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Police in South Asia: Key Issues

of the external sector in the very recent years. Nayyar





Police in South Asia: Key Issues

K S Subramanian

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result that several decades after independence, their everyday policing often fails to protect fundamental human and legal rights. “Even the absolute and nonderogable right against the use of torture

he Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), functioning from New Delhi, works to make human rights, genuine democracy and development, realities in people’s lives by promoting high standards and functional mechanisms to ensure accountability and participation. Its agenda includes working for access to information and access to justice.

The police in south Asia have largely functioned as an oppressive instrument of state power rather than as protectors of citizens’ rights. This has led to widespread human rights violations and denial of justice. The CHRI works for systemic reform to make police accountable to rule of law. The present report, researched and written by Sanjay Patil, examines the issue of police reform in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. All the countries face serious common issues in police reform; their governments employ similar delaying tactics to oppose meaningful reform despite mounting public pressure for peopleoriented changes in police structures, behaviour and outlook.

Apart from a common introduction, each country report in this volume begins

Economic & Political Weekly

august 15, 2009

Feudal Forces: Reform Delayed, Moving from Force to Service in South Asian Policing researched and written by Sanjay Patil

(Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative), 2008; pp 102.

with a succinct analysis of the background

to police reform followed by an account

of post-independence reform exercises, a

summation of the current scenario and a

conclusion with specific recommen dations

addressed to the government, the police

services, and civil society organisations.

The introduction examines the issues of

colonial legacy; independence and its failed

promise; the meaning and content of demo

cratic policing; and the way forward. The

author points out that the volume is not to

provide a “laundry list” of all the ills that

afflict policing in south Asia but to assess the

“current state and pace of police reforms in

the selected countries and the concrete

steps that can be undertaken to transition

policing in the region from force to service”.


All the four countries have retained the Irish colonial-militaristic model of policing left behind by the British raj with the

vol xliv no 33

is abused by the police throughout south Asia”. Democratic policing is not just about maintaining “law and order”. Law enforcers throughout south Asia need to give up their mindset of using force to maintain the law in place of providing service as a means to uphold the law.

The problems with policing in the region are that it is oppressive, unfair and inefficient; there is a culture of impunity for wrongful acts perpetrated by the police; there is very little effective oversight or review of police conduct; there is illegitimate political interference in all aspects of police administration; there is a serious lack of resources for policing; and finally, the “conditions and conditioning” of the lower ranks are bad. Deficiencies in south Asian policing arise from dysfunctionality of governance, corruption, limited resources for competing demands, and the feudal class orientation of the civil societies. The way forward will arise from a clear understanding of the kind of policing needed in democratic societies; clear definition of the executive-police relationships; adequate provisioning and management of finances, infrastructure and equipment; greater respect for rule of law;


sensitivity to issues relating to minorities, women and weaker sections; and reform of the broader criminal justice system and governance.

Country-Specific Evaluations


The chapter on Bangladesh evaluates the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)-sponsored Police Reform Programme of 2003, the most significant outcome of which was the Draft Police Ordinance 2007 to replace the outdated Police Act of 1861. An exceptional document, the Ordinance, if implemented with all its progressive provisions, could even become a template for Bangladesh’s neighbours. However, nothing had happened to it till the end of 2008, when national elections took place! The author feels that it was a mistake on the part of the caretaker government (CG) before the elections not to have involved the two major political parties in the reform proposals and discussions.


The chapter on India deals mainly with the 2006 directions on police reforms issued by the Supreme Court of India on the basis of the public interest petition filed by former senior police officials, Prakash Singh and another, back in 1996. The petition had drawn attention to the recommendations of the National Police Commission reports of 1979-81, gathering dust in the union home ministry archives. Meanwhile, the Manmohan Singh government in 2005 had set up a Police Act Drafting Committee (PADC), whose Model Police Act, 2006 was submitted to the government of India at the same time as the Supreme Court issued its directions. The directions of the Court, if implemented in earnest, would certainly bring a measure of accountability to police functioning.

However, state governments in India have opposed or would like to dilute some of the crucial directions of the Court. In view of the tardy progress of implementation of the Supreme Court directions and the apparent hesitation of the government of India to approve the Model Police Act, 2006 there is an air of déjà vu police reforms advocacy circles in India. The monitoring committee set up by the Supreme Court to examine the progress of action on its directions recently submitted a report whose contents have not been revealed. The Indian scenario on police reforms is, therefore, not more promising than elsewhere in the region.

