I was surprised to hear Finance Minister P. Chidambaram’s statement after a Cabinet meeting (26 December 2012) that the direct supervision of the Delhi Police by our Central government was justified as it is “the practice in most capitals”. He was ruling out any supervisory role for the Delhi Chief Minister, a demand which arose after severe criticism was voiced on the way the Delhi Police handled public protests on the gang rape.

Although different countries have developed their own police systems, it is not correct to say that “most” capital city police systems are directly supervised by their Central governments. The Washington DC Police, which is a “municipal police”, is supervised by the mayor and not by their federal government. It is, however, true that in the US pattern of policing, federal agencies like Secret Service, Park Police, Capitol Police, Diplomatic Security and FBI have policing powers to discharge their special responsibilities all over the country. But for the common man, crime, law and order is handled by the DC Police, except in designated areas. Similarly, the British Home Office, which had direct control over the London Metropolitan Police, had gradually ceded such supervision to the London mayor. First it was in 2000 with the establishment of the Metropolitan Police Authority and later under the elected police commissioner system introduced by the David Cameron government in which the Mayor’s Office for Policing & Crime started operating from January 2012. The tiny City of London Police, manning 1.1 sq miles of the financial capital with 833 police officers was always under the Lord Mayor. The Ottawa City Police, which is a municipal police is supervised by the mayor and civic council. They also have a National Police (RCMP) doing policing all over Canada under federal government supervision.

Paris, which had no mayor until 1977, has a system like Delhi where the Central government appoints the chief of police (“prefect”). However some police powers, especially for traffic and public places are shared with the mayor after 2002. This is also because a part of the police funding comes from the city council.

Tokyo city, which has the biggest police force (43,000) among all national capitals barring Delhi, works under the Tokyo Metropolitan Safety Commission with five members chaired by a minister. Like many other countries, Japan has a national police and regional police prefectures. Their national police is supervised by the National Public Safety Commission (NPSC) and not by the government, although the NPSC is chaired by the Prime Minister, who is “not empowered to exercise direct command or control”.

Under the Seventh Schedule of our Constitution police is a state subject. Delhi was granted full statehood in 2003, but not the police and public order powers. Delhi Police, with its 76,000 strength, is the biggest metropolitan police in the world. Yet, it is odd that a state with 17 million population — more than that of Jammu & Kashmir or double that of Israel or Switzerland — should have no say on their policing. This arrangement could have been justified during the

Mughal or colonial times when there was a need to have a tight control over the population. Do we have any justification in continuing this when democratic decentralization is the trend all over the world?

Also, in all democratic societies, strict checks and balances are introduced on the police work apart from judicial scrutiny. As Gary T. Marx, social studies scholar and professor emeritus of MIT had said: “A defining characteristics of police is their mandate to legally use force and to deprive citizens of their liberty… It is ironic that police are both a major support and a major threat to a democratic society.”

This is not achieved with the present scheme of things in which bureaucracy in the Ministry of Home Affairs has more powers over the Delhi Police than a democratically elected Chief Minister and her government.

Bureaucratic overreach into governance on behalf of the Central government has taken such a bizarre turn that Puducherry Chief Minister N. Rangasamy was forced to defy the Central government (13 January 2013) over an IAS officer’s posting, during which, according to him “a middle level official of the Ministry of Home Affairs” overruled his order.

Do we call this democracy?