The uploading of a series of Facebook videos in January by a disgruntled constable of the Border Security Force, Tej Bahadur Yadav, about the apparently poor quality of food and tough working conditions has understandably caused a lot of outrage and concern. The surfacing of similar social media posts in the wake of Yadav’s viral videos created a narrative of exploitation of the brave sacrificing jawans at the hands of an allegedly corrupt, callous and feudal cadre of officers. That living conditions, equipment, training and promotional avenues of our Central Armed Police Forces – which include the Border Security Force, Central Reserve Police Force, Central Industrial Security Force, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Sashastra Seema Bal, National Security Guard, and the Assam Rifles – should improve further is not disputed. There is an awareness that our troops need to be leaner and better resourced and modernisation is a strategic imperative.

But, in view of the current mandate of internal security challenges as well as budget constraints, this transition will take much longer than the attention span of 24x7 media. One of the uninformed suggestions emerging out of the current debate is that the leadership of the forces needs to change fundamentally so that leaders are more aware of ground realities, have adequate experience, and are committed to a long-term career to lead the force rather than short casual stints.

The top leadership in the police, intelligence and investigative organisations, both in the Central government and state governments, currently come from a common pool of leaders belonging to the Indian Police Service. Somewhere up there, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the architects of the All India Services who argued passionately in the Constituent Assembly for the adoption and evolution of the British-era Indian Civil Service and the Imperial Police into the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service, are sure to be wringing their hands in despair. The national needs that led them to champion the concept of the All India Services have not gone away. If anything, the challenges to India’s stability and prosperity have become more complex and acute. It is, of course, obvious that the Indian Police Service cannot consider itself a holy cow any longer. Constructive criticism as well as meaningful change are both urgently required. While meeting these challenges would require rethink and reform at all levels, including that of the IPS, abolishing it or drastically curtailing its pre-eminence in our internal security architecture would be ill-advised.

The Tej Bahadur Yadav theory of what ails our internal security goes something like this: Why do our jawans get poor facilities? Why do they choose to leave the forces in large numbers each year? Why do we have recurring incidents of fratricide and suicide? A common refrain is: because they are led by Central Armed Police Forces officers who are themselves disgruntled and resentful of the IPS presence in their organisations. So, the obvious solution is to remove the latter from the former. The argument goes that this will motivate the Central Armed Police Force officers to work with greater dedication for the welfare of their jawans.

Clearing misconceptions

Anecdotal evidence and outright fudging is marshalled as evidence to create a supposedly compelling case for radical surgery of these forces. There is no doubt that the Indian Police Service and the police organisations it leads both need reform and rejuvenation, but not for imaginary reasons based on ignorance or vested interests.

First, to clear some common misconceptions about our Central Armed Police Forces and the role of the IPS in these organisations. Barring the Central Reserve Police Force, which goes back in origin to the British Raj, every other such organisation has been created and nursed into its present shape by successive generations of IPS officers. As they have grown, the relatively small and stable size of the IPS cadre has meant that fewer IPS officers have been made available to man their tactical-level leadership positions, which are now filled by the forces’ own cadre officers. The IPS presence in these organisations has never been lower. For example, the Border Security Force has less than 50 IPS officers serving in an organisation with nearly 4,500 officers. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police has nearly 1,400 officers, of whom about 15 are from the IPS. To suggest that this limited presence is the root cause for the neglect of our jawans is stretching credulity. As things stand, more than 80℅ of Central Armed Police Force officers retire at the level of deputy inspector general or above. Compare it to the Indian Army where less than 5℅ of officers retire at the roughly comparable level of brigadier and above. Clearly, stagnation is not a credible reason for incidents such as the one involving Tej Bahadur Yadav to take place. Even the Army, which has a unified officer cadre, is not immune to occasional lapses and resultant controversies.

The unique position of the All India Services, the talent pool they represent, the exposure they have very early in their career, and the expectations from them are such that plain vanilla comparisons of career slopes can lead to misleading conclusions. The Constitution includes policing in the state list, and maintains a balance with an All India Service like the IPS for coordination between state and central organisations. Divesting the IPS of their current role as leaders of police forces in the state and the Centre goes contrary to the constitutional framework. Besides, in pure human resource terms, there is no empirical evidence that non-IPS leaders are better than those from the IPS in terms of their innate merit, that any larger public interest will be served or that coordination between central agencies or between central and state agencies will improve by undermining the current leadership structures. So, stagnation is a false premise more oriented to the interest of the proponents rather than the constitutional framework or managerial needs.

Similarly, some have pointed out high attrition rates in our Central Armed Police Forces as a symptom of the supposed rot within. Current attrition rates for these organisations are at around 2℅ overall. Any HR manager in the private sector would kill for such low numbers. What is, of course, a matter of concern is the relatively low levels of pay and other facilities given to jawans, compared to the Army. Successive pay commissions have retained the edge given to the armed forces. Ultimately, this is an issue that can be resolved by greater discussion with all stakeholders till a consensus is reached. Given the enormous responsibilities being shouldered by the police forces, it certainly merits a more sympathetic approach. However, given the hybrid nature of the Central Armed Police Forces, where they perform a plethora of duties in aid of state administration and police authorities, closing them to the IPS would damage our federal structure and impact our internal security.

BSF jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav video about service conditions went viral.

