The rainy afternoon of Independence Day, August the 15th 2018 saw a nearly packed CLT with students who had come to listen to the EML by the highly distinguished retired IPS Officer, Padma Shri Awardee, Mr. Prakash Singh. Considered the key architect for police reforms in India, Mr Singh has served as Chief of the Border Security Force (BSF), Uttar Pradesh Police and Assam Police. After his retirement from service in 1996, he filed a landmark Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in 2006 following which the Supreme Court of India has directed the Central and State governments to carry out crucial structural changes in the Police Department.
Note: While this textual record of the interview draws from the lecture, it is as close to the actual dialogue as possible; readers are advised against misconstruction and reading out of context.
In your lecture, you have spoken of what needs to be done if the police is to cope with the threats to internal security. But where do you think we are in reality, going from here after your landmark case victory?
The Supreme Court has given certain directions, yes; but it all comes down to implementing them. And as far as that is concerned, landmark victory or not, the whole affair is an unfinished agenda and the battle goes on. Even winning the case took twelve years, which it ideally shouldn’t have. We were hoping that the SC will wield the whip against the states which are non- compliant and even those which are just partially compliant. But we found that barring a few judges who showed a lot of interest in the case, most of them have been, to be honest, just lax. There were some Chief Justices in whose tenure the case just rested; there were some who took a minimal academic interest in it. Someone I would like to single out is Justice G. S. Singhvi who took up the cause with deep interest and wanted to give it quite a push. However, it caused the lawyer community to unite against the case. On one side you have Mr. Prashant Bhushan, Mr Ravi Ramchandran and me and on the other side there were around twenty lawyers who are there to represent their states. When they saw Justice SInghvi taking up the issue as a crusader, they raised so many issues, some diversionary ones, some irrelevant but constitutional ones. Because of which, Justice Singhvi got slightly derailed and he then later retired. But as a whole, I must say most judges were largely indifferent to the cause and this remains a huge disappointment. But I have not given up; when I am convinced that an action is in the interest of the people, I will see it through. To sum up, ten years for judgement is understandable but twelve years for implementation absolutely isn’t. Five to six years should have been enough to ensure implementation of the orders.
“But as a whole, I must say most judges were largely indifferent to the cause and this remains a huge disappointment.”
Is it still a matter for the courts then?
Yes, the matter is still before the courts. But a good incidental development is that now, people are becoming gradually conscious of the need for police reforms. When an incident takes place where the police has been caught on the wrong foot, the editorials and commentaries all refer to police reforms and how the case directions would have helped. I have seen this after the Katua incident, the Maratha agitation etc. It is heartening to see that the national dailies like the Times of India, Indian Express etc. refer to the Supreme Court directions. Public awareness and media’s role in it has been a positive development but it is yet to bear fruit in the form of the government bringing about the necessary reforms.
How much do you think is the politicization in the force?
Politicization has gone very deep. There was a time when only officers at junior level would try to cultivate favor of the politicians. Now even the senior officers are indulging in it. Everytime there is a change of regime, there is so much of lobbying, horse-trading and canvassing so that one becomes the DGP. To give you a recent example, the post of Commissioner of Police Mumbai had fallen vacant. I heard from a good friend of mine, Mr Ribeiro that there was so much lobbying for the post by two officers in particular, that the Chief Minister of Maharashtra Government, fed up by the unrelenting lobbying actions, invited somebody from the Government of India on deputation. This virus of a practice has now affected all posts and I can tell you: a lot of senior officers spend the time they hold their post, in lobbying for the next. They wait for someone to fall from grace so that they can step into their shoes. There is something unduly ambitious in all the scheming and plotting and this is highly unsettling.
“This virus of a practice has now affected all posts and I can tell you: a lot of senior officers spend the time holding down their post in lobbying for the next.”
So, to confirm, more than merit, transfers and promotions in the force are based on recommendations?
Yes. One of the SC directions deals with how the DGP should be appointed to protect the post from political influence. What we have recommended and what has been accepted by the SC is that the State Government will send the names of all officers who are eligible for the promotion. Necessities for eligibility are a clean record and enough years of service. There would be about eight to ten officers whose names will be sent to the UPSC. They will shortlist three names which will be sent to the CM for him or her to select. The idea is that even if the most worthy of the three is not selected, that is still good enough. The CM might push for a far less worthy man who suits him politically and it is precisely to bring in objectivity that the procedure was approved. But this isn’t followed by most of the states. They appoint on their own, people who are willing to sell their conscience when it suits them. And such lobbying is on a rise! When a procedure has been recommended and has also been approved by the SC and it all comes to nothing, it is a pathetic situation.
On that note regarding UPSC’s working, do you think the Civil Services Examination is capable of selecting upright officers?
Capable of selecting highly intelligent and motivated officers, yes. But brilliance and righteousness are not necessarily related. For example, one of the top IAS rankers of the examination is in jail in UP for being involved in a scandal of syphoning rural development funds. I know quite a few officers and of them, at least two other toppers who have been jailed.
Is reform in the examination necessary then?
