Policing is a state subject

Centralisation is not a silver bullet. Citizens will get internal security only when they demand it from their elected representatives.

In this month’s issue of Pragati, Ajit Kumar Doval, former chief of the Intelligence Bureau, argues that the “structural architecture of India’s legal-constitutional framework” poses a challenge to evolving a national counter-terrorism policy. He points out that

(While) national security, including internal security, is the responsibility of the Centre, most of the instruments—like powers to maintain law and order, the criminal administration system, police and prisons—are controlled by the constituent states. The states, keen to preserve their turf and apprehensive of the central government’s political interference are unwilling to provide any space to the Centre that could empower it to take direct action in security related matters. This renders the task of a holistic tackling of internal security threats difficult.

While the states lack capabilities to cope with these threats on their own they are unwilling to allow any direct intervention by the Centre. This seriously limits the Centre’s ability to formulate, execute, monitor and resource national counter terrorist policies in an effective and comprehensive manner.[Ajit K Doval/Pragati]

It is tempting to see a solution in shifting the responsibility to the central government. The new National Investigating Agency (a poor choice of words, “investigations” would have been better) that is now in the process of being instituted is likely to take this route. Now, it makes sense to charge a central agency with the mandate to investigate inter-state crimes like terrorism, drug trafficking and counterfeiting. But the need for a new agency was debatable—and because the parliament passed it in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, it did not sufficiently debate this. Couldn’t the existing Central Bureau of Investigation have been given additional responsibilities, powers, resources and most importantly, independence?

While central agencies have a role to play, it is the police forces of the states that are on the frontline in the battle against terrorists. Literally, as Mumbai showed. So improving the quality of local policing and equipping them for the twenty-first century is the main act. Seductive as it is to push policing to the central government, it insidiously changes the centre-state balance. This is undesirable in principle, at least not without careful debate. But it is also dangerous: just imagine a scenario where policing is fully centralised and another Shivraj Patil is in charge.

Even financing police (linkthanks PE)through the central government’s funds carries a moral hazard—states are likely to abdicate their fiscal responsibility (or rather, never develop such a responsibility at all), and with it, begin to point fingers at New Delhi for their own failures. Citizens must hold their MLAs and state governments accountable for maintaining law and order. Central overreach disrupts this basic constitutional relationship of democratic accountability.

India didn’t suffer from this campaign of terrorist attacks because it lacked a NIA. The proximate cause is a grand mismanagement of internal security under an incompetent home minister and an ineffective prime minister. The fundamental cause is that there has been a systematic under-investment in improving policing and intelligence over the last three decades. Unless voters hold their elected representatives to account, matters will remain much the same.

Related Post:Towards a new national counter-terrorism policy

14 thoughts on “Policing is a state subject”

  1. Forget about laws and NIA, half our problems will be solved if our state governments take up police reforms seriously.

    The policing power structure as it is now is totally out of sync with conditions in the 21st century.

    Police reforms would perfectly complement new laws and NIA in our fight against terrorism and other security issues.

    As you said, the change has to come in the states, with citizens demanding their MLAs to reform the police. If the states take up police reforms, they’ll give a sense of completeness to the war on terror, with laws and NIA already in place. I really pray for the day when that would happen.

  2. >>Citizens must hold their MLAs and state governments accountable for maintaining law and order>>
    Nitin, the trouble is that state governments govern the entire state, not just major cities which are facing the terrorist threat. People in smaller towns and villages are obviously concerned have other priorities which naturally get more attention from a state dependent on their support.

    Unfortunately, it is the large cities where the state gets a large part of its revenue from (in Karnataka for example, IT, a few years ago, was said to generate some 48% of the state revenue and most of it, as you know, is located in Bangalore); so the state governments are naturally reluctant to let go of the goose that lays the golden eggs and confer on the city the kind of power the mayor of New York City enjoys. While it is also therefore true that they naturally do not also want to let the goose to die for the same reasons, political compulsions still do not allow them to spend the bulk of their money on the city. State governments that focused primarily on improving urban infrastructure have in the past faced electoral defeats. It is this power-accountability mismatch that needs to be corrected first to do what you say.

  3. Bobcat,

    Your arguments are well thought out and well articulated.

    How do you propose to solve this mismatch? I, for one, would make the top 10 cities in india union territories. of course, would run into huge oppn from the sattes but I see no other way out.


  4. … police and prisons—are controlled by the constituent states …

    Can someone enlighten me? I always thought police was on the dual list; because we have both state police as well as central police forces like the CRPF. CRPF is a police force, right? Not a paramilitary force (like BSF).

  5. I believe that policing, rather than being a state subject must be controlled at the city level. Each city has specialised needs that a locally managed force will be more responsive to.

    Also there will be an element of competition in the approaches used by the various cities. Various cities can adopt different approaches, and the public will demand that the best approaches are copied to all the cities.

