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Police Accountability in India: Policing Contaminated by Politics

G. P. Joshi

(Ed. note: The author is the programme coordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative [CHRI] in New Delhi for issues relating to the police and prisons.)


Members of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) scuffle with police in Delhi during a demonstration against the ruling Congress Party in September 2005.   The police are given the duty to protect people's rights, but often they are used to suppress dissent. (Photo: EPA)

Under the Constitution of India, the police are the responsibility of state governments with the organisation and operations of police forces governed by rules and regulations framed by state governments.

Thus, each state or union territory, which is under the control of the central government, has its own separate police force. In addition, there are also central police organisations established by the national government for specialised work. The combined strength of the state and central police in India in 2003 was more than two million personnel with 1.47 million belonging to the state or union territory police forces and the remainder forming the country's five central paramilitary organisations.

This huge reservoir of trained manpower can become a very important catalyst of positive change in society if they serve the rule of law and are held accountable for their sins of commission and omission, if any. Holding them accountable is closely linked to the type of control and superintendence exercised over them.

The Police System-A Colonial Legacy

The police, as an organised institution in the country, came into existence with the Police Act of 1861. This legislation was passed in the wake of the Indian Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 when Indian soldiers in the colonial army revolted against their British commanders, a mutiny that later developed into a rebellion against British rule in India. Though the revolt was quelled speedily and successfully, it did jolt the British into taking steps to consolidate their rule in India, including the establishment of an authoritarian police force to support the colonial government.

The British realised that to perpetuate their rule in India they must have a police force that was totally subservient to the executive. Section 3 of the 1861 Police Act vested the superintendence of the state police forces in the state governments. The same law introduced a system of dual control at the district level. It put police forces under the command of the district superintendents of police but subject to the "general control and direction" of district magistrates. This was done deliberately, for the functioning of the district magistrate as the chief officer of the district was considered essential for the maintenance of British rule in India. Under the system of police governance established by the 1861 act, the police forces in India were unaccountable to anyone except their own hierarchy and the colonial political and administrative executive. Making the police accountable to the community or other democratic or local indigenous institutions did not fit into the British colonial model of control.

The British structured the organisation in such a way that the senior positions in the force would be occupied by them and the junior ranks would be kept for "natives." Section 7 of the Police Act of 1861 uses the words inferior officers for those occupying the lower ranks in the police. Even when the senior posts were Indianised, in due course, the elitist bias was not forsaken. One's family background always weighed heavily in picking candidates for senior vacancies. They realised that a system based on the feudal values prevalent in Indian society would work effectively in ensuring that the rank and file, which constituted the bulk of the force, remained loyal, subservient and accountable to their seniors within the police and government.

This system gave rise to a managerial philosophy that was based on distrust of the lower ranks in the police. This distrust is reflected in the provisions of the law also. For example, under Section 162 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), the statement of a witness recorded by the police during an investigation is not to be signed by the person making the statement, and it cannot be used during the trial for any purpose other than to contradict the witness if they differ from it. Similarly, Section 25 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872 states that confessions recorded by a police officer shall not be admissible as evidence.

Meanwhile, the police were raised on a militaristic and authoritarian pattern. There was tremendous emphasis on the maintenance of a type of discipline, bordering on regimentation, that required the lower ranks to blindly obey orders. The system did not require the constabulary to think while performing their duties. Recruitment to the constabulary stressed brawn and not brains-the taller and heftier the recruit the better. During training, their physical fitness and endurance must improve. Thus, police training programmes were biased heavily in favour of outdoor activities, like drills. Education was not required, but they must have an intimidating presence that should deter, not only criminals, but also ordinary citizens. In their presence, no one should raise questions or demand answers.

All the above factors combined to produce a system that situated the bulk of the police force at a distance from the community. Understandably, the 1861 act failed to produce an efficient, professional and accountable police force in the country. This fact was realised by the colonial rulers themselves. For example, the Indian Police Commission appointed in July 1902 under the chairmanship of Sir A. H. L. Fraser concluded:

"The police force is far from efficient; it is defective in training and organisation; it is inadequately supervised; it is generally regarded as corrupt and oppressive; and it has utterly failed to secure the confidence and cordial cooperation of the people."

