Human Rights Watch Report – Broken System: Indian Police, Status and Reforms
At 4:00 p.m. on 4th August in the P.G. Block of the St. Joseph’s College of Arts and Science, Bangalore, amidst the buzz of students, faculty etc., were some luminaries of the state judiciary and police. They were invitees for the Karnataka release of the Human Rights Watch report “Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse, and Impunity in the Indian Police” followed by a panel discussion on police reform. Organized in coordination with South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (www.sichrem.org) and supported by Transparency International - Karnataka Chapter, this event started on time unlike some others involving state representatives.
After Manohar Ranganathan, SICHREM’s Programme Coordinator welcomed the audience, Mathew Philip, Director, SICHREM introduced the panel. Releasing the 118 page report, available at http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/india0809web.pdf, Tom Porteous, Director, Human Rights Watch (HRW), London summarized its findings and recommendations. The document highlights ongoing violations by Indian police and the lack of accountability fuelling abuse. It also examines how abysmal everyday police working conditions contribute to and even encourage human rights violations although the former must not justify the latter in any way. Broken System calls for a comprehensive overhaul of police law and practices in order to hold the force accountable, significantly reduce its violations, and build professional, motivated and ethical police forces that successive central and most state governments have promised but failed to deliver for decades.
Most state police forces operate outside the law, lack sufficient ethical and professional standards and necessary equipment, are overstretched and outmatched by criminal elements, and cannot cope with increasing demands and public expectations. Their violations include arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, threats and extrajudicial killings sometimes for professional security and growth. HRW interviewed more than 80 police officers of varying ranks, 60 victims of police abuses, and discussed with numerous experts and civil society activists. Releasing it here was significant as field research was conducted across 19 police stations in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, and Delhi.
Although most officers know the legal boundaries, many believe that unlawful methods are necessary for crime investigation and law enforcement. Also, many cut caseloads by refusing to register crime complaints as superiors pressurize them for quick resolution. Further, colonial police laws that enable routine interference in police operations corrode public confidence in the force. India’s traditionally marginalized groups like the poor, women, Dalits, religious and sexual minorities are particularly vulnerable to police abuse and imprisonment for alleged crimes. However, police often fails to investigate crimes against them as they can’t bribe, lack social status and political connections.
Ensuring that police officers abusing human rights will face appropriate punishment regardless of rank is critical. The Indian government elected in May has promised to pursue police reforms actively which are overdue despite the Supreme Court’s landmark 2006 judgment mandating it, suggesting that officials have not yet accepted its urgency. "Broken System" detailed recommendations for police reform drawn from studies by government commissions, former Indian police, and Indian groups, including the following:
• Read suspects their rights if arrested or detained, increasing institutional acceptance of these safeguards
• Exclude from court any evidence obtained by torture or inhuman treatment in suspect interrogations
• Bolster independent investigations into complaints of police abuse and misconduct through national and state human rights commissions and police complaints authorities
• Improve training and equipment, including strengthening the crime-investigation curriculum at police academies, training low-ranking officers to assist in crime investigations, and providing basic forensic equipment to every police officer
Tom Porteous and Justice (Retd.) M.F. Saldanha moderated the discussion in which all speakers reiterated the HRW report’s findings and recommendations. They agreed that:
• Police officers at all levels must practise self-regulation and handle victims, suspects and prisoners (under trial, convicted, etc.) compassionately. While some seniors are unethical, the juniors sometimes abuse citizens to settle personal disputes. Police ill-treating religious minorities and women and colluding with similar offenders is rampant in Karnataka and nationwide. Delayed and/or few preventive or corrective measures often encourages them to continue such misdemeanour and also perpetrate extrajudicial acts.
• Many citizens hardly know the law and don’t hold police personnel accountable or respect them. They rarely report dowry violence, child marriage, female foeticide or other heinous crimes fearing repercussion and socio-cultural taboos about seeking legal assistance/ intervention.
• Politicians, authorities, etc., interfere in the policing and legal processes to protect themselves, family, friends, etc. and also misuse them for personal gain and tasks, breeding corruption.
• Junior officers and those deployed in rural areas often work in fairly inhuman conditions for extremely long hours with minimal daily/weekly breaks. Further, frequent and unanticipated transfer of jurisdiction and duty demoralize them.
