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Law and order

Suppression of the people was the primary goal of law-enforcement agencies in British times. Unfortunately, this tendency continues in independent India, where the response to a conflict situation is to rush additional forces in, without any attempt to resolve the underlying socio-economic conditions, says K S Subramanian in part 3 of his series

After the suppression of the 1857 revolt, the Government of India Act in 1858 provided a new framework for governance in India, which made the district magistrate (DM), assisted by the superintendent of police, the kingpin of governance at the district level. Though the British were fully aware of the failings of the existing Indian police machinery, they chose not to reform it but superimposed on it the centralised paramilitary police structure borrowed from the Irish colonial experience (Arnold, 1986). In the 1860s a new legal structure was created, consisting of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) and the Police Act. The powerful district magistrate-centric administration was linked directly to the central government till the creation in 1937 of governments at the provincial level.  

The colonial penal and procedural codes, still in force, make it clear that suppression of the people was the primary British goal after 1857 (Gupta, 1979). The Indian Penal Code begins with chapters on ‘criminal conspiracy’ and ‘offences against the state’, as opposed to the common preoccupation of the police everywhere with the prevention and detection of offences against person and property. These find a place in the IPC only from Chapter XVI and Section 299.  The Code did not repeal obnoxious regulations of earlier times such as the Bengal Regulation III 1818, used freely to deport leaders of the freedom struggle; the offence of ‘sedition’ was included in the Code in 1870.  

In the CrPC, the chapters on security for keeping the peace and maintenance of public order, including the use of force by the police and the military, take precedence over provisions for the investigation and trial of criminal offences. In the Police Act of 1861, priority is given to the collection of political intelligence.  The prevention and investigation of crime is included among the duties of the police only in Section 23. The Act further provides for punitive policing at the cost of the local population in the event of ‘disturbances’ and for the appointment of private persons as ‘special police officers’. Besides, police officers were vested with vast powers and the lowest officer could arrest anyone and keep him in confinement for at least 24 hours.  

The development of an elaborate machinery for the collection and dissemination of political intelligence was started in 1877 with the first manifestation of political unrest following the formation of the Indian National Congress. Curzon made a significant contribution by setting up the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the provincial Special Branches on a systematic basis. These organisations were expanded and became valuable to the government. They have continued well into independence and the Congress and other governments at the centre and the states have found them useful.    

Briefly, after independence and the promulgation of a new Constitution, the basic institutions of conflict management above the district level have been the state and central governments. At the Centre, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Central Paramilitary Forces (CPFs) remain the key institutions under the political executive. The development administrative structure, after the initiation of planned development in 1952, was a superimposition on the underlying regulatory structure. Maintenance of order has been the prime priority of the Indian state during colonial and post-colonial periods.    

‘Law and order’ and ‘police’ are state subjects in the Constitution of 1950. Political intelligence collection has been a key aspect of police work in India. The governor-general/viceroy during colonial times and the prime minister after independence have been in direct charge of the central Intelligence Bureau (IB), attached after independence to the union home ministry. The state governments report periodically to the central government on law and order. Units of the central IB, deployed across the country, act as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the central government. The Central Paramilitary Forces (CPFs) at the disposal of the central government, can be dispatched to the state governments at their request. The police machinery in the states not only manages conflict situations on the ground but also collects and interprets political and criminal intelligence. Intelligence units exist at several levels of the police to do this job.   

All the distinct elements in the police machinery including state police and intelligence agencies, the central Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Central Paramilitary Forces (CPFs) are finally accountable to the union home ministry, the nodal agency for conflict management.   

The two large all-India services, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS), are recruited by the centre and deployed in the states at crucial levels for conflict management. The IAS is under the control of the ministry of personnel in New Delhi and the IPS is under the control of the union home ministry for disciplinary purposes. While deployed in the states, however, they work under the state governments. The director of the Intelligence Bureau (DIB) and the union home secretary are key functionaries responsible for conflict management at the central level.  

The official discourse on national conflict management has ranged over a wide terrain, with the participation of many distinguished administrative and police officials. We focus here only on the contributions of a selected few at the top.   

TCA Srinivasavaradan (1992), former union home secretary, who examined the policy role of the union home ministry in dealing with social tensions, felt that the ‘’available expertise at the bureaucratic level to understand, anticipate and evaluate an intricate problem was inadequate and amateurish. The situation in some cases was salvaged in the past because of the flexibility of the system, the sagacity of the political leadership and its openness to information from all quarters’’.  

Srinivasavaradan noted that while the political response to conflict situations was often based on a correct perception of the objective socio-economic conditions in breeding and sustaining them, once the intensity of violence abated, the political response took the administrative shape of deployment of central paramilitary forces in the affected areas.  Allegations of fake encounters, illegal arrests and other misdeeds tended to be swept under the carpet. He added: ‘’In dealing with problems of societal transition, excessive preoccupation with peace and order, ignoring issues of law and justice, can prove expensive in the long run. Lack of steadfastness of purpose is not desirable in dealing with basic nation-building tasks’’. Thus, when issues with long-term implications came up, the traditional responses of the union home ministry were found deficient. The ad-hocism and amateurishness in the field could only be remedied by ‘’additional inputs of knowledge, skill and vision through multidisciplinary research and policy analysis’’.  