    This will also increase the pace of innovation in the police force. Currently, it is very slow and difficult to innovate for a whole country. Changing something for a city is far easier and faster.

  6. Huh?

    Are we back to square one! There was no debate on the need for national investigating agency? What was going on for years?

    Sure the first in line of any incident are police. So the issue is not either upgrading police force or investigating terrorism that is spread from the upper reaches of northeast to the lower tips of the south! It’s both.

    In fact this NIA doesn’t go far enough to fight back – investigate and prosecute, and prevent – terror decisively.

  7. Fully agree with most of the article and that the NIA doesn’t address the issue – which is that India’s first responders to terrorist incidents are the underpaid, unmotivated, lathi-laden constables, who cannot stand up to highly motivated madmen armed with AK-47s.

    However, I don’t really agree with the argument that the responsibility should not be shifted to the Centre. The argument being made is that Mumbai was allowed to prolong because of Shivraj Patil’s incompetence. I think this would have happened and played out in the same manner, regardless of who the Home Minister was. It didn’t matter that Advani himself was the Home Minister during our humiliating response to the Indian Airlines hijacking in 1999.

    If the argument is that an incompetent Union Home Minister can botch up our responses to acts of terrorism, the same argument can be made of state home ministers. Worse, many states haven’t seen shifts in power in the way Centre has, and as a consequence, are run with a level of autocracy where the dictum of one man is the law. This, coupled with the abhorrent proposed changes to UAPAA, where a suspect is guilty until proven innocent, doesn’t bode well for the future of minorities in the country.

  8. Wait a second — since when do local and state govts have the resources to combat an enemy power like Pakistan?
    If some states get better security, the terrorists can always target states with lower security. Most states certainly don’t have the resources necessary to take on international terrorists like AlQaeda, Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

    Perhaps it might be better to build up the Central Industrial Security Force to be able to provide anti-terrorist protection to key economic areas.

    Any local or state police are bound to be outclassed by a premiere terror organization like AlQaeda/Taliban/Lashkar. It’s really upto the Centre to go after them – the best defense is a good offense.

    We’re just desperately trying to place more bricks in front of our windows, and letting the terrorists take over our lives.

  9. Acorn,

    What is going to be the difference between CBI and NIA ? Why new agency; why can’t CBI be expanded to do the job of NIA ?

  10. Sanjay,

    Policing at the state level has its own benefits, some of which are necessary for fighting pan-India phenomena like terrorism, trafficking, fraud etc. I believe these benefits outweigh the benefits of centralisation.

    1. Local (ground level) knowledge, because of awareness of local language, nuances and culture – this knowledge is crucial for gathering intelligence.

    2. Less red tape, more efficiency – I’m sure you are aware of the importance of this.

    3. Individual state level units with freedom of action in their respective areas (in place of one grand central level unit) would throw up a diverse range of creative solutions.

    4. It will help avoid some real dangers – like that mentioned by Nitin – what if there’s a Shivraj Patil on top? That would be a complete disaster.

    5. Imagine the state of the country had there been no Gujarat police with Congress Govt. at the centre. How many more terror attacks we would have faced?

    The better thing to do would be to make law and order a subject under the Concurrent List and devise a comprehensive anti-terror structure with proper coordination among all agencies involved with prevention of terrorism as the major objective and efficiency as the major emphasis.

    More important are police reforms. Its URGENT! Security in our country cant get worse than this. We cant afford it.

    Even a force like FBI will not work in India if there are no police reforms at the state level.

  11. I think there is some confusion here.

    1.Police is a state subject with respect to separation of legislative powers only.So, states can make laws related to police administration. But the IPS that provides leadership to police forces is an all india service.And we also have several federal policing agencies like BSF, CRPF, CISF etc.

    2.The NIA will not be a policing agency; it will primarily be an investigative agency;

    3.The real discussion needs to happen on: allocating funds for more number of police forces, better equipment and training, and yes, a cohesive coordination mechanism for police and NIA to work together.

    It should not/does not matter whether Police is a state subject or if it is in the concurrent list.If it is not there already, terrorism should be a concurrent subject.

  12. Atlantean, look at how the rest of the world fights terrorism. They don’t put such heavy burdens onto the small shoulders of local law enforcement. Terrorism is a form of proxy war, and the resources at its disposal can dwarf those of local law enforcement agencies. What would happen is that terrorists would win handily in some states, which would then become nests of terror, and launchpads for terrorism against the better-equipped states.

    Regardless of where terror strikes in the nation, national-level resources need to be martialed and mobilized against it. The national govt should be held accountable for the results in the war on terror. If you put state govts in charge, and hold them accountable instead, then the terrorists will attack particular states to demolish their smaller govts.

    For instance, terrorists would go out of their way to particularly attack states like Gujarat, so that their allies in the state would be able to call Modi a weakling for not stopping the terrorist attacks.

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