Can India Reform Its Wayward Police Force?

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Manipur state police commandos announce resumption of curfew after a relaxation period of four hours expired in Imphal, India, Aug. 6, 2009

When an unidentified militant was reportedly killed in "an encounter" with police commandos in the northeast Indian state of Manipur on July 23, the news created only a minor stir. One more death was hardly startling in an insurgency-ridden state where abductions, torture, extortion and killings by the police are routinely documented by human-rights activists. A week later, however, Tehelka, a prominent national weekly, published a series of photos of the events surrounding the supposed shoot-out. Chungkam Sanjit, a former militant, is shown standing unarmed, putting up no resistance as the commandos push him into a shop. Moments later, he is dragged out by his feet, dead, and dumped, oozing blood, into the back of a pickup.

Manipur immediately erupted into days of protests, until the state's ruling Congress-led government announced on Aug. 5 a judicial inquiry and suspended six cops implicated in the case. This followed an earlier incident in another troubled state, Kashmir, where police are suspected to have raped and killed a teenage girl and her pregnant sister-in-law, disposing of their bodies in a canal. It took a series of statewide protests and subsequent political intervention to get the police to step down from their initial claim that the women had just drowned. While the identity of the culprits is still not known, four police officials are now facing trial for failing to follow the correct investigative procedures and conspiring to destroy evidence. Their mishandling of the case appears to many in India as a symptom of a far greater rot.

The crisis in Indian policing is not restricted to the country's border states, and runs much deeper than the police's proclivity for "encounters." In an 118-page report, Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse and Impunity in the Indian Police, released last week, Human Rights Watch has highlighted a range of corrupt practices by Indian police, including accepting bribes, arbitrarily arresting, detaining and torturing people, and carrying out extrajudicial killings. Indian police, it says, operate outside the law, lack requisite ethical and professional standards, and are overstretched and often outmatched by criminal elements. "India is modernizing rapidly, but the police continue to use their old methods — abuse and threats," says Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement released by the New York City-based NGO.

While this severe indictment may surprise some outside of India, it is routine fare for Indians — for whom tales of police corruption and heavy-handedness are legion. Police have been accused of demanding money to register cases or simply refusing to lodge complaints in order to keep crime statistics down. Suspects are often beaten up; some die in custody. In 2007, the National Human Rights Commission received more than 31,000 complaints of abuses at the hands of the police.

Critics of the Indian police system point out that the force continues to operate on the basis of the Police Act of 1861, which India's British colonial rulers had modeled after the Royal Irish Constabulary — a security force they had deployed to subdue a restive population. "[After] independence, the style never changed, the subject-ruler relation has endured," says Sanjay Patil, program officer with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), whose book Feudal Forces: Reform Delayed — Moving from Force to Service in South Asian Policing is due to be released next week. The book holds the political culture of South Asia responsible. Corruption and the lingering stigmas of class and caste in conservative South Asian societies also inform how police officers treat certain communities, it says, adding that minorities and the marginalized are especially vulnerable to police abuse.

In fairness, the Indian police often have to deal with abysmal working conditions, as the Human Rights Watch report points out: they cope with long hours and long periods of separation from families; often live in tents or filthy barracks at police stations; lack necessary equipment; and endure overwhelming workloads. India's police-population ratio is just 126 per 100,000 persons, whereas the ratio recommended by the UN for peacetime policing is almost double that. Hence, the temptation arises to take "short cuts" — such as arresting suspects illegally and forcing them to confess, instead of spending time collecting forensic evidence and recording witness statements. While calling on the government to better train, equip and pay the police, the report also suggests that any evidence obtained by using torture must be inadmissible in court, and independent investigations into complaints against the police must be strengthened.

The call for sweeping reform is nothing new. In 2006, a landmark Supreme Court judgment laid down a set of seven directives aimed at providing the police freedom from political interference, and mandated the government to create dedicated agencies to handle public complaints against the police and to regularly evaluate their performance. But the federal government and most of the state governments have either completely disregarded the court's order, or significantly diluted it. "The police [are] definitely a major stakeholder in change," says Patil of CHRI, "But they're not the only ones. The media has abdicated their responsibility of highlighting police excesses. And the force of public opinion must be brought to bear down on the political class, to make the cost of not reforming the police high enough to force them to act." If the anger over the Manipur and Kashmir cases is anything to go by, the force of public opinion is getting stronger. It remains to be seen whether the government will seize this opportunity to act decisively.