NN Vohra (1993), former union home secretary, in a detailed paper, examined political violence during the 1980s and 1990s. He deplored the fact that the union home ministry was often handled by inexperienced ministers; that union home secretaries were often men with indifferent credentials to enhance the ministry’s internal capabilities and its influence over state governments. The requirements of the police and intelligence organisations were not regularly assessed and provided for in the annual budgets. The state governments had shown a declining concern over internal security management, insisting that the union home ministry provide assistance by way of armed police to meet the deteriorating law and order situation.  The union home ministry had failed to compel the states to be self-reliant in discharging their constitutional obligation to maintain internal security. Since the 1980s, an increasing tendency was to augment the strength of the central police forces (CPFs) in response to demands from the states for the deployment of these forces. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) had a specific mandate to provide assistance to state governments for internal security management. The Assam Rifles (AR) has a similar mandate with regard to the north-eastern region. Both these CPFs were of pre-1947 origin. Several new units had come into existence after 1950: the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) in 1962, the Border Security Force in 1965 and later the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). However, since the violence, which first arose in the Punjab region followed by developments in J&K and the north-east, the union home ministry has been compelled to deploy elements of all available CPFs for internal security duties even at the cost of thinning their presence on the border areas: very large elements of the BSF have remained deployed in the Punjab, J&K and the north-east. Significant elements of the ITBP have been withdrawn from their border duties to perform internal security duties in the plains. The CISF has also come in for such deployment away from its duly allotted functions. The increasing deployment of CPFs for duties across the country has led to a compromise on training standards, affecting the morale and discipline of the forces.  

Vohra noted the problem of the heavy transit through India of illicit drugs and narcotics from the Golden Triangle in the north-east and Golden Crescent in the north-west in a multi-billion-dollar drugs trade across the globe. Intelligence networks had proved inadequate to meet the challenge.   

In 1993, the investigations of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the serial bomb blasts in Mumbai established the existence of strong criminal networks with cross-border linkages.  The scale of such activities, revealed in the uncovering of scams and scandals, indicated that the functioning of political parties and decision-making authorities were being subverted.  

Vohra added that central ministries and agencies concerned with national security management have failed to work in close coordination. The IB had still to be provided a charter of duties and responsibilities together with its interface with R&AW.  The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), an apex body set up to collect, collate and analyse intelligence from all agencies and draw up action plans had become almost defunct. The agencies concerned were reluctant to share intelligence with the JIC.  

Raman (2005), additional secretary, cabinet secretariat, stated that India had a full-time chairman of the JIC till the middle of 1997. Thereafter, the post remained vacant till January 1999. The National Security Council (NSC) system based on the US model was set up subsequently. The system is presided over by the prime minister with important ministers of the cabinet, a national security adviser, a strategic policy group (SPG); an NSC Secretariat (NSCS) and a National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). The JIC became the NSC Secretariat.    The NSAB prepared the nuclear doctrine, the strategic defence review and the national security review.   

Madhav Godbole (1996; 2000; 2006), former union home secretary,  examined the apocalyptic act of violence and demolition on December 6, 1992 of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh and highlighted the political crisis which led to the union home ministry’s lack of action despite the existence of adequate powers under the Indian Constitution. He has left no one in doubt about the crisis of inaction at the heart of the Indian political system, which again became evident during the subsequent massacre of the minority Muslim community during the Gujarat carnage 2002, the attacks on the Christian minority in different parts of the country, and the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008.  

These events highlight the failings of the union home ministry in dealing with increasingly complicated conflict management situations in the country, which are reflective of a deeper political crisis at the heart of the Indian political system.

Selected References  

  • Arnold, David (1986) Police Power and Colonial Rule: Madras 1859-1947, OUP, New Delhi
  • Godbole, Madhav (1996) Unfinished Innings, Orient Longman, New Delhi
  • Godbole, Madhav (2000) The Changing Times: A Commentary on Current Affairs, Orient Longman, New Delhi
  • Godbole, Madhav (2006) Ayodhya and India’s Mahabharat: Constitutional Issues and Proprieties, Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, May 27)
  • Gupta Anandswarup, 1979 ‘The Police in British India’ (BPR&D, New Delhi)
  • Raman, B (2005) National Security Mechanism, http://www.saag.org/papers,1228. html
  • Srinivasavaradan, T.C.A (1992) Federal Concept: The Indian Experience, Allied Publishers, New Delhi
  • Vohra N.N. (1997) Is India under Threat: Growing Concerns about India’s Internal Security, World Affairs, July-September, Vol. I (3)

(K S Subramanian, formerly of the Indian Police Service (IPS), was Director-General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development, Government of Tripura)

Infochange News & Features, October 2009