INDIA: Police reforms must be priority for new governments

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) congratulates all the candidates who have secured a victory in the elections to the State Legislative Assemblies that have concluded in the four states and a union territory of India, i.e. in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Puducherry. Elections were largely held in a peaceful manner, and the contesting political parties have accepted the results declared by the Election Commission of India.

These elections are held in one of the most important times for India. Over the past six decades, no government in India has placed priority on justice institution reforms. The incumbent Union Government led by the National Democratic Alliance is no different. The alarming and the stillborn nature of affairs in justice delivery in the country have failed to attract the government’s attention. This, despite the Chief Justice of the country making a passionate plea to the Prime Minister in a public function held four weeks ago. If the situation continues, it has the potential to snowball into a complete collapse of the justice delivery mechanism in the country, from which a recovery, if at all possible, will be long and painful.

In the entire country it is only in the state of Kerala that the government has positively engaged on refining the justice delivery process. Initiating the process, the incumbent Director General of Police (DGP) Mr. T.P. Senkumar has made a public call, seeking advice and support to modernise the state police. Now that a change in the state government is certain in the Kerala, it has been promising to hear the leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in his speech immediately after the party’s victory was declared, stating that the people of the state have voted for a government that is able to better ensure equal access to rights of the poor, in particular the safety of women and children in Kerala.

One of the incidents that rocked Kerala during the last days of the election campaign was the rape and brutal murder of a law student. Since the murder was reported, the state police have failed to make any breakthrough in the investigation.

The AHRC is not of the opinion that the police must be placed under pressure to arrest a suspect for the crime, within days, if not hours, after a crime is reported. However, in this case, and in many other previous cases, the police investigation on display has offered a riveting portrayal of how unequipped the state police are to undertake a scientific crime investigation. The police failed in almost all aspects of the investigation in the law student’s case. It failed to prevent the crime scene from being contaminated, and failed to even preserve the body of the victim. Media reports, followed by subsequent police actions, confirmed that the state police was clueless on how to proceed with the investigation of the case.

Kerala is considered a relatively safer place to live in India, and the state police are considered better equipped to discharge their responsibilities in comparison to their counterparts in the country. But the manner in which investigation into the rape and murder of the law student was undertaken has exposed how even the Kerala state police is ill equipped to undertake the job.

The right to justice is an inalienable right of every citizen. Justice delivery, including the capacity of the state’s agencies to undertake their job, is a measure with which the state’s commitment to protect the safety and security of the people is assessed. If this holds water, the Indian state has failed to ensure this right to its citizens so far. It is in this context that one must consider both the appeal made by the DGP of Kerala and that made by the Chief Justice of India.

Today, two important agencies in India, one represented by a state police chief and the other by the Chief Justice of the country, have requested immediate reforms to be implemented in order for justice delivery in the country not to be further hampered. It is equally the responsibility of the people of the country, including that of the political parties that will soon form governments in each of the states where elections have concluded, to review the state of justice delivery within their jurisdictions. Perhaps the call by the DGP in Kerala for public participation in police reforms is a step ahead on this count.

The AHRC calls upon the new governments that will be formed in all the five jurisdictions to take up police and justice institution reforms as a priority subject for the next five years. This involves commitment of adequate resources and ensuring informed public participation in the process. Perhaps here again the Kerala State Police Department could lead the process and the new state government to be formed be a model for its counterparts in the country.