The commission made many recommendations but either failed to recognise or conveniently ignored the fact that most of the ills afflicting the organisation could be ascribed to the system established by the Police Act of 1861 and the philosophy of policing that was prescribed. The commission, despite themselves unearthing massive evidence to the contrary, concluded that the system introduced in 1861 was, on the whole, a wise and efficient system.


Political activists are not the only targets of police violence in India.  These workers were beaten by the police in July 2005 after seeking to have their sacked colleagues reinstated at the Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India Ltd. near New Delhi. (Photo: EPA)

Post-independence Developments

The advent of independence changed the political system, but the police system remained more or less unaltered. The Police Act of 1861 continued to govern it. Its managerial philosophy, value system and ethos remained what they were. The powers granted to politicians and bureaucrats to exercise control and superintendence over the police remained the same. They were a ruler- or establishment-supportive police force, considerably distant from the community, and they continued to remain so. Although India has been independent for 58 years, no government at either the central or state level has taken the initiative to replace the Police Act of 1861 with new legislation that would be in tune with the requirements of democratic policing.

It is not as if no new legislation has been passed. Some state governments have enacted new legislation since independence to govern the functioning of their police forces. For instance, the police forces in the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat are governed by the Bombay Police Act of 1951, in Kerala by the Kerala Police Act of 1960, in Karnataka by the Karnataka Police Act of 1963 and in Delhi by the Delhi Police Act of 1978. Some state governments have also framed separate legislation to regulate the working of their state-armed police forces. The enactment of these post-independence laws has not brought about any significant improvement in the organisational structure, performance or behaviour of the police forces, however-the reason: the new laws were patterned on the model of the old 1861 legislation. They are as silent and remiss about the requirements of democratic policing as the colonial legislation. In fact, some state acts, like the Bombay Police Act of 1951, further tightened executive control over the police force without introducing any safeguards to prevent the misuse of the police for partisan purposes and without incorporating effective mechanisms to ensure police accountability. The result was clearly evident during the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002.

The Police during the Emergency

For several decades after independence, these deficiencies did not matter much as the standards of leadership, in both politics as well as the police, were quite high. Gradually, however, the standards began declining with politics becoming increasingly contentious and criminalised, leading to a perceptible decline in the quality of control exercised over the police and increasing misuse of the police by people in positions of power for partisan interests. Almost all of the state police commissions, the National Police Commission (NPC) and other expert bodies that inquired into the problems of the police in India found overwhelming evidence of misuse of the police by politicians for narrow selfish ends. This phenomenon was particularly evident during the Emergency from 1975 to 1977 when the police committed atrocities on a wide scale. The brazen manner in which the police were misused during this period prompted the government that came to power at the national level after the Emergency to appoint the Shah Commission of Inquiry. This commission unearthed considerable evidence to prove that during the Emergency some police officers behaved as though they were not accountable to any public authority. In its report, the Shah Commission told the government: "Employing the police to the advantage of any political party is a sure source of subverting the rule of law," and it asked the central government to take measures to insulate the police from illegitimate political and executive interference.

National Police Commission

In response, the government of India appointed the NPC that was asked to make a comprehensive review of the police system, taking into account the far-reaching changes that had taken place in the country after the enactment of the Indian Police Act of 1861, the report of the last police commission of 1902 and particularly those changes which had taken place since independence. The NPC had fairly wide and comprehensive terms of reference, including a fresh examination of the role and performance of the police, both as a law enforcement agency and an institution, to protect the rights of citizens enshrined in the Constitution. One of its most important terms of reference required it to recommend measures and institutional arrangements to prevent the misuse of powers by the police and the misuse of the police by politicians or other pressure groups.

During the period between 1979 and 1981, the NPC produced eight reports. Some major recommendations that sought to insulate the police from illegitimate political and bureaucratic interference included (1) establishing a security commission in each state to see that the government exercises its superintendence over the police in an open manner within the framework of the law, (2) prescribing a selection procedure that would ensure the appointment of the best officers to head the state police force, (3) giving these officers a fixed minimum tenure to reduce their vulnerability, (4) amending rules so that the arbitrary transfer of police officers that were done without the proper authority would become null and void and (5) replacing the Police Act of 1861 with a new law.

None of the above recommendations of the NPC has been implemented, however. These recommendations perturbed the entrenched elite at the prospect of losing control over an institution that they had been misusing for so long. Politicians and bureaucrats had developed a great vested interest in retaining control and superintendence over the police and thus wanted the status quo to continue.

