In the early hours of November 27, men in two cars broke into Nabha jail near Patiala in Punjab, and drove off with several prisoners, including Harminder Singh Mintoo, a leading figure of the banned Khalistan Liberation Front, a once-dreaded terror outfit. Mintoo was caught in Delhi a day later. The Punjab government reacted predictably, suspending the Director General of Police (Jails) and two other officials, but refusing to acknowledge it as a major security breach.

But hiding in plain sight is a bigger problem afflicting the police in Punjab, a theme that seems to be prevalent in other states as well.

Out of the state’s 24 districts and three police commissionerates, only two directly recruited Indian Police Services officers serve as chiefs, either at the rank of Senior Superintendent of Police or Additional Director General of Police (the rank of a police commissioner). The rest are officers from the state (civil services) police cadre.

This goes against the Indian Police Service (Fixation of Cadre Strength) Regulation, 1955, which mandates that a certain proportion of posts in states must go to directly recruited IPS officers who have been selected through the Union Public Service Commission examination conducted by the Union government.

According to cadre regulations, Punjab has a total of 172 IPS officers allocated to it. Of these, 94 are posts where only direct IPS officers can be posted. While state police officers can be promoted to the IPS, direct IPS officers are those who enter the police services through the Union Public Service Commission examination.

The regulations ensure that the quality of policing is uniform across the country. Putting a core group in each state comprising IPS officers who are selected and trained by the Central government also ensures commonality in policing standards and practice.

A fine balance

But there is another reason why a certain quota of posts must be manned by direct IPS officers.

According to the Constitution, law and order is a state subject. Thus, those recruited and controlled by the state are more amenable to the directions of their political masters in that particular state.

A balance is ensured because the controlling authority for IPS officers – whether directly recruited or promoted to the IPS from the state cadre – is the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. Thus, the system of populating a portion of senior police positions in each state with directly recruited IPS officers, along with police officers from the state, serves as an institutional check and balance within the governance framework.

But Punjab is witnessing a phenomenon where senior superintendents of police heading districts are not only from the state cadre, many of them have not even been promoted to the Indian Police Services.

This is a state ruled by the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition, which constitutes the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre.

Border states

Jammu and Kashmir, the other state where the BJP is a coalition partner, faces the same problem. In this case, neither IAS nor IPS officers are not being accommodated at district-level positions.

A report in the state’s Daily Excelsior earlier this month said that the state received a reminder from the Department of Personnel and Training, which directed the state to post IAS and IPS officers as deputy commissioners and Senior Superintendents of Police in districts. It noted that only state officers were being posted to these positions.

The Department of Personnel and Training, which handles the training and posting of IAS officers, comes under the Union Ministry of Personnel and Public Grievances.

“An unspoken but a key reason for such a directive is to also ensure that the administration does not suffer from local biases,” said a senior IAS officer from the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. “When key district-level government positions are dominated by locals from the state, their biases invariably creep in. A state cadre police officer or a district collector will face a challenges that an IAS or an IPS official would not.”

The Daily Excelsior report quoted Dr Jitendra Singh, a Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, who also heads the Ministry of Personnel and Public Grievances, as saying: “We have been pursuing the States for [a] regular cadre review and post IAS and IPS officers as per DoPT guidelines”.

In states like Jammu and Kashmir as well as Punjab that have seen a spate of terror attacks – Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Uri, Nagrota – the security implications of not posting IAS and IPS officers as required are quite serious.

Due to the nature of their work, IPS officers are plugged into the national grid better than their state civil services cadre counterparts. For instance, IPS officers also go on deputation to national security agencies such as internal security agency Intelligence Bureau, external security agency Research and Analysis Wing, and the National Investigation Agency.

Following the laid-down system that mixes state and Centre-recruited police or administrative services officers ensures that such officers build links with each other, which allows for better communication over the years. This could also translate into better allocation of funds or opportunities for states. For instance, because, say, IAS officers in states enjoy a rapport with their counterparts manning ministries at the Centre. This informal network forms the backbone of the two pillars of the Indian administrative framework. Unless the Centre steps in and takes it up with the states, especially border states such as Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, they will see a rapid decline in the quality of governance. Perhaps, the ominous signs are already there.