor-general. Mountbatten agreed and in the process took over direct superintendence of key state functions including defense.

It was Mountbatten’s caution that prevented the Indian Army from continuing its 1948 offensive in Kashmir and taking over the one-third of that territory that still remained under the control of the Pakistani forces that had invaded in 1947. Had the Indian Army not been halted by a premature cease-fire, much of the pain that has been witnessed in Kashmir over the previous decades may have been avoided. British in outlook and temperament, Nehru insisted on retaining the structure of British colonial rule in India. The only difference is that the last word now rested with the Indians rather than the British. Since 1947, no Indian politician in the “world’s biggest democracy” has deemed it necessary to significantly alter the colonial-era laws and regulations that govern the lives of the people, perhaps because such a structure gives them powers over the administrative machinery and by extension the population that are as all-encompassing as those once wielded by the British Raj.

Given the fascination for all things associated with the British colonial authorities, is it any wonder that the police in India are still governed by the 1861 Indian Police Act? The British colonial authorities passed this act in the aftermath of the first major revolt against their rule, the 1857 “First War of Independence” (or Mutiny, depending on whether one reads Indian or British textbooks). The Act gave the political masters of the country (then the British colonialists) absolute control over the police, making them in effect their vassals. Police officers could be disciplined and transferred at will, and used where needed in any way deemed fit by those in authority. They became, in effect, the personal civil armed force of the Raj.

During the 100 years (1847-1947) of popular revolt against the British, the absolute power given under the law to each individual British administrator, known as a “Collector,” was revealed in the wide range of their responses to Indian protestors in their districts. Some responded viciously while others were more sympathetic to the local population. Governors of provinces who wanted to “teach the natives a lesson” ensured a plentiful diet of police brutality that in turn helped fuel greater and greater levels of resistance to the British occupation.

Because the basic framework of police administration has changed little since 1861, India’s political masters have the same degree of control over the actions of the police that was once enjoyed by the governors and collectors of the British Raj.

Today, the “democratic” chief ministers and home (i.e. interior) ministers in each Indian state wield these powers. Under the Constitution of India, law and order is a subject that falls within the jurisdiction of the state governments thereby reducing sharply the reach of the central government into police administration in the states.

As in the days of the Raj, the manner in which the police function depends primarily on the caliber and temperament of the state political bosses and not on a framework of values and best practices as ought to be the case. Chief ministers and home (interior) ministers who are effective and reasonably honest ensure that the force gets used primarily for the purpose for which it is intended; the preservation of public order and the prevention or detection of criminal activity. Others convert the police into instruments of personal power and abuse, to the detriment of the ordinary citizen.

Despite its size and complexity, India is a relatively under-policed country with about one police officer for each 1,200 citizens as against the usual 1:250 ratio found in most western countries. Despite this, there are some 113,000 sanctioned positions for the post of beat constable that are unfilled. The reason for this is that many politicians ensure that only those who bribe them or who belong to the “right” caste or faith get selected to become a police officer. The absence of professional standards for all but higher-level police positions ensures that several entrants have matters other than the security of citizens as their first priority. In all too many cases, the police are tasked with ensuring the financial and political interests of their patrons often at the expense of the public interest.

In the situation where India finds itself as one of the three focal points for jihadi terror (together with the United States and Israel), it would appear self-evident that the training of the police force would be given a high priority. Yet till now, six decades after the British left, there is zero – repeat zero – training given to police constables or indeed any member of the police force below the level of assistant superintendent, usually the junior most position formerly held by a British officer. Then, as now, those further down the chain were not trained except in the most rudimentary way. After all, it does not take a high IQ to learn how to wield a stick or bark out warnings to the public. Small wonder that the quality of the police force is, to put it charitably, uneven.

It is a tribute to the civilizational values of the Indian people that despite this weakness in its administrative architecture, public order is relatively high, especially when compared to their neighbors. Even in the UK or in the United States it will be seen that crimes involving Indian-Americans are much less frequent in number than those involving those from countries that have sought to shed the heritage of India and embrace Wahabbism and its attitudes, such as Pakistan and increasingly Bangladesh. For example, even though Mumbai was swamped by torrents of rain at about the same time that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, there was none of the law and order breakdown in Mumbai that was witnessed in New Orleans. Indeed, crime statistics actually fell during those weeks of flooding, perhaps because criminals too decided to stay at home during that period rather than pursue their vocation.

As during the period of the British Raj, the district superintendent of police (DSP) is the key officer in each district. Although DSPs are usually seconded to the state administration from the centrally recruited Indian Police Service (IPS), the power of transfer is wielded by the chief minister and the home minister to ensure the DSP’s subservience to their dictates. It may seem fantastical but the reality is that the average tenure (within a district) of the superintendent of police in India is about six months. There are cases of police officers (usually those unfortunate enough to be honest) that have been transferred as much as 11 times in one year, thereby playing havoc with the education of their children and the stability of family life.