The Criminalisation of Politics

The situation, in fact, has become worse since the NPC made its recommendations. Over the last few decades, there has been a large influx of criminals into the Indian polity. The Election Commission of India estimated in the late 1990s that 40 members of Parliament and 700 members of state legislative assemblies had criminal records.

As the nexus between criminals and politicians becomes stronger, it is able to subvert the loyalty of functionaries at different levels in the government, including the police. The criminalisation of politics has gradually led to undermining the authority of the police leadership and consequently the discipline of the force. The police are a hierarchical organisation, and thus, if the effectiveness of the leadership is undermined, the entire force becomes vulnerable to wrong influences with functionaries at different levels looking elsewhere for protection and rewards. In addition to breeding indiscipline in the force, it promotes a climate in which impunity flourishes, and it ultimately shakes the public's confidence in the police.

Failure of the Criminal Justice System

The public is unhappy, not only with the police, but also with the functioning of other agencies of the criminal justice system. The system has not been able to control crime that has increased significantly during the last few decades. The total cognizable crimes registered under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), for example, increased from 6.25 lakhs in 1951 to 55 lakhs in 2003, including 37.8 lakhs registered under local and special laws (one lakh equals 100,000).

When there is an upsurge in criminal activities or a particularly heinous crime is committed, the public tends to blame the police. This attitude is reinforced by the manner in which the police reacts to public criticism. They either quote crime statistics, which are not very impressive, or point out inadequacies of manpower and equipment.

Crime statistics, in any case, are not very reliable. A common complaint against the police is that they do not fully register crime. Concealment or suppression of crime is quite common. One major reason for this deliberate omission is that the police's performance is evaluated on the basis of crime statistics. As a result, according to the NPC, the police adopt questionable methods of recording and controlling crime and even resort to illegal acts. The NPC therefore suggested that the correct registration of crime should be adopted as one of the yardsticks to evaluate police performance. However, whenever this improvement takes place, it leads to a tremendous increase in crime figures, resulting in an outcry in the press and legislature and thus causing considerable embarrassment to the government. Consequently, the police once again revert to the old evil of concealing crime by not registering it. This practice results in the denial of access to justice to a large number of people, particularly those belonging to the poor and marginalised sections of society.

More than an increase in crime, it is the failure of the system to deal promptly, justly and effectively with those who commit it that has been responsible for the loss of faith and confidence of the public in the effectiveness of the system. When a large number of people are allowed to escape after committing crimes and justice is not provided to the victims or when cases drag on in the courts for an innumerable number of years, it results in an erosion of faith and public confidence in the effectiveness of the legal system. For example, there has been a steep decline in the conviction rate. In 1971, the conviction rate of IPC offences was 62 percent; in 2003, it had declined to about 40 percent. Moreover, justice is being delayed as well as denied. The courts are clogged with a huge backlog of cases. According to the 61st report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, 25 million cases were pending trial in different courts in the country.

Citizens expect the State to establish the rule of law and provide them freedom from crime and violence. The State's failure to do so gives rise to a fear of crime and criminals among the people. Fear of crime feeds on itself and always grows at a faster rate than crime itself. It is the public fear of crime that can provide a license to the police to ignore the law and deal with crime and criminals by using violent and illegal methods. Blinding criminals, as was done by the Bhagalpur police in the state of Bihar in the early 1980s, is one example of such license. This has been followed by other incidents. Police violence is bound to increase whenever the fear of crime whips up the rhetoric of war against crime, criminals and insurgents. What the public wants is a feeling of security, and they are not always willing to question the methods used by the police in achieving success in the fight against crime and criminals.

Seven-year-old Aasiya is examined by a forensic medical technician after being shot by the police near Srinagar in Kashmir.  The police opened fire without any provocation.  Regardless of the reason, Aasiya is dead, and her family is grieving.

