Defenders of the Establishment: Ruler-Supportive Police Forces of South Asia
by K.S. Dhillon
Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 199_
pp 290, INR 300
ISBN 81 85952 52 3
A new book tries to find out why India’s police force has historically had an image problem.
Of the three agencies which constitute the criminal justice system, the police is perhaps the most controversial, criticised for not living up to expectations. This is not surprising because it is to the police that a citizen in distress turns to first to seek redressal. The court comes later. It is therefore encouraging that those in the business of enforcing law and order are willing to introspect and put their perceptions down on paper in fairly readable language.
K.S. Million, retired from the Indian Police Service (IPS), traces the history of the Indian Police, especially under British rule, though the title of this well-written book is somewhat deceptive. It conceals the fact that there is little in the hook—an epilogue to be precise—that speaks of the current state of policing. Also, the author confines himself to India. whereas the subtitle Ruler-Supportive Police Forces of South Asia misleads you into believing that a larger geographical area has been covered.
Even within police ranks there is an awareness that they are part of a system that promotes crass partisanship. Policemen also understand that they operate in an atmosphere that encourages and rewards conformity, as promptly as it frowns on dissent, and insists on playing by the hook. Let me hasten to set the record straight. The situation exists because of those who took charge of the police after Independence. l would go with Dhillon when he says that the ills of the Indian Police are an inheritance of our British past. It is an entirely different matter, however, when it comes to the issue of why there has been no major initiative in free India to pull the police out of the quagmire it had got into under an alien master. Dhilion’s assessment of the scene is in tune with the popular belief that the clinically objective reports of the National Police Commission (1977) the only national-level reform body set up since Independence to survey the world of policing—deserves a more intense scrutiny than it has been subjected to until now.
Dhillon begins with the Vedic period, A semblance of policing did exist then, as revealed by allusions in the literature of the time of functionaries such as nagaradhyaksha (city prefect) and durgapal (warden of the fort). later, under the Mauryas, the police acquired a more formal identity Kautilya’s Arthasastra is replete with references to officials of the state, including an urban officer called nagarika, later known as kotwal under the Mughals and the British. Rural policing was in the hands of zamindars, an arrangement that continued well into the days of the Raj. Unfortunately, after the Mauryan Age and right up to the Medieval Age, there is precious little information available on the state of policing.
We, however, know of a muhtasib under the Delhi Sultans who, according to Sir Percival Griffiths (To Guard My People: History of the Indian Police, 1971), was “an Inspector-General of Police, Chief Engineer of Public Works, as well as an Inspector of Morals, all rolled into one”. He depended heavily on the kotwal for the discharge of his police duties. No doubt the kotwal became very powerful and corrupt during the course of the Mughal rule.
The East India Company, and later, the British Crown, continued with the kotwal system. Appalled by the cruelty and dishonest practices of the lower level functionaries, especially in the villages, the Britishers unsuccessfully tried several experiments but ultimately chose to persevere with the age-old village-based policing and contented themselves with cosmetic changes. One significant reform was the introduction of the Royal Irish Constabulary model in Sindh in 1843. The 1861 Police Act saw the introduction of an analogous system in other British territories of the Subcontinent. Dhillon rightly questions why, instead of bringing in the London Metropolitan Police model, the Britishers sought to impose one that prevailed in another of its colonies. Obviously, they wanted a system that was suited to subjugating a population, rather than one which would promote better relations between the ruler and the ruled (see box).
The 1861 Police Act, an offspring of the 1860 Police Commission that drew up lines on what kind of police reforms were to take place under British India has been the subject of animated debate and has invited sharp criticism in police forums which demand a revamped Act for sharpening police performance. The Act’s main shortcoming is the rigid rank structure it creates within the police, a feature that militates against modern concepts of management. Another aberration is the kind of supervisory authority the government has over police work. The National Police Commission in its second report (August 1979) was extremely caustic when it said that the Act was “specifically designed to make the police totally subordinate to the executive government in the discharge of its duties. No reference was made at all to the role of the police as a servant of the law as such”. Significantly, Section 23(v) of the Act says that the police are required to “obey and execute all orders and warrants lawfully issued to them by any competent authority”. A draft Police Act framed by the Police Commission, which would make the police more accountable to law than to the executive, is yet to find favour with the governments both at the centre and in the states.
Dhillon is not overly confident of the ability and the willingness of the executive, and of policemen themselves, to usher in radical reforms which alone can make the system more professional and people-friendly. His views can be easily dismissed as the voice of a superannuated policeman who probably did not get all the fruits of office. There is grave danger in making such perfunctory and abrasive judgements. He is a scholar who has laboured to assemble cogently all the material otherwise consigned to the archives.
A nation that ignores history is liable to commit avoidable mistakes. But then, are only governments to blame? Not at all. A major portion of the blame for current ills probably lies at the door of police leadership, especially of the IPS variety A well-paid corps with enormous privileges and assured career opportunities, the IPS owes it to the community to be more sensitive and law abiding. The pressure of popular opinion will have to be applied relentlessly on them for things to happen. Taking recourse to the alibi of an antiquated Police Act will not hoodwink the common people for ever.
…the Indian Police was never meant to be a citizen-friendly agency. At no time in history was it expressly required to fulfil any role other than defending and safeguarding the ruling establishment. Its design, structure, attitudes, values, functional modes and legal backdrop were all geared to serve the government in power and maintain status quo in society. If in the process the mass of the people come to grief, so be it. The British Indian authorities merely gave it a modern shape, formalising its age-old objectives without, in the least, changing its basic character and direction. Every fresh set of reforms and changes in law and procedure created a new chasm between them and their countrymen.
An instrument of oppression is likely to lose its edge, if it is allowed to come too close or become too friendly with its possible victims. The colonial character of the police in India continued to take on more glaring contours with every fresh outburst of nationalist upsurge and agitational activity. Strangely, the requirements of economy too did not slacken and continued to block real progress and efficiency. Retrenchments effected periodically in the civilian police reduced their effective strength still further and inadequacy in numbers was sought to be made up by more brutal methods, concoction of evidence, padding, burking of crime and other undesirable practices.
Armed reserves, however, were strengthened and located and re-located at centres considered vulnerable and strategic. Emphasis on creation of armed police battalions trained on semi-military lines gained more acceptance as conditions of social stability became subject to frequent civil unrest and agitations—a trend which would survive and become even more marked after Independence of the Subcontinent in 1947, in all the three successor countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
From Defenders of the Establishment.