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Volume 13 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2006

Reforming the Police in India

Swati Mehta
Consultant, Access to Justice Programme, CHRI

In a much welcomed move, the Ministry of Home Affairs in India has set up a Committee to draft a new Police Act to replace the archaic colonial Act of 1861. That police in India need reforming is no longer a matter of debate and all the stakeholders, including governments at the state and national levels, have long accepted this. There have been many initiatives since 1959 at the state level and since 1979 at the federal level, to introduce reforms through legislation, however none of the recommendations of the various Committees and Commissions that were set up to suggest reforms have been implemented.

In 1996, some public-spirited individuals approached the Supreme Court of India about their lack of action and directed the government to implement the recommendations of the National Police Commission (1979-1981). In response, both the Court and the government set up different Committees to examine the relevance of the National Police Commission recommendations and suggest reforms. While these recommendations still await implementation, this new Police Act Drafting Committee, set up in September 2005, has been given six months to give its recommendations to the Government.

In order to meet this six month deadline, the Committee is receiving guidance from the reports of the previous Committees on police reforms, as well as from examples of international best practice. Having been co-opted as a civil society representative on the Committee, CHRI is encouraging the Committee to address the necessary elements of a democratic police service in its recommendations.

Our work with the Committee is guided by the fact that democratic nations need democratic policing, which entails an approach founded on principles of equity and equality, accountability, transparency, participation, respect for diversity, the accommodation of dissent, protection of individual and group rights, and encouragement of human potential. At the heart of police reforms lies accountability, both for the performance of duties and the manner in which these duties are performed. In a democracy, police must account to multiple stakeholders at different levels from the parliament, executive and judiciary to the public. This is of utmost importance as the Police Service is the only agency that is authorised to use violence against civilians.

Traditionally, the police are accountable to their departments and the judiciary for any abuse of power. However, more and more countries are realising the importance of augmenting internal systems with civilian oversight to ensure that police misconduct is investigated without bias. Even the most comprehensive internal disciplinary mechanisms, however, are unable to win complete public faith. Best practice indicates that creating civilian oversight mechanisms establishes the principle of accountability by reducing impediments and public reluctance to filing complaints. As an independent source of information about police misconduct, it can also alert police administrators to the steps they should take to curb abuse.

When reviewing the 1861 Act, CHRI is urging that the Committee not only ensure that the police account for their misconduct but also perform their duties diligently, efficiently and effectively. When evaluating police performance for a given period, certain indicators must be devised against which performance can be judged. Best practice shows that these indicators should not only relate to crime prevention or detection, but should also gauge public satisfaction with policing services. Furthermore, they must determine whether the resources available to police are utilised in the manner that the legislature intended, and used in a way that serves the public interest. It is important to review these indicators periodically to ensure that they are in line with the tasks that the police actually perform. It is equally important that each member of the police hierarchy is aware of the indicators for a given period so that everyone down the line is working towards achieving those performance objectives.

In order to be held responsible for their performance and their conduct, police must be assured a fair amount of independence in their functioning. As an agency of the state, the police are responsible to the executive and must be guided by it, however the political guidance can only be in terms of policy and broad aims. It cannot be used to promote partisan interests or for corrupt and illegitimate ends. The difference between appropriate political direction and illegitimate political interference, though very fine, is very significant in law and in practice. It is important to clearly delineate the roles and responsibilities of the political executive and the police to minimise illegal interference with the functioning of the police and to ensure accountability. Transparent appointment procedures and security of tenure for the chief of police goes a long way in monitoring political manipulations of the police. Requiring public participation in framing policy also inhibits partisan impositions on policing.

Democratic policing requires public inputs and public participation. Known by different names like community policing, sector policing or participatory policing, public participation broadly signifies a collaboration between the police and the community to identify and solve community problems. It usually entails public inputs into all police processes from preparation of policing plans and budgets, to providing all crime related information (preventive and investigative in nature). A successful community-policing programme requires traditionally centralised police organisations to shift decision-making and responsibility downward, and recognise that it is street-level officers who have to make the new community policing approach work. The police and public have to interact as equals and with a sense of shared values. In diverse societies with unequal power relations, community policing must engage with diverse groups so that it is not hijacked by dominant groups to the detriment of the marginalised and vulnerable.

Police reforms involve many other complex issues of training, recruitment, security of tenure, and welfare measures. The Police Act Drafting Committee when considering these issues must involve the public. At present, there is little awareness of the existence of the Committee, let alone its work. It will not be enough to have a few public consultations. Public participation at all levels of deliberations is crucial. Apart from inviting a few civil society organisations and individuals to suggest changes, the Committee could consider inviting public comments on a variety of issues. If the recommendations of this Committee are to be implemented, then it is imperative that there is a broad domestic constituency that supports and understands police accountability and policing issues. Without informed public debate and demand, there will never be political will to change the status quo that continues to serve the interests of the political elite.

Canadian Muslims and Jews Find Common Ground on Conflicting Rights

- Murray Burt
Ex-President, Commonwealth Journalists Association and member of CHRI’s International Advisory Committee

Ontario, Canada’s largest province, is taking a hard look at faith-based arbitration and its impact on the rights of women as protests broke out about the Muslim community’s application of Sharia law to marriage and property disputes being contrary to Canadian human rights legislation.1 It is argued that applying faith law to civil settlements undermines women’s rights. In response, the provincial government appointed former Attorney General of the Province, Ms Marion Boyd, to conduct an inquiry and prepare a report. Her finding was that there is no evidence that women are discriminated against in their dealings with Muslim arbitrators, leading her to recommend that the Muslim practice in Ontario remain with certain safeguards in place.

The Government initially embraced this finding, but an outpouring of hostility from social activists and sectors of the Christian church, forced a flip-flop. As a result, the Government proposed Bill 27, which outlines that arbitration dealing with family matters excludes application of faith-based law. Having appeased some, the criticism of uneven-handedness was raised as Jewish tribunals on family matters have been entrenched since 1889 and Catholics have enjoyed similar measures of tolerance. The legislature’s response was to apply the prohibition of the Bill to all faith-based tribunals. This added Jewish outrage to the mix. Both Jews and Muslims said the Government was infringing on religious freedom.

The next move in Canada, regarding the passage of Bill 27, is up to the legislators in Ontario.

CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2006

Editors: Mary Rendell & Clare Doube , CHRI;
Print: Chenthil Paramasivam ,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.