Insurgencies and Other Violence

It becomes all the more difficult to hold police personnel accountable for their misdeeds committed in areas affected by insurgencies and other forms of violence. A number of states, like Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, have witnessed considerable violence in the last few decades. In such areas, the rule of fear reigned supreme, and people did not come forward to give any support or cooperation to the security forces. The functioning of the courts was also badly affected, and cases against insurgents, if brought before the courts by the police, were not settled. The government in these situations invariably used the opportunity provided by the accelerating fear of crime and violence to arm itself with repressive powers. It introduced "black laws" that enhanced the powers of the police and curtailed citizens' rights. The police were virtually given a free hand and frequently committed violations of human rights, resulting in complaints of arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, the excessive use of force, disappearances, custodial violence and extrajudicial executions. The government generally overlooked these complaints against security personnel on the grounds that remedial action in such cases would demoralise the police and would weaken their resolve to crush insurgencies and other types of violence with a heavy hand. For example, in Punjab, gross violations of human rights during the peak periods of violence were overlooked by the State and to some extent even by the public.


Where the police are needed by the government to deal with serious law and order problems of political significance, such as insurgencies, police excesses usually receive implicit, or even explicit, approval, of the State, if not encouragement and support. In some cases, the assurance of impunity is granted in advance, such as the address given by Kalyan Singh, the then-chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, in April 1998. The chief minister, while addressing the state police officers at a law and order review meeting in the state capital, said, "I want performance results. I want you to take a vow that you will create a dhamaka (explosion) in the state. If noted criminals can be liquidated in encounters, do it. If you take the life of one person who has taken the lives of 10 others, then people will praise you. And I am here to protect you."

This concern for the maintenance of law and order, however, does not inspire much confidence in the public because the credentials of the political leaders expressing this concern are themselves questionable. As an editorial in the Indian Express noted in connection with a similar call to the police in the same state by a different chief minister, "As it is, many of his ministerial colleagues, cutting across political affiliations, have a criminal background. Surely their presence in positions of power can only encourage criminals. . . . The right place for criminals is neither jungles nor the assembly but behind bars."

When the assurance of impunity comes from the highest quarters in the government, police officers become emboldened to misuse their powers or to remain silent spectators to incidents involving major violations of the law. They know that they will not be asked to account for their misdeeds or dereliction of duty. This negligence was particularly noticeable during the communal violence in Gujarat that occurred between February and April 2002. The police were not able to control the riots that continued for more than three months and that caused a tremendous loss of life and property of the members of the minority Muslim community. There is considerable evidence to show that the police were complicit in many cases and did not come to the rescue of the victims. Moreover, there are reports that the state government was biased against the minority Muslim community and did not want the police to quell the riots effectively.

If impunity rather than accountability governs the police and other security forces in India, such as this Border Security Force (BSF) soldier, they then become a threat to society and people's rights. (Photo: EPA)

There is also a danger of the public ignoring the use of illegal methods by the police, particularly in areas where insurgents or criminals belong to minority communities and their crimes of violence are targeted against members of the majority community. The public in such cases may not take serious notice of the violence of police personnel against people suspected to be insurgents or their supporters.

There is a provision in the law that enables the government to provide impunity even for proven misdeeds. This provision is contained in Section 197 of the CrPC of 1973 under which a public servant cannot be prosecuted without the sanction of the appropriate authorities for acts done "while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of his official duties." The purpose of this provision is to ensure that frivolous and vexatious complaints are not filed against police officers to demoralise them and dissuade them from performing their duties. However, this provision of the law has been abused to provide protection to police officers even in serious cases of misconduct. This occurs because of the nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and police officers that deliberately delays or denies sanctions for prosecutions. The NPC's recommendation that protection available to police officers under Section 197 of the CrPC be withdrawn has not been accepted by the government.


Double Standards

The police feel that the government as well as the public sometimes adopt double standards in dealing with them. When the problem of terrorism is at its peak, they are given a free hand to deal with it the way they think fit; but once normalcy and peace return, their methods are questioned. This happened especially in Punjab where violations of human rights committed by the police while dealing with the problem of terrorism were ignored, if not condoned, by the government. Once the state was rid of the problem of terrorism, however, the civil society groups became active and started demanding that police personnel be held accountable for all the wrongs they did during the earlier days, and the government launched prosecutions against a large number of police officers.

The Police's Deviance

There is ample evidence of increasing illegal behaviour by the police in India. Incidents of brutality, extortion and other crimes committed by police officers in different parts of the country have been reported in Indian newspapers. In addition, the National Human Rights Commission's (NHRC) data shows that the number of complaints relating to deaths in police custody reported to them increased from 136 in 1995-1996 to 183 in 2002-2003. During the same period, illegal detentions increased from 112 to 3,595 and other police excesses from 115 to 9,622. Indeed, the majority of complaints received by the NHRC are against police personnel. Even official statistics indicate that the number of public complaints against the police received by police departments is very high. The report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that in 2003 as many as 55,115 complaints against the police were received from the public.