Police reforms

Coming to the wider issue of reforming the Indian Police Service to better equip it for its role as strategic leaders of our internal security, this is a topic that needs far more serious reflection and debate. Even before the Tej Bahadur Yadav incident, the service’s credibility and utility have been called into question from various quarters. Its elite nature, and its varied opportunities have ensured that it remains a coveted brand that attracts some of the finest youth from premier universities to join the police and occupy leadership positions. But, from time to time, there is criticism about the efficacy of such an elitist service and even demands for fundamental changes to leadership structures in the police. The general response of the IPS has been to deny deficiencies and blame other factors for individual command failures and performance shortfalls. The IPS cannot actively seek reform and renewal of others while sparing itself.

Nineteenth-century police reform in Britain is often held as a mirror in any conversation on police reform. The English ruling class created an independent and professional police force, thereby bestowing the police with the legitimacy to maintain order. True, the police in the United Kingdom do not carry arms, but they are equipped with the most potent weapon of policing – the consent of the people for policing society.

Young IPS officers, working as police superintendents of districts, have limited work experience and possibly know less about the intricacies of day-to-day policing than the station house officers of police stations. But, the IPS brand introduces them to an alien district immediately on arrival as trustworthy, unless proved otherwise. One of the core recommendations of the National Police Commission, appointed by the government in 1977 to review the policing system, centred on the appointment of police chiefs, so that they carry legitimacy. This aspect needs to be strengthened by ensuring that young superintendents of police are given the requisite institutional backing and resources to do their job in line with public expectations.

A second non-negotiable aspect of police leadership in the Indian context is the ability for strategic thinking; the knack for seeing the larger picture. A parallel can be drawn to the United States Army’s realisation after the Vietnam War that their military leaders need knowledge of history, sociology and international relations far more than proficiency at tactical platoon-level drill. The diversity of challenges for a graduate of the US Military Academy, West Point, today ranges from the South China Sea to the mountains of Afghanistan and the streets of Mosul, Iraq. When our current generation of police chiefs in India were trained at the National Police Academy in Hyderabad, there were no computers or mobile phones. No academy could have prepared them for the job they do today. The way West Point deals with this problem is by focussing on strategic thinking and encouraging their graduates to go on long sabbaticals to the best of US academic and research institutions for periods ranging from three years to five years, to maintain an intellectual edge throughout their careers and afterwards. That is how they come to head the army and intelligence set-up and play a pivotal role as equal partners with the foreign policy and security establishment in deciding on the role of the US in a changing world.

In understanding the role of the IPS or in seeking changes, the two factors of enhancing legitimacy and developing strategic thinking have to be core principles. Changes should be made only to enhance the legitimacy of police leaders and to give them the intellectual resources to provide strategic leadership. Uninformed criticism can always be wished away, but there is now an apprehension among serving and retired police officers that the legitimacy of police leaders and their intellectual depth to provide leadership are sharply declining. If this continues, at some point, the IPS will be perceived as no different from the rest of the police force. There is a problem in police leaders appearing ordinary or people beginning to think that whoever has political patronage can become a police chief, irrespective of intellectual depth and strategic vision. These developments will corrode the IPS brand, cultivated over long years of dedicated service to the nation.

Recruitment process

The Indian Police Service has produced two national security advisers, including current incumbent Ajit Doval.

India has seen some great police leaders such as Rustamji, Rameshwar Nath Kao, BN Mullik, Ashwini Kumar, Julio Rebeiro, KPS Gill and so on. The IPS has already produced two national security advisers in MK Narayanan and Ajit Doval. But, IPS officers, both serving and retired, recognise that the chiefs now have a much diminishing role and most are unable to go beyond adding their name to the succession board in the chief’s office. Therefore, the time has come for serious thinking on systemic reform keeping in mind the two fundamental objectives: enhancing legitimacy and strategic thinking. Recruitment, training and career planning of IPS officers must lay greater emphasis on both these factors.

Currently, recruitment to the IPS is through two routes: two-thirds of officers get in through the combined civil service examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission, and one-third via promotion from among eligible State Police Service officers. The view that the traits required of a good police officer are different from other civil services and that they should, therefore, be recruited through a separate examination hardly shows any understanding of modern policing. The critical question is whether separating IPS recruitment will enhance the legitimacy of the service or attract officers who are more capable of strategic management. We do not think so. Given the centrality of good policing in democratic expectations of good governance, police leadership should continue to be recruited with other civil servants assigned leadership roles. In fact, the combined civil service examination is as good a way of finding talent, and holding another examination will be wasteful, unnecessary and will not lead to hiring of talent with a different background, talent-set or attitude.

But, with the expansion of police organisations at the state and central levels, there is a net shortfall of IPS officers. There is also a need to accommodate the aspirations of direct recruit assistant commandants in the Central Police Organisations. The growing strength of the Central Armed Police Forces requires their seamless integration into our internal security architecture. So, two changes can be thought up. First, the promotion quota should be increased to 50%. Second, the slots created by the increase should be used to promote officers from these forces to the IPS, which would require waiving off the condition applied to State Police Service officers that the officer should have managed a police sub-division for five years. Central Armed Police Force officers deployed on internal security duty can be asked to take the Union Public Service Commission’s examination on criminal law and then be inducted against this enhanced quota and allotted to states.

Training, intellectual growth

The Indian Police Service training, both basic and in-service, also has to undergo a complete paradigm shift, almost along the lines of the West Point Academy. Unfortunately, the outdoor training of the IPS is no different from similar training for other ranks. In fact, these infantry-style training programmes are not followed in any developed part of the world, but have been perpetuated by inertