Be it the murder of an innocent schoolboy in Gurgaon, of a well-known journalist in Bengaluru or be it any event of importance requiring police intervention, the public demand is for a CBI probe. What is so special about the CBI? Established in 1943 as the Special Police Establishment (war department) and later given permanent status under an ordinance replaced by the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act 1946, the tiny organisation has grown enormously due to ever-increasing demands for its services. That law prescribes that the CBI can investigate on its own in respect of the notified offences like prevention of corruption — in cases of other offences like murder in any state only with the consent of the states concerned or on the orders of the higher courts.
The CBI has no cadre of its own. Its officers and men are on deputation from the police forces of states like Haryana, Karnataka or any other — the very same police whom people generally do not trust.
The CBI, during its nearly seven decades of existence, has in its functioning slipped, and slipped badly too, several times. Like the state police, the CBI has also been accused time and again of helping culprits and of harassing innocent people. The CBI officers neither have special tools nor training, but they are supposed to be immune from local political influence as no MLA nor even a chief minister is directly capable of causing harm to the career of a CBI officer who disobeys him. But the CBI continues to enjoy a higher degree of public confidence mainly because of their seemingly “influence resistant” design.
Can we not change the structure of the state police to make them trustworthy? Yes, we can. But this is possible only if politicians are so willing. Reports on police reforms ever since the Indian Police Act 1861 was in operation add up to a mountain.
The oft-quoted statement from a 1902 report is: “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”. Unfortunately, this is true even today.
Independent India had many expert bodies examining this aspect in detail, the most notable among them was the Dharma Vira Commission (1977-81). Several others like the Malimath Committee, Ribeiro Committee and National Human Rights Commission repeated the recommendations with minor changes.
But for the relentless efforts of Prakash Singh, a retired director-general of police, all those recommendations would have been by now forgotten. Prakash Singh has been fighting in the Supreme Court through PILs to bring about the needed reforms. After decade-long litigation in the presence of reluctant states, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment on September 22, 2006 issuing several directions.
What were those magic formulae that appealed to the court, but not to politicians? These were designed to ensure that state executives and their politician bosses did not enjoy unrestricted powers in the matter of police administration like appointment of DGPs or the power to transfer police personnel from one corner of a state to another at any time. The prospect of having to shift to a distant place, disrupting their children’s education and all associated problems, is the real fear. An experienced doctor will tell you that what is feared more is pain, and not death so much.
As remedy the experts suggested forming a Police Establishment Board to deal with such issues. Needless to say, state government would have a role in all such proposed bodies under the reformed setup, but not the exclusive role they have now. The suggested reforms include a minimum tenure for officers at a higher level, separation of the investigation wing of the police from the one looking after law and order or traffic control.
The state political leaders at all levels measure their power with the degree of hold they have on the police department, and the police has, inevitably, learnt the art of avoiding the pain of resisting and sharing the pleasure. In the CBI, there may be once in a while a “caged parrot” emerging in the course of dealing with select cases only. Surely, local politicians cannot change the course of routine investigations by the CBI, hence the public confidence.
The most prized portfolio in any state is home. Hence, it is generally held by the chief minister himself, or in the alternative you can assume that the home minister is a trusted alter ego of the CM. After she became a member of Parliament, bandit queen Phoolan Devi told the media that she would like to be a minister in charge of “khaki wale” — it mattered little if in the Centre there was no police department.
The other institution that the public clamours for is “judicial inquiry” for unearthing the truth. Once upon a time, an inquiry by a retired high court judge was acceptable, but not any longer. The retired judges either unduly prolong proceedings for their own benefit or present “command performances”. To borrow cricketing terminology, the institution called commission of inquiry got “out — hit wicket” repeatedly.
Now, the growing demand is for an inquiry by the CBI supervised by a sitting judge, preferably of the Supreme Court. Again, the confidence is solely on account of the presumed insulation from politicians not because of any delusion about the honesty of individuals.
Commissions of inquiry are expensive and tortuous. The ever-increasing burden is adversely affecting the CBI’s efficiency. The ideal solution for redressing public grievances that are bound to crop up would be a police force that Prakash Singh is still fighting for.
The Supreme Court has entered the arena. But is it not time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to seize the initiative and advise at least the BJP-ruled states to urgently implement police reforms in letter and spirit?