Most public complaints against police personnel fall into the following four categories:

brutality or the excessive use of force


partiality or bias

failure to register complaints

Accountability Mechanisms

The existing mechanisms for holding the police accountable can be discussed broadly under the two main headings of internal and external accountability mechanisms.

Internal Accountability Mechanisms

The internal mechanisms for holding individual police officers accountable for their actions are contained in the Police Act of 1861, the state governments' police acts and in rules laid down in state police manuals. The Police Act of 1861 authorises senior police officers of the rank of superintendent of police and above to dismiss, suspend or reduce in rank any police officer below the rank of inspector of police who they think is remiss or negligent in the discharge of his duties or is unfit. They are also authorised to impose one or more of the other punishments: a fine not exceeding one month's pay, confinement to quarters not exceeding 15 days, deprivation of good conduct pay and removal from any office of distinction or special emolument.

In addition, the Police Act of 1861 lists the following offences for which a police officer can be disciplined: a wilful breach or neglect of any rule or regulation or lawful order, withdrawal from duties of the office or being absent without permission or reasonable cause, engaging without authority in any employment other than their police duty, cowardice and causing any unwarrantable violence to any person in their custody. The penalty for these offences ranges between a fine of up to three months' pay to imprisonment up to three months or a combination of both.

The rules divide punishments into major and minor. Though the rules differ from state to state, generally, dismissal, removal, a reduction in rank or pay and forfeiture of service are regarded as major punishments. They cannot be imposed on any police officer without conducting a regular departmental inquiry. It is only after the inquiry proves the charges against the accused police officer that a major penalty can be imposed. Minor punishments include censure and reprimand and can be imposed without conducting any departmental disciplinary proceedings.

Giving major punishments to guilty police personnel though is difficult and takes time because the procedure of conducting a departmental inquiry is highly elaborate, cumbersome and time-consuming. Even if the charges are proved, the delinquent police officer can, and generally does, go to court to try and overturn the findings and the punishment imposed.

Unfortunately, the authority of police leadership in India has been eroded over time by political interference, leading to a loss of discipline in the force and the promotion of a tendency at different levels within the police to seek outside patronage for rewards and protection against punishment. This development is one of the major reasons for decline in the effectiveness of departmental mechanisms to ensure police accountability.

It is imperative that any arrangement for inquiries into complaints against the police be perceived to be fair and just, both to the police and the public. This criterion, in fact, was recognised by the NPC. In their first report, the commission suggested arrangements whereby inquiries would be conducted by departmental authorities and also by an independent authority outside of the police. The commission felt that a large number of complaints against the police should be investigated and disposed of by the supervisory ranks in the police hierarchy, but a judicial inquiry should be made mandatory in the following categories of complaints against the police:

an alleged rape of a woman in police custody

death or grievous harm caused while in police custody and

the death of two or more people caused by police firing their weapons in the dispersal of unlawful assemblies

However, the government has not accepted these recommendations, and the response of the government to them has never been made public.

At any rate, the departmental mechanisms for dealing with police misconduct do not always inspire public confidence. There are allegations that police departments sometimes suppress incidents of misconduct by individual police officers because the revelation of the facts could damage the image of the police force. Moreover, the inquiries of the police into citizens' complaints against them are not credible. There is general public distrust emanating from the fact that the police themselves conduct the inquiries. In 2001, the prime minister's office reprimanded the Delhi police for shoddily treating public complaints against police officers referred to it by that office. According to the prime minister's office, "The field reports prepared at the district level are generally evasive, there is a lack of sensitivity, the lapses of police are concealed and emphasis is mainly on statistical disposal."

