Manmohan Singh's Second Shot to Make India Safe
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hopes for an India safe from terrorist attacks, extremist insurgencies and communal violence. He wants to work very hard at it. At every important meeting after his party's strengthened return to power, he has repeatedly spoken of national security.
This priority also figures in his first 100-day action plan. In addition, the party manifesto mentions explicitly what will go into making the police less biased, more efficient and more accountable.
The prime minister's hopes of success are pinned on deep intelligence gathering and better coordination between security agencies. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) has been set up and more mechanisms are being formed. Experts tell us all this is much needed but it is still not near adequate to hold us safe.
More top down investigation agencies joining the ranks of already politicized and dysfunctional ones are not a sufficient answer; and better coordination is only half a solution. Intelligence gathering has to rest on public confidence in policing.
Today's policing cannot command it. Whether it involves grave or petty infractions of law, police investigations have become synonymous with beatings and other horrific methods only too well tolerated by senior policemen. Preventing crime is synonymous with indiscriminate arrests and illegal detention.
Catching criminals often degenerates to hostage taking and false accusations. Maintaining law and order is often an excuse for using excess force and the mere mention of terrorism is licence to indulge in all manner of brutality.
Politicians feel they own the police and can reward and abuse them at will. The rich hope to live their lives well outside the reach of the police. The poor wish the same but with less assurance that they will manage it. Ghettoized communities see the police as biased and coercive outsiders while women will barely ever approach them unless in situations of extreme peril.
In conflict-ridden areas isolated communities especially are caught between a rock and a hard place, with extremists extorting and terrifying them on the one hand and the police abusing them on the other. For people in the middle it's a question of choosing your tormentor.
Manmohan Singh is not wrong in emphasizing security but he must recognize that the participation of the grassroots is vital to its success and better policing is the prime means of achieving it.
To its credit, the Congress manifesto clearly recognizes "the imperative of police reforms". It specifically mentions what needs to change. It says a "clear distinction between the political executive and police administration will be made. The police force will be better provisioned especially in the matter of housing and education facilities; the police force will be made more representative of the diversity of our population; and police recruitment will be made more effective and training professionalized to confront new and emerging threats. Accountability of the police force will be institutionalized".
This is just what the Supreme Court too said should be done when it ordered all governments to give people better policing through setting up very reasonable mechanisms to shield the police establishment from unwarranted political interference, make it more fair and efficient in its management functions, and more accountable to the law.
That was in 2006. But the record shows that three years later hardly any state has obeyed what is after all the law of the land. The court has been forced to set up a monitoring committee to check compliance by state governments because policing is a state subject.
However, the centre has great influence and leverage over states with its huge modernization grants. It has even more influence in states where there are governments of the same political hue. But as of date, the centre is in no position to urge obedience when it has not itself made any effort to put in place any of the mechanisms directed by the apex court.
The new government has a chance in the first 100 days to make good its intentions - by quickly taking a deep breath, brushing through the old ugly settled patterns of policing and being the role model for change in Delhi and other union territories.
More weapons, more spook agencies, more robo-cops and fortified police stations won't change the police force into an unbiased, rule-of-law-oriented organization. But better recruitment, training, transparent policy planning, professional management, rewards for the good and assured punishment for dereliction will quickly turn the police from a dreaded force into a valued and essential police service.
Democratic nations need democratic, not colonial, policing: a people-friendly police is not a senseless cliche but a practical means of fighting crime, defeating terrorism, and building a society safe for us all.
(The author is Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, and can be reached at Maja.firstname.lastname@example.org)
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