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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 16, April 10, 2010

Why is the Union Home Minister Silent on Police Reforms and Human Rights?

Saturday 10 April 2010, by K S Subramanium

The Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, made two notable presentations recently. In one, delivered to top police officials, he dwelt at length on the Maoist threat to the country. In the other, delivered to top intelligence officials, the Minister went into the new national security architecture he proposes to set up. However, he had nothing to say on the vexed issue of enforcing police reforms and protecting human rights.

Important official reports in this regard are the 2006 Soli Sorabji Committee report on the revision of the Police Act 1861; the 2006 directions of the Supreme Court of India to implement seven major reforms suggested by the National Police Commission, 1979-81; and the 2007 Veerappa Moily Commission report on “Public Order”, which suggests structural reform and decentralisation among other steps.

Another important but non-official report relating to police reforms and human rights protection was the Human Rights Watch report of 2009 titled, “Broken System, Dysfunction, Abuse and Impunity in the Indian Police”. This report said that removing political interference from police work should be accompanied by measures to make the police accountable to the community.

The Minister took note of the pockets of Maoist influence existing in 20 States across the country and said that over 2000 police stations in 223 districts were affected. He provided details of the violent incidents perpetrated by the CPI (Maoist) and added that the Ministry’s budget had gone up from Rs 23,000 crores in 2008-9 to Rs 36,841 crores in 2009-10, a big jump indeed. But he did not reveal how much of this money would go to police reforms and for human rights protection. The Minister failed to mention the recent report of the Planning Commission on “Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas” circulated to all Ministries and departments in the Central and State governments, which implied that the Maoist activities, far from being the biggest internal security threat to India, was indeed a major development challenge that needed to be met with a multi-pronged approach, which respected human rights!

The Minister also outlined his ambitious new national security architecture which includes a “Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System (CCTNS)” to facilitate collection, storage, retrieval, analysis, transfer and sharing of data; “Community Policing” at the police station level to enable citizens to provide information or lodge complaints; more police stations and more constables, with special emphasis on intelligence collection; special Anti-Terrorist Units at the State level to prevent and detect terrorist crimes; ‘multi-agency centres’ at the State and Central levels to coordinate intelligence collection and analysis; a NATGRID to coordinate and network and coordinate 21 databases across the country; central projects for business process re-engineering of the Foreigners Division of the Ministry and a mission mode project on immi-gration, visa and foreigners’ registration and tracking and so on.

Further, a National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) would be set up representing all intelli-gence agencies, to perform functions relating to intelligence, investigation and operations on terrorism. The Union Home Ministry would be streamlined to deal exclusively with internal security.

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Previously, the Union Home Ministry, with a substantial budget, was the nodal agency for the development and protection of human rights of the Dalits and adivasis, the most exploited sections of Indian society. This special obligation arises from the basic provisions of the Consti-tution and cannot by any means be bypassed. The Ministry controls the entire police forces across the country and can be a powerful agency in delivering social justice if the government wants. This task cannot be discharged effectively by any other Ministry. The Minister’s attempt to streamline the Ministry’s work is contrary to the requirements of the Constitution. No other Ministry can discharge this function effectively.

In the area of criminal law reform, it is not sufficient only to recast the Police Act 1861. Other major Acts such as the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) also need reform to improve their human rights sensitivity. These Acts, along with the Evidence Act, were meant to provide a legal framework to maintain British rule by force. While the IPC prioritises the offences against the state and the maintenance of public order, the CrPC begins with the ‘arrest of persons’ and ‘maintenance of public order and tranquillity’ before dealing with criminal procedure in investigation and trial of cases. The Police Act prioritises collection and communication of intelligence. Strangely, there has been no reference to these aspects in current discussions on human rights in South Asia.

The limitations of the Indian police structure at the ground level including its propensity to serious human rights violations, torture and extra-judicial executions together with its impunity guaranteed under section 197 of the CrPC are well brought out in the 2009 Human Rights Watch report mentioned above. The report makes a field-work based evaluation of the Indian police (described as a ‘dangerous anachronism’) and puts forward comprehensive recommendations for the reform of a structure which has remained unchanged from 1859 to 2009.

The Union Home Minister must read this report carefully and initiate corrective steps if he is to be successful in mobilising the police forces for counter-terrorist action.

The author, a former member of the Indian Police Service, is the author of Political Violence and the Police in India (Sage, 2007).

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