External Accountability Mechanisms

Judiciary: The courts constitute one of the most important external mechanisms of ensuring police accountability. While writ petitions and public interest litigation can be filed in higher courts, criminal prosecutions can be launched in lower courts. A number of significant judgments have been rendered by the higher courts prescribing safeguards or guidelines to regulate police conduct during arrest, interrogation and other stages of investigation, asking the government to pay compensation in cases of custodial violence, commenting adversely on the police for discrimination in the handling of communal and caste conflicts and passing strictures in many cases where a defective or inadequate police investigation was noticed. On Dec. 18, 1997, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgement aimed at insulating the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Directorate of Enforcement from outside influences so that they could function efficiently and impartially to serve the rule of law. The judgment also declared null and void the Single Directive, which required the CBI to seek permission from the government before undertaking any inquiry or investigation against senior civil servants of the rank of joint secretary and above. However, the government has succeeded in diluting the effect of this judgement by passing a law that has put the Single Directive on the statute books.

One major problem is the absence of any mechanism to constantly monitor the implementation of the courts' judgements and take the defaulting government or other parties back to the courts. Citizens can, of course, file private complaints to the courts to seek redress. However, this action is rarely taken. This inaction is partly because of ignorance and partly because accessing the courts is time-consuming and costly.

Human Rights Commissions: The human rights commissions established under the Protection of Human Rights Act of 1993 provide another means of holding the police accountable in cases of misconduct. The most important of these commissions is the NHRC, which was established on Oct. 12, 1993.

The NHRC undoubtedly has some achievements to its credit in terms of its efforts to make the police accountable for their actions. However, the commission's work has suffered due to certain infirmities and deficiencies in the law governing its operations.

The commission, for example, is supposed to be completely independent, but there are certain provisions in the law, which underscore the dependence of the commission on the government for some of its requirements, such as manpower and finances.

More importantly, the law does not authorise the commission to inquire into complaints of human rights violations committed by members of the armed forces. "Armed forces," as defined in the Protection of Human Rights Act, mean not only the army, navy and air force but also some central armed police organisations, like the Border Security Force (BSF). The law obviously weakens the NHRC's effectiveness in providing redress to the public in cases where violations have been committed by members of these forces, which are often deployed on law and order duty in disturbed areas. All that the commission can do in these cases under the Protection of Human Rights Act is to call for reports from the central government and make recommendations to the government. There have even been cases where the central government has denied the NHRC the records it sought.

Furthermore, under the Protection of Human Rights Act, the commission has no power to enforce its decisions. According to this law, where the inquiry conducted by the commission discloses a violation of human rights, it can only advise the government to take action against the guilty persons or grant relief to the victim. If any state government refuses to accept its advice, there is no provision in the law which empowers the commission to force the government to implement its recommendations, although it can, of course, approach the higher courts and seek directions.

In many respects, the human rights commissions have acted as a check. The problem though is that an institution like the NHRC in a country of India's size becomes too remote from the scene to be effective in many cases. A large number of police atrocities are committed in small towns and villages of India where people are not aware of the commission's existence or its procedures. Moreover, most state governments have yet to set up their own commissions. Presently, only 14 out of 28 states have established human rights commissions. Even where these bodies have been established, all of them are not functioning properly. In its report for 1999-2000 and again in 2002-2003, the NHRC expressed its disappointment with the slow pace with which state governments were acting to constitute human rights commissions at the state level. It also noted that not all human rights commissions that had been established were being adequately supported with financial and manpower resources. The commission has referred to the "unhappiness" expressed by certain state human rights commissions "over the difficulties they are experiencing in terms of lack of support, both financial and otherwise." The Jammu and Kashmir Commission in its latest annual report has alleged that efforts are being undertaken to make it redundant and dilute its position, "which, if allowed, will terribly tell upon the reputation of the state."

It will take time, amendments to the law and sincere and efficient attempts by the commissions to live up to their charter as well as tremendous pressure from the public to make the human rights commissions in India sufficiently strong, independent and vibrant to ensure the accountability of state institutions and to protect citizens against violations of their rights.

Non-governmental Organisations: The activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) relating to the police are broadly of two types: (1) those concerned with violations of human rights committed by police officers and (2) those concerned with reforms the police. The former group of activities include publicising police atrocities and putting pressure on the government to take action against the police.

Police or government reaction to NGO allegations is usually that of denial. The government is generally reluctant to expose the police's abuse of power as it could be used against the government by the opposition.

