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Home » IAS Articles » Indian Police Services Articles » The 1861 Act - a Colonial model

The 1861 Act - a Colonial model


Let us consider the existing Police Act V of 1861. There is considerable evidence to suggest that this represents a colonial model where the objectives of policing are to serve the interests of ruling establishment. The police are 'so shaped in personnel, powers and procedures as to be a terror to the law abiding citizen'. The Police Act of 1861 completely ignored the basic principles of policing which are to be accountable to the citizens, beholden to judicial control and more significantly work for the prevention of crime by winning trust and cooperation of people they serve. In contrast, the colonial police are shaped as an instrument of coercive power of the establishment. The first Police Commission, appointed in 1860 to reorganize the Indian police, was not surprisingly told to bear in mind that the '...functions of police are either protective and repressive or detective', [and the] 'line that separates the protective and repressive functions of the civil police from functions purely military, may not, always, in India be very clear.' Even then the organizational set up was not conceived to last more than a short period of time. It is deplorable that even after 58 years of independence we have not changed the laws governing the police in India.

At this stage it is useful to understand the main provisions of Police Act V of 1861 and why it needs to be repealed. The principles defined in Section 23 lay down that the duties of officers are to promptly obey and execute all orders and warrants lawfully issued by any competent authority; to collect and communicate intelligence affecting the public peace; to prevent the commissioning of offences and public nuances; to detect and bring offenders to justice; and to apprehend all persons for whom sufficient legal grounds exist. The order of importance of these duties is significant - to obey orders of superiors and collect intelligence and then followed by prevention and detection of offences. Nowhere does the Act suggest giving service to the people and working closely to gain their trust.

This stands in sharp contrast to the principles enshrined in all modern police forces, which are 'to serve and protect' and to prevent crime by working with the people. There are other sections in the Act too that suggest a repressive nature of the police system. Section 15 provides for the stationing of additional punitive police in any part of the province found to be disturbed from the conduct of the inhabitants. More significantly, the Act provides that the costs of such additional police can be levied from the inhabitants through distress warrants and sale of confiscated property of the fugitives.

Section 17 provides for the appointment of the residents as special police officers to assist the regular police and Section 19 provides powers to punish people refusing to serve as such. Selected citizens have been appointed as special police officers under section 17 to combat terrorists and naxalites, for example. Section 30 empowers the police to license the assemblies and processions of people that could be refused on grounds of threat to law and order. Furthermore, since Indians filled majority of subordinate ranks, provisions were made to keep their loyalty under constant supervision. Section 44 requires the maintenance of a general diary by the Station House Officer (SHO) to document movement of all officers. The officers could thus not only check the loyalty of subordinates but also wield considerable authority over the general people without direct accountability.

The police system was found to be unsatisfactory even by the British rulers themselves. A Police Commission appointed by Lord Curzon in 1902-03 found that 'the police force is far from efficient; it is defective in training and organization; it is inadequately supervised; [and] it is generally regarded as corrupt and oppressive'. The National Police Commission of 1978 (NPC) pointed that the police performance does not meet the expectations of citizens because of being constrained to function under an outmoded and 'politically more useful' system. It identified politically partisan performance, brutality, corruption and inefficiency as the clear perceptions of the police institution in the country.

Undemocratic by design

Apart from these historical antecedents there are three main design features that have adversely affected police performance in India. The prominent design feature is of maintaining order rather than providing service to the people. All the repressive sections described above shape police to be an order maintaining force rather than as one that serves the people by providing security and preventing crime. Accordingly, there is the continuing emphasis on armed policing within the system. Armed forces, no doubt, play an important role in the maintenance of order due to the volatile social, economic, ethnic, religious, and political conflicts in the country. But they cannot exercise any law enforcement powers, which are in the hands of regular police.

It is a lame excuse that we must establish order first before enforcing law. It is regular police work that defuses conflicts and helps maintain order. Moreover, short term objectives of maintaining order rather than looking into the underlying nature of problems is leading to dangerous situations. The strategies to deal with 'naxalism', political unrest and regional demands have generally used force to curb violence without letting police act as arbitrators. Consequently the police become the 'enemy' and a target of agitators. The police are then not seen as neutral agents of law but as those on the side of entrenched establishment.

Further, maintaining order, especially in the democratic framework of the country involves discretionary judgments that have both political and social implications. Armed police, outside the purview of civilian scrutiny can and do affect sensitive political issues like elections, communal problems and center-state relations. The objectives that the police must safeguard in an independent India are based on democratic ideals and freedom. Armed police do not subscribe to these ideals and are not meant to do so either. The time to shed the reliance on armed police and develop the civilian model cannot be postponed further; how so ever threatening the order maintenance problems may appear to be.

The second feature is the system of dual control -- one exercised by the IPS and the other operated through the office of District Magistrate and the Home Ministry staffed by the IAS. Even though in the Police Act of 1861, control by the ICS was limited to the administration at the district level, the control mechanism grew geometrically. First it led to the establishment of the Home Ministry that began controlling the police organization, formulating its policies and controlling its budget. Furthermore, at every level of administration the police were subordinated to the corresponding civilian officer. Thus, the police ranges were made smaller units than revenue divisions and the Divisional Commissioner (a state government official) became the superior officer of the DIG. Indeed, in many states, even the Zonal IGs have been subordinated to the Divisional Commissioner. A much junior ranking IAS officer has been elevated to the rank of Home Secretary where he begins to dictate to the Chief of Police - the DGP, an officer who may be at least 10 years senior in rank. The present system has therefore ensured through various mechanisms to subordinate the police service to that of administrative service. This has prevented growth of professionalism in police and created a situation where people with little stake in the police organization make its policy and control its functions.

More troubling is the third design feature - the colonial cultural heritage that has not only alienated the police from the citizens but also promoted corruption and brutality. For the British, ostentatious pageantry and grandeur of the senior officers was an obvious, visible form of authority. The morning parade and salute to the commanding officer, the armed sentry at the Superintendent's gate and armed escort on their tours were symbols that placed senior officers on a high pedestal. The Raj itself was symbolic, based upon an implied authority and total submission of the people. The slightest challenge to any official decree was taken seriously since it was felt that control would be impossible unless the people were totally subjugated. In this system, the people felt the power of the Raj through the daily humiliations and abuse meted out by the police personnel and submitted meekly to their extortion and corrupt practices.

In present day India, the Raj lives on. Police misbehaves and terrorizes the citizens, and the lavish living style of the senior officers is still quite visible. Instead of tiger hunts there are New Year parties, picnics and official 'get togethers' with family and friends at Dak Bungalows and public buildings. The practice of glorifying senior officers still survives. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, senior officers are still addressed as 'Huzur Bahadur', or 'Kaptan Sahib'. The association and continuance of the British legacy is displayed with pride in all police offices where a 'succession list' maintains the links from the British to the present period.

The wide gulf between the 'rulers' and the ruled continues and the class hierarchy even within the force is strictly maintained. Constables and even middle level officers do not sit down in front of the Superintendent. India is unashamedly an elitist society but elitism within the superior bureaucratic services is scandalous. Blatant misuse of official resources and other corrupt practices, in the name of cultural traditions leads to a quiet acceptance of corruption within the organization. All this calls for a major transformation, of organizational structure, management practices, supervision procedures, decentralization of power, creation of local accountability system, even a change in role and functions of the police in the society.

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