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Repressive Role of the Police

Political Violence and the Police in India by K S Subramanian


Repressive Role of the Police

Gautam Navlakha

It would have been interesting if the author had brought in the Sarkaria Commission report, which while taking a look at the centre-state relations, had received several complaints against the augmenta

tion in the strength of the armed police as his is a good reference book for a manifestation of centre’s proclivity to in-

Political Violence and the Police in India byscholars as well as students of the K S Subramanian; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2007; terfere in the constitutionally prescribed pp 257; Rs 350.

police system in India. It is in-domain of the states. This is relevant in

sightful about the actual working of the police in India. The author was a former officer of the Indian Police Service and was also the director of the Civil Rights Cell (CRC) and later the research and planning division of the ministry of home affairs (MHA) from 1979 to 1986. The division provided “an independent information base on conflict analysis…Its successor, the Policy Planning Division deals mainly with ‘counter-terrorism’...” (p 18).

The book surveys the patterns of violence in Indian society and the official response to them in order to bring out the infirmities in the system of policing. It uses political violence in a “double sense”. “It refers to violence that calls for a political response” and “implies that in a situation of large-scale institutional malfunctioning, politics acquires an appetite for all spaces, both public and private. Thus all violence becomes political, in a sense.” And yet, the author says, instead of a political response, the government relies on the police machinery not only for “information pertaining to social conflict and violence, but also for analysis and interpretation of the phenomena…” (p 25). In actual fact, reliance on the “police machinery” has meant the preponderant role of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the

Economic & Political Weekly

march 1, 2008

employment of the central paramilitary forces (CPMFs).

Augmentation of Armed Police

The author argues that there is continuity in the working of the police since the colonial period, with its emphasis on control, coercion and surveillance rather than crime prevention and public order management. “The colonial Irish Constabulary became the model for the Indian police system”, i e, as a centralised paramilitary organisation separate from the military and one available to the civilian administration for maintenance of law and order. Strangely, the National Police Commission, whose eight volume work and proposals form the basis of directions issued by the Supreme Court in our own times, “failed to address this” (p 59). This omission was glaring given the role of CPMFs in “the suppression of the Naxalite movement (1967-72), the defeat of the all-India railway strike (1974), the repressive measures against the JP movement in Bihar (1974-75) and the Emergency (1975-77)” (p 66). Significantly, the augmentation “in police strength after the 1970s [was] almost entirely in the armed police”. This is not only true of central forces but also the states through the centrally-funded raising of India reserve battalions (p 72).

the light of clamour to enlarge centre’s role in the name of “counter-terrorism”. The centralising urges received a boost in 1947 by the real or motivated fear of fragmentation of India. The centralising tendency was further consolidated by the perceived need to exercise control on the states ruled by non-Congress parties. Later, it scaled a new height in the name of “counter-terrorism”.

Role of the Intelligence Bureau

Chapter 3 on the IB is one of the few critical accounts of the role of the IB, the virtual impunity which it enjoys and the extraordinary impact it has on policymaking. It refers to the deployment of the army in Naga areas in 1955 against the advice of the army, the state governor and the ministry of external affairs. The role of the IB in the making of the “forward policy” on China in 1959, the dismissal of the first communist-led government in Kerala in 1959, and in the declaration of the Emergency is acknow ledged. The author brings out the perceptive recommendations of the Shah Commission with regard to the IB, that it “should not be the judge of its own operations with regard to the necessity and propriety thereof” and that the commission “viewed with concern some of the secret


operations of the IB and the complete absence of inbuilt constraints” (p 97). The author also draws on findings of several committees, including the L P Singh Committee. For instance one of the suggestions made by the committee was that a charter of duties be formulated and, among other things, the IB should be tasked with collection of intelligence regarding “activities likely to affect friendly relations with foreign states, [as well as those that] cause internal disturbances, promote discord on grounds of religion, race, caste and community….” (p 99). However, the author points out that after 1999 external evaluation fell on the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) (p 103). But he leaves us wondering as to who comprises the NSCS? Is it not manned by those engaged in intelligence work? Can evaluation by peers stand up to requirements of accountability in a constitutional democracy?