• Police reforms are critical but complex and multidimensional requiring commitment and understanding. And, they must percolate to the lowest rungs and the force must be empowered to operate independently and act constitutionally.
• Attitude of policy/law makers and their approach to implementing legal provisions must change drastically. Importantly, they ought to be committed to human rights in all spheres.
Making his introductory remarks, Justice S.R. Nayak, Chairperson, Karnataka State Human Rights Commission (KSHRC) stated that the current ratio is 1 police officer per 1027 civilians and that India has not yet signed the International Convention against Torture unlike 145 other countries. In what seemed a frustrated outburst against the government, he said that an order passed in 2005 to reconstitute the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission (after a 14 year gap) was implemented only in 2007 with no office space allotted and only skeletal staff. Basic facilities were provided much later.
S.T. Ramesh, Additional DGP (Recruitment & Training), Karnataka responded that merely enhancing infrastructure and training programmes is insufficient and ineffective and the Indian Police Act (1861) is archaic and parts of the Indian Penal Code are nearly 100 years old. He highlighted that Karnataka police has decent infrastructure including good Information and Communications Technology, DNA Centre, Child Welfare Officers and State Juvenile Protection Unit. All staff under go gender sensitivity training in a centre in Yelahanka and evaluated by an independent agency. The recent scheme to provide them good residential facilities is very encouraging.
In a speech as inspiring as his actions, Justice N. Santosh Hegde, Lokayukta, Karnataka exhorted the participants to start a citizens’ movement. He emphasized that the SHRC cannot function with insensitive, untrained staff. The Supreme Court’s directives in 2006 to tackle corruption are pending implementation in Karnataka and elsewhere and the Prevention of Corruption Act created in 1947 is neither followed properly nor amended as necessary. While Scandinavian countries recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of selecting of a national ombudsperson India is yet appoint one although in 1976, Morarji Desai suggested creating a Lok Ayukta in every state and a national Lok Pal.
Justice (retd.) M.F. Saldanha, Chairman, Transparency International India and former Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court quoted a brief encounter with a tired young police officer in Bangalore continuing on early morning duty despite a long night. He stated that it is our responsibility to implement the HRW report’s recommendations for overhauling the Indian Police force.
The former DGP and IG of Karnataka, R. Srikumar reminded everyone that police personnel are also human beings with personal lives and needs, not uniformed criminals. Police inspectors are sometimes transferred more than thrice in 7 months. A sub-inspector who should handle only 60 cases actually does 300 greatly impacting investigation time and quality - contempt cases are often pending for 3 years. A young recruit who was posted to plain clothes VIP security duty within 6 months of his first appointment felt demoralized as it deprived him the honour of uniformed duty at a police station.
Despite the high crime rate in our society, case registration is low. Introducing the Dial 100 facility (independent of telephone service provider), a call centre for free case registration, is expected to increase the registration rate. Also, there is a plan to identify crime stoppers to interface with citizens. Relating an instance of his own son being unable to lodge a police complaint even after identifying himself, he urged the public to act now to ensure a better future.
According to Nina Nayak, Chairperson of the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, the National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) declaration of 45,000 children missing annually in India is grossly underestimated as many cases are unreported. She narrated incidents of shocked parents of missing children approaching Child Welfare Committees after facing police apathy. Society must report child sexual abuse (CSA), trafficking and mistreatment by police and demand appropriate punitive action and rehabilitation/recovery instead of remaining silent. She suggested building constructive police contacts/leaders through youth in society.
Talking poignantly about female victims of domestic violence, Dr. V.S. Elizabeth of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) stressed that they approach the police only when their immediate family does not help and commit suicide when everyone fails them. Many believe that the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA, 2005) threatens the traditional Indian family. She remarked that while the police must be sensitized about women’s issues society should also treat them in a respectable and humane manner as women’s rights are nothing but human rights!
At the end, some citizens participating in the programme who raised some questions on police laws and practices and the KSHRC’s functioning didn’t receive satisfactory answers. They believe that the report merely reiterated known facts about the police force considering news and entertainment media regularly reports/portrays them. Further, they felt that the state was handing over its responsibility to citizens instead of calling for joint action.
(The author is a freelance writer, a Fellow of Citizen News Service (CNS) Writers' Bureau, and a community volunteer based in Bangalore, India)
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