While it is difficult to judge character from an examination, a reform is needed nevertheless. But what we need to do is weed out such elements at the very beginning. I know quite a few officers who at the very start of their career begin their romance with corruption. They should be slammed with appropriate cases right then. The problem is that we have become a very indulgent society. We tolerate corruption, sedition, separatism, indiscipline, reservationists and protestors destroying public and private property and what not. We should draw firm lines on how far one can go and how far one cannot. Some sort of restraint has to be expected from the central level. We keep telling ourselves that we are the largest democracy. What type of democracy are we boasting of! The percentage of criminals in the Parliament is increasing in every succeeding election. Over a period of three General Elections, the percentage of those with a criminal record has inched from 30% to 34%. Why are they even allowed to enter the Parliament in the first instance? And I am talking of hardened criminals, people who have cases of rape, murder, kidnapping, dacoity and abduction against them. How can you expect them to pass anti-corruption laws against their interests and values? Why do you think the Lokpal Bill is still not passed?
“Over a period of three General Elections, the percentage of those with a criminal record has inched from 30% to 34%.”
Is it true that the longer they stay, the harder it is to fix the damage?
Yes, it is progressively getting worse. Recently the Prevention of Corruption Amendment Bill was passed. I would say it is more like the Promotion of Corruption Amendment Bill.
Earlier one can prosecute an officer in the level of Joint Secretary and above, only with special permission. The Supreme Court had said no permission is required in any case and nobody is exempt. Then the government through some manipulation restored the provision for the ranks of Joint Secretary and above. Recently, one officer, SC Gupta was prosecuted in the 2G scandal. Everybody vehemently objected the prosecution saying that he was an honest officer. I agree but he made some stupid mistake while signing a paper and he was held responsible for it. But the IAS officers made such a noise about it that in part led to changes being forced upon the Amendment. Now, even to prosecute a constable or a peon, permission is required before you register a case. The agencies have now been rendered toothless by this one simple provision. Earlier, anyone below the level of Joint Secretary could be ‘çhargesheeted’ for corruption. Now everybody has that insulation and all those with clout can see to it that permission ís not given when it suits them. It is all definitely pro-corruption in disguise.
So it’s all only going downhill?
It’s going downhill. But let’s not be too pessimistic about it. Our economy is one of the fastest growing. Extreme poverty is predicted to be eliminated in India by 2030. Our standards of living have definitely gone up. Today a fourth class employee has access to facilities and equipment that, we, as senior officers had those days. I remember starting work using my Vespa scooter; now, the officers have air-conditioned cars to start with. They don’t know that when hot air blows in the summer in some states, it is like a slap on the face and one needs to continue working in that heat. They have it better and they are arguably better access to information and have intelligence than us. But in character, in values, I believe we have gone down. If asked about the present generation of officers, I would say this: We had higher values, they have higher standards of livings and what not. Once you put on your uniform, your religion is the Constitution.
“Once you put on your uniform, your religion is the Constitution.”
Your comments on the regional differences in the relationship between the Police and the citizens?
I feel it depends on the culture of the states too. In Rajasthan, I have seen quite a good relationship between the common man and the police when compared to UP and particularly Bihar.
In the South, the interface is better and people are more law-abiding generally.
Do you think there is a good relationship between the police and Naxals in areas which can be built upon to improve the situation in times of insurgency?
I found that in several Telangana districts the local police and magistrate made impressive efforts to win people’s hearts and minds. The Greyhounds have impressive intelligent networks. They organize tournaments, they look after the elderly parents of boys and girls who had joined the Maoists and more or less abandoned them. When this message gets across, people are slowly won over. I must say, the police won the battle in Telangana. When people are convinced of the police’s goodwill, the recruiting stops. There are several districts in UP where there are hostels for boys and girls who are in vulnerable areas of Maoist insurgency.
Do politicians have a say in Naxalites not losing hold over areas?
I would say corrupt elements always have a vested interest in not quashing insurgencies altogether. In one state-let me not identify it- I was told that officers have an interest in the tense situation continuing. Some IAS officers have made their wives take mining contracts etc. and made available some of the several vehicles for the use of supply transport. Besides, a lot of funds are allocated to development in areas affected by Naxalism making it all the more easier to siphon money off. Officials with a stake sometimes do not show the single-minded serious efforts needed to quell agitation. It is a classic case of running with the hare and hunting with the hound.
“It is a classic case of running with the hare and hunting with the hound.”
Do you think right-wing extremism and religious intolerance has become troublesome enough to be considered a threat to internal security?
I think yes, it has. A lot of this can be attributed to social media. This problem has to be tackled by increasing public awareness. Also, why shouldn’t we question the social media giants? We should insist that we have a server for Whatsapp and Facebook in the country itself where we can have a modicum of control.
How much of it can be attributed to political influence?
Well I think BJP has not taken a very clear stand. Their responses have been half-hearted with several of their own party workers being Goumathras (cow protectors). They need to express a clear unambiguous voice to the issue.
As a police officer, you must have had very little claim on personal time. What in your opinion is the meaning of sense of duty and sacrifice?
My wife has long reconciled herself to marrying a police officer. I tried my best to make out time to be with my family. We couldn’t afford a personal tutor for our sons for a long time as we lived well within our means. Till high school, I gave them tuitions in Math and Science and my wife tutored them in languages. We did what we could. And I would say both my sons turned out to do good.
“We couldn’t afford a personal tutor for our sons for a long time as we lived well within our means.”