The Supreme Court directions, wise as they are, fail to address many key issues relevant to police reforms in India. Some of these are:

  • The paramilitary structures of even the civilian police which have led to most of its regressive political-organisational features (Arnold 1986; Baxi 1982; Subramanian 2007);
  • Sometimes “political intercession” with the police by a non-power holding politician on behalf of his constituents to set right a police wrong or to register a complaint may be “democratic” in a society like ours with an authoritarian police structure and its oppressive behaviour with the public. At other times, the management failures of the police leadership in giving relief to the people may lead to such “political intercession” at the local level. “Politicisation of the police is the price we have to pay for the democratic functioning of our polity” says an author (Verma 2005). This type of political intervention is to be distinguished from the frequent and highly objectionable “political interference” by the politician holding executive power who directs the police to do as he wills against the Constitution and the law as happened during the Gujarat carnage, 2002 and the Babri masjid demolition, 1992;
  • The role of police intelligence agencies at the centre and in the states, which are the main sources of information on social conflicts in the government; reports by policemen, who are not trained in social analysis, carry a pervasive bias against social movements which assert the legal, social and human rights of poor people and a bias in favour of “security of the state”. Policemen often consider such movements for social justice as “incipient insurgencies”. Other publicly available reports produced by scholars and activists bring out the real socio-economic basis of such movements and contradict police reports. However, governments have a tendency to rely on police reports in such cases and go ahead to provide the police with increased
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    fire power, mobility and manpower contrary to the need to undertake a political d ialogue with the disaffected public; the situation points to the need for serious reform of the information systems in g overnment;

  • The recasting of the Police Act 1861 must be accompanied by concomitant changes in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, and the Criminal Procedure Code, 1861 which, given their colonial origins, prioritise state security issues such as “Offences Against the State”, “maintenance of public order and tranquillity”, political intelligence collection, to the neglect of human security issues;
  • The need for decentralisation of the highly centralised police structure, which was suitable for the British raj but is not relevant in a rapidly decentralising gover nance system of a democratic country, involving the three-tier system of panchayati raj institutions (PRIs), operating from the district level to the village. The PRIs are constitutionally mandated to undertake crucial d evelopmental functions but their work is hamstrung by the non-provision of adequate “functions, functionaries and finances”; there is a need to decentralise the police structures in a way as to align them with the PRIs and make the police functionaries at the district level and below accountable to the heads of the PRIs; “democracy at the top and bureaucracy at the bottom” as exists today must be abolished;
  • There is a need to reconsider the role of about a million strong central paramilitary forces, including (apart from the Central Reserve Police Force which supplements law and order management in the states), several other forces raised for specific purposes such as border security and industrial security. These forces are also often used to supplement law and order
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    vol xliv no 33

    Economic & Political Weekly


    management at the local level in the states; all this is contrary to the constitutional provision that “law and order” and police are state subjects;

  • The need to review and revise from a human rights point of view the police regulations, police manuals and standing orders in different states, which provide practical guidelines for day to day police activity at the state, district and police station levels;
  • The need to take a closer look at police corruption, torture, and ill-treatment of minorities, weaker sections and women; – the culture of secrecy and non-transparency that pervades police organisations.
  • Pakistan

    The chapter on Pakistan refers, after briefly mentioning police reforms exercises from 1948 to 2000, to the police order 2002, supported by the Asian Development Bank, which was meant to help improve police functioning but was regressively amended with serious adverse impacts on the police. The long-standing tradition of the police serving as the “standing force



    for vested interests” could thus not be breached. Though a number of terrorist attacks in 2008 and other serious internal problems threaten to plunge Pakistan into chaos, the public “thirst for reform” and professionalisation of the police agency persists. The successful working of the National Highways and Motorways Police (NHMP) set up in 1997 has provided a useful example of change from reactive to proactive policing but it has promoted a perception that the only way out for the Pakistan police is the complete scrapping of the existing system and its replacement by a new one.

    Sri Lanka

    The chapter on Sri Lanka recapitulates the history of police reforms in the country and wonders if the continuing atrocities by the state security forces and the police that has been deliberately fostered to contain the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-led violent separatist movement, will ever allow the contemplated reform exercises to succeed.



    This is a welcome report on an understudied subject on which it provides plentiful information and analysis. It covers a large canvas in a masterly, compressed format. More detailed but controlled analysis of the political context of police reforms in each country would have been helpful. The wider circulation of this study would benefit stakeholders in the governments of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well as their police agencies, and civil society organisations. The CHRI and author Sanjay Patil must be complimented for producing this valuable document.



    Arnold, David (1986): Police Power and Colonial Rule: Madras 1859-1947 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

    Baxi, Upendra (1982): Crisis of the Indian Legal System (New Delhi: Vikas Publications).

    Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (2009): Seven Steps to Police Reforms in India.

    Subramanian, K S (2007): Political Violence and the Police in India (New Delhi: Sage Publications).

    Verma, Arvind (2005): Indian Police: A Critical Evaluation (New Delhi: Regency Publications).




    Economic & Political Weekly

    august 15, 2009 vol xliv no 33

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