For decades, I have argued that police independence and reform are crucial for governance. Public order is intrinsically political and must be handled by the Home minister. But crime detection and prosecution should not be political, and should be done by an agency independent of the government. This will end the current criminalisation of politics, with criminals entering politics to sabotage cases they face, and organise vendettas against their opponents.

The Supreme Court has now mandated sweeping police reforms towards these ends in the Prakash Singh public interest suit. Kiran Bedi, currently head of Police Research, says the historic verdict will at last give India a non-politicised police and improve police functioning. But KPS Gill, the brainy police chief who crushed terrorism in Punjab, questions some basic premises of the Court, and doubts if rule by committee can yield either efficiency or police independence. I incline somewhat more to Gill than Bedi.

The Court verdict says public order should be separated from crime detection. The key parts of its verdict are:

State Security Commission will be set up in every state, and a National Security Commission at the Centre. The State Security Commissions will have the Chief Minister or Home Minister as Chairman, the Director General of Police (DGP) as ex-officio Secretary, a member of the Opposition, a judge and emnent non-political members of civil society. It will select all DGPs from a panel of three recommended by the UPSC.

The National Security Commission will follow a similar procedure for Central police organizations.

The tenure of top police officers from the rank of Superintendent of Police upwards will be fixed for a minimum of two years. This is aimed at ensuring independence from political interference.

A Police Establishment Board under the DGP will be created in every state to appoint and transfer officers below the level of SP.

Scientific research will be introduced to enhance crime detection.

A Police Complaint Authority under a retired Supreme Court or High Court judge will be created in every district to hear public complaints against cops up to the rank of DSP (such as extortion, land grabbing and assault). Its recommendations will be binding.

The Court says it has given these directions based on the recommendations of the NHRC, the Julio Riberio Committee and the Soli Sorabjee Committee to revamp the Indian Police Act, 1861. The hope is that, by placing responsibility for all transfers and postings on the shoulders of Police Headquarters, political interference and the blame game will end.

Kiran Bedi says that the date of the verdict, September 22 2006, will be remembered in the annals of Indian Policing as National Day of Rule of Law. KPS Gill, by contrast, says the verdict will “only enthuse the armchair administrator” and that the plethora of committees will yield a “parody of governance that produces nothing beyond paralysis and dispersal of responsibility.” Gill says that the Constitution places the executive at the apex of national management, so law and order cannot be separated from politics, especially where terrorism is concerned.He also notes the irony that the Court has taken 10 years to give a verdict in this case, yet expects all states to implement its orders in three months!

I have witnessed for decades the great expertise of politicians in sabotaging legal and constituttional norms. I suspect they will “manage” the security Commissions to nulify policeindependence. Far better would have been the creation of a National Police Commission with the same independence as the Election Commission, with State Police Commissions under it. The verdict appears to leave the appointment of prosecutors to politicians, who will surely abuse that power.

As an old cynic, I do not believe that the states will implement the new directives in letter and spirit. Politicians do not give power so easily. Just see the sabotage of panchayati raj despite a Consttutional amendment.

There are limits to judicial activism. Many years ago, the Supreme Court ordered that the Central Bureau of Investigation should be placed under the Vigilance Commission, not Home Minister, to ensure its independence. But that verdict required a new law. Politicians have failed to pass such a law, and so the CBI continues to be a political plaything. Expect similar games with the Security Comissions.

The Court appears to have a poor grasp of the financial implications of its activism. Some years ago it decreed that the states must appoint many more judges to speed up justice. Excellent idea, but bankrupt state governments said they had insufficient funds to imlement the order.

Many committees have shown that the police are chronicallybunderfunded. The ratio of police to the population is very low by global standards, police pay is so pathetic that people join only to extort, and the case load per investigatng officer is simply impossible. India probably needs one million more police and jail staff immediately, along with thousands of thana buildings, jails and policemen’s homes. It needs massive investments in forensic facilities and high-quality training.

The Supreme Court can decree many things, but cannot decree that additional revenue should fall out of the sky. So, lack of finance will be the Achilles’ heel of police reform.

I see only one possible way out. The National Advisory Council under Sonia Gandhi may be revived one day. If civil society members convince Sonia that massive additional sums must be provided for police reform, then the political establishment may agree. Nothing else will suffice.