Political patronage and pressure remain the crux of police dysfunctionality.

 

The directive by the Bombay High Court to the CBI to conduct “a preliminary investigation” to ascertain the validity of the serious extortion charges levelled against Maharashtra’s ex-Home Minister Anil Deshmukh (who resigned on 5 April in response to the court decision) by the former Police Commissioner of Mumbai, Param Bir Singh is a timely step in the right direction; a decisive action that spikes the dilly dallying of the Maharashtra government, fortifies the sagging trust deficit between the citizenry and the government and attempts to unravel the shoddy nexus between the political class and the police. Moreover, this bold decision affirms that the rule of the law still prevails in a world of seemingly indomitable political power and influence.

The sequence of events that led to the open spat between the ex-Home Minister and the former Police Commissioner can be traced back to 25 February, when an abandoned Scorpio car with 20 gelatin sticks and a threatening letter was found parked outside billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s 27-storeyed South Mumbai home. A few days later the mystery deepened: Mansukh Hiren, the owner of the abandoned vehicle, was found dead in a creek near Thane. And on 13 March, the National Investigation Agency arrested Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Vaze in connection with the bomb scare at Mukesh Ambani’s Antilia residence and Mansukh Hiren’s murder.

The case resulted in a major shake-up of the Maharashtra Police, with Commissioner Param Bir Singh being shunted out to head the lowly Home Guards Department; the Home Minister cited “serious and unforgivable errors” by officers working in the Commissioner’s office as the reason.

The ex-Police Commissioner, in turn, hit back with a scathing letter to the Chief Minister, charging Home Minister Anil Deshmukh of allegedly running an extortion racket. In his letter he stated: “…The Hon’ble Home Minister expressed to Shri Vaze that he had a target to accumulate Rs. 100 crores a month. For achieving the aforesaid target, the Hon’ble Home Minister told Shri Vaze that there are about 1,750 bars, restaurants and other establishments in Mumbai and if a sum of Rs. 2-3 lakhs each was collected from each of them, a monthly collection of Rs. 40-50 crores was achievable.”

This train of events and the accompanying mud-slinging raise troubling questions about the state of affairs in the Maharashtra government.

Why was Sachin Vaze, an encounter specialist with a discreditable police record, who had been suspended from the police force in 2004, reinstated after nearly 17 years, unless the political dispensation had a nefarious agenda in mind in which such a dubious individual like Sachin Vaze could prove useful?

What was the intention in abandoning a car filled explosives outside the residence of India’s richest man? A possible police hand in such criminal activity is reprehensible and unacceptable.

Why did the police commissioner delay voicing his concerns until after he was shunted out of office?

And were some officers of the Maharashtra Police functioning as an extortion mafia under instructions from the Home Minister?

A high-level impartial inquiry is a must to get to the bottom of this shameful episode and to punish the guilty, so that public faith in the government may be restored. Therefore, the Maharashtra government’s decision to challenge the Bombay High Court directive for a CBI inquiry is misplaced, self-serving and does little to restore its own credibility.

If proven, these charges represent the most audacious and blatant attempt at systemic extortion and police criminality witnessed in recent times and something that must make all of us cringe with shame. However, we will be naive if we were to believe that this is a malady that is restricted to Mumbai and Maharashtra alone. Such devious activities to varying degrees are endemic to nearly every state and every police department across the entire country.

So, more important than an inquiry, what this incident must do is provide a renewed impetus to urgently bring in police reforms—changes that will ensure that political patronage and extraneous pressure are reduced to a minimum and allow the police to function independently and honestly.

Political patronage and pressure remain the crux of police dysfunctionality.

Retired IPS officer Meeran Chadha Borwankar, the first woman officer to head Mumbai’s Crime Branch in a recent interview asserted: “In the current scenario, if you are close to the ruling party (and this is applicable to all political parties and all states) and ready to work at their behest you will get a plum posting of your choice. Merit and honesty are not the criteria anymore. There has been a sharp decline in the integrity scale since the late 1980s. And it has indeed very adversely affected police professionalism.”

The need for police reforms has long been acknowledged. The National Police Commission (1977-81), the Ribeiro Committee (1998), the Padmanabhaiah Committee (200), the Malimath Committee (2202-2003), Police Act Drafting Committee (2005) and Supreme Court Guidelines (2006)—have all addressed the issue. What has been missing is a political will to implement the recommendations made by these committees.

In response to a PIL filed by two former DGPs, Prakash Singh and N.K. Singh, the Supreme Court in 2006 pronounced that police reform was essential and issued seven binding directives to states and union territories to kick-start the process of reforms.

These seven directives addressed deep seated problems that have bogged the police, namely, political pressure, lack of accountability, punitive transfers and lack of merit-based transparent appointments. To overcome these deficiencies, the top court advocated the setting up of three new institutions at the state level—State Security Commission to insulate the police from outside pressure, Police Establishment Board to give autonomy to police officers in personnel matters, and Police Complaints Authority to make the police more accountable.

According to the international non-profit Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, no Indian state or UT has fully complied with the SC directives nearly 14 years after they were issued; only Andhra Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh were partially compliant with 5 binding directives (2 others are not considered within the purview of the State).

To rid the police force across the entire nation of the wrongdoings that have become almost intrinsic to this agency and to prevent a repeat of what transpired in Mumbai, it is imperative that the Supreme Court steps in again to ensure that its 2006 directives are carried out.

The Niti Aayog report titled, “Building Smart Police in India: Background Into The Needed Police Force Reforms” (2017) concluded: “The needs for a fast-growing economy like India for safe environment particularly in light of the complex security threats in present times are imminent. Terrorism, Left Wing Extremism, crimes including cyber-crimes, law and order issues threats which call for strong and efficient police for internal security. A review of the police governance framework, the legal setup, the issues ailing the police force—all call from making police reforms one of the greatest priority for the country.”