However, where the documentation of human rights violations is authentic and supported by irrefutable evidence, the government is forced to take action. Documenting human rights violations committed by police personnel though poses a major challenge to NGOs. The task is quite daunting, not only because of the intimidating nature of the work, but also because of a lack of expertise. This lack of expertise makes it difficult for them to advocate successfully for concrete alternative plans for restructuring the police or recommend programmes for action within the existing framework. For example, during the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002, the police did not register the complaints of many of the victims of communal violence who belonged to minority groups. Many of these victims were denied compensation as well as access to criminal justice. While a large number of NGOs were eager to help the victims, they could not do much because of their own ignorance of the law, the police and court procedures.

One problem faced by NGOs advocating police reforms is the non-availability of information about the government's plans and programmes concerning the police. The police are very reluctant to share information with outsiders, particularly NGOs. There is also an element of distrust between the NGOs and the government that makes it difficult for civil society to influence government policies relating to the police.


One of the most vigilant watchdogs over the operations of the police in the country is the media. The media in India enjoys a wide measure of freedom and has enormous reach and power. Technological advances witnessed during the last few decades have revolutionised the world of communications and opened frontiers that were hitherto unknown to the media or were beyond its reach. Any violation of human rights occurring anywhere in the country can be known throughout the rest of the country quickly, provided the media reports the abuse that has taken place.

The media has shown great interest in reporting on human rights violations committed by police officers. What occurred in Gujarat during the communal riots in 2002 was known to the rest of India and the world primarily through the efforts of the media. However, the known incidents of police misconduct or abuse of power are far less than those that actually take place, for the media's coverage sometimes is inadequate and selective. Most media organisations in India, as in other parts of the world, are either state- or corporate-owned. The media has taken interest in reporting on issues and areas which are lucrative, not necessarily those that are of public interest. Political news, politicians and celebrities have dominated media coverage. Bias and a lack of sensitive appreciation of the issues involved have affected the quality of coverage, selection of subjects and the content of media reports. The tendency to sensationalise issues and events has often been observed.
On the whole, the mainstream national media has been far better than the regional media in covering human rights violations and holding state agencies accountable. Some newspapers in Gujarat deliberately spread rumours, distorted facts and did their best to promote the hate campaign against the minority Muslim community in 2002. As Human Rights Watch (HRW) pointed out, "While the national Indian press has played an important role in exposing the violence and official neglect or misconduct, sectors of the local press have been accused of inciting the violence." It was difficult to hold the editors and management of the local press accountable for violating criminal laws, in addition to infringing their own code of ethics, because they had the support of the state government.

The government has occasionally tried to pressure or intimidate the media that has exposed corruption or abuse of power by politicians and senior bureaucrats. Recalcitrant journalists have been subjected to raids by income tax and law enforcement authorities and harassed in other ways. For instance, this type of coercion occurred a few years ago to the editor and staff members of Tehelka.com, an internet portal that succeeded in videotaping important politicians, bureaucrats and army officers accepting bribes and fixing arms deals with decoy arms dealers belonging to Tehelka. According to Vir Sanghvi, editor of the Hindustan Times, a national newspaper, in July 2002, "The message in all this is quite direct: if anyone ever tries to expose corruption in the way in which Tehelka has done, they will face the full might of the government of India. It worries me that as journalists we are allowing the government to get away with all this."


Providing a sense of security to ordinary citizens and attending to their grievances is dependent on the establishment of a police force which is efficient, honest and professional. The fact that such a police force does not exist in India is attested to by the findings of various commissions and committees, the complaints received by the human rights commissions, the stories reported by the press and the experiences of the common people on the street. The need for police reform is self-evident and urgent. There are two directions in which police reforms must be pursued simultaneously.

One is to establish statutory institutional arrangements that will ensure that the power of superintendence of state governments over their police forces provides police performance that is in strict accordance with the law. In other words, the police function to establish and maintain the rule of law, not the rule of politics. This break with past and present practices would require insulating them from outside illegitimate control and influence and giving them functional autonomy. Once the police are given functional independence, they must be held accountable for the wrongs they do. The existing mechanisms of accountability must be strengthened and improved. In addition, new mechanisms, working independently to monitor the operations of the police and to inquire into public complaints against the police, must be established. The performance of the police as an institution and the behaviour of police personnel as individuals both need constant monitoring.

The other direction is to do everything possible to strengthen and improve policing under the existing system and structure. In addition to upgrading recruitment, training and leadership standards, the working and living conditions of lower police personnel need vast improvement-an exercise that should start with raising the status of the constabulary.

Posted on 2005-09-30
Asian Human Rights Commission

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