Unless one is born with an Einsteinian intellect, it will take about six months for the district police chief to understand the local law and order situation as well as the capabilities of his or her personnel. After that, a minimum tenure of three years is needed to ensure that such knowledge as well as one’s efficiency and motivation is reflected in performance. Sadly, those given such long tenures within a district are almost always officers who are ultra-obliging of the whims of their political masters. Clearly, at least in matters of police administration, things change very slowly in India, if at all.

The registration of false cases against political and personal opponents and the immunity given to friends of the powerful is endemic in India. The only saving grace is that the disease of maladministration in most parts of India is (as yet) nowhere near the levels reached in Pakistan and Bangladesh, two countries where Wahabbism has found secure nests and from where the Wahabbis seek to infuse their poison into India’s 157 million Muslims.

While it is true that few police officers live on their salaries especially at the lower levels, what must be kept in mind is that India is not the only major democracy where greed has become endemic. Indeed the recent meltdown in some American and European financial institutions underscores the bias of “independent” agencies such as Transparency International that regularly, and usually justifiably, knock Third World countries for the prevalence of graft. In contrast, not one of these watchdogs could sniff out even a faint scent of the huge frauds that were festering in financial markets in the very countries in which they are located, frauds that have placed the international economy at grave risk of another Great Depression.

Yes, it is true that a significant number of police personnel in India accept remuneration in excess of their salary and allowances. In other words, they accept bribes. When the House Rent Allowance of even the head of a police station (the station house officer) is $45 a month in the city of Mumbai (one of the most expensive in the world), it is difficult not to have mixed feelings for those who join the force and are cast out to forage for themselves within the metropolis without the financial means to have a survivable lifestyle. Unless the Indian state can provide accommodation and a viable lifestyle to the families of its police forces, to expect them to be saints may be unrealistic. Sadly, unlike in the days of the British when the police were very well cared for, in free India the standard of living of the (honest) police constable has been reduced to but a tad above that of a street beggar. He has no training, no housing and certainly not a living wage.

The wonder is that despite such neglect by those in authority, the police in India work an average of 16 hours per day and manage to keep the country within the ranks of the more stable in the world. Again, a huge part of the credit goes to the culture of India that ensures that the inhabitants of a millionaire’s mansion can exist peaceably next to a teeming slum, with not even a single guard for protection. This can be compared to, for example, South Africa or Russia where the rich are forced to barricade themselves inside of fortresses to ensure their survival.

When we come to weaponry and equipment, Mumbai 26-28/11 demonstrated on live television the police force’s lack of firepower. For ten crucial hours they faced trained terrorist commandos while armed only with sticks or, at best, World War II vintage rifles. Except for the third of the police force that is now used almost entirely for the security of the country’s political and official elite, the rest are pitifully armed. Also, such a high proportion of the total force set aside for “bandobust” (the ritual assembly of police officers along different points of a VVIP’s route and at the VVIP’s meeting places) is unreasonably high given that the total number of the worthies benefiting by such manpower-wasteful British Raj-style methods of protection is less than 2,000 in a country of 1.16 billion people.

Two weeks ago, when Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi filed her nomination papers in the Rae Raebareli constituency (the political bastion of the Nehru-Gandhi family) in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s television audience was witness to the sycophancy of senior administrators towards their political bosses, a level that must surpass even the high levels of subservience recorded during the period of the Raj.

The director-general (DG) of the Special Protection Group or SPG (the elite force set up to safeguard VVIPs) was seen on television running alongside the car ferrying Sonia Gandhi to the town’s election center. What was the DG (SPG) doing at the time? Was he monitoring the situation and assessing threats? Or keeping in touch with his personnel from across the country tasked as they are with the protection of numerous worthies including the prime minister? Not exactly. He was brushing away rose petals from the vehicle’s hood! A crucial national security task indeed and certainly one deserving of the DG (SPG)’s undivided attention. It speaks well for the 58-year-old’s level of fitness that one of the most senior police officers in the country was able to keep pace with Sonia’s vehicle, albeit with a slight bout of panting towards the end.

Were such obsequious behaviors towards those in power be atypical they would not be a cause for worry. But they are becoming the norm. At least four major commissions have given suggestions for police reform – principally rescuing the force from the death-grip of the politicians – but they have been ignored. The police continue to act as the personal militias of the powerful rather than the guarantors of law and order for the ordinary citizen.

Unless the police in India are given the manpower, the remuneration and the equipment and training needed to evolve into a modern and professional force they are at risk of being ineffective against not just the criminals but against a foe even deadlier – the terrorist.