The book states, while discussing the Naxalite movement, that the “main official sources of information are two: the state governments and the central IB” (p 132). And, that whereas IB reports are classified information and have to be accepted at face value, it is the state reports which form the basis of statements made in Parliament. However, it would have been interesting if the author had cast light on the state reports. Are not the state reports prepared by the state police administration, which is engaged in “counter-terrorism” as its main task? Also, there may be incentives inherent in the autonomy of action and garnering of resources that are otherwise not available to the civil police.

Limited Information Base

Be that as it may, one of the reasons for the sorry state of affairs is due to the winding up of research and policy (R&P) division in the MHA. With its demise, “additional inputs of knowledge, skill and vision from multidisciplinary R&P analysis” were no longer available (p 134). The author also points out that given the “historical evolution of its organisational and political structure, the intelligence system has an inbuilt tendency to view struggles of the rural poor, especially those under radical political leadership, as attempts at ‘incipient insurgency’ threatening the existing political order” (p 137). He also points to the significant fact that “neither the implementation of the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, nor the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities), Rules, 1995 came up for discussion in the recent high-level meetings convened by the MHA to discuss the issue of Naxalite violence in several states, which is rapidly growing with the support of the SCs and STs” (p 149). And yet, there is organic link between the Naxalites and the SCs and STs formed by their common struggle over land and dignity.

However, it is doubtful whether the R&P division would have retained its intellectual independence in an age where there is an elite consensus to “wipe out” the Naxalite “menace”. For instance, on February 2, the Press Trust of India quoted the superintendent of police of Jajpur (Orissa) announcing the arrest of four Naxalites, saying that they were “instigating tribal people in Kalinganagar area… against industrialisation” and that they were supporting “anti-Vedanta stir near Puri”. Such reports are by now routine and a veritable witch hunt is underway. Would the R&P division have had the courage to go against this trivialisation of people’s opposition to “development with destitution”? Nevertheless, it does help focus attention on the need for inquiry into the working of the MHA. It is a fact that in “discharging its conflict management duties in a subcontinental polity, the MHA relies on a rather limited information base” (p 132).

Authoritarian Practices

The book is significant because it helps challenge the narrow confines of the public debate on police reform, which invariably descends into politician bashing and, therefore, see reforms as freeing the police from their clutches. The author reminds us that the term “police” in India incorporates state police, which itself comprises armed and civil police, as well as the IB and the CPMFS. While much is written on the problems of so-called politicisation of the police, very little is said about the IB and CPMFs. And yet, without a major overhaul of the IB, which enjoys impunity, and its role in the formulation of major security policies, merely reforming the state police may actually worsen the situation. Similarly, unless a critical appraisal is undertaken of the augmentation of the strength of and the burgeoning role of the CPMFs in the suppression of “our own people” one cannot, in all honesty, speak of “police reform”. Without addressing the inherent contradiction between “democratic politics and the authoritarian practices of the police” reforms will remain partial (p 74). This is where the book under review becomes so very important.

The book is replete with interesting details of much use for scholars. For instance, the author points out that it “was during the counter-insurgency operation in Telengana that the IB first emerged as an all-India agency for the collection of political intelligence” (p 65) and that Central Reserve Police Force was formed in 1949 as a successor “to the Crown’s Representative Police raised a decade earlier for the protection of law and order in the princely states”. He recalls the Gujarat police strikes of 1979-86 and invites the attention of scholars to explore this aspect when studying the creeping fascism in Gujarat. The author draws our attention to the need for bottom up reform, i e, starting with constables and head constables who make up 90 per cent of the police force (p 227). In short it is a splendid reference book for anyone interested in understanding the role of police in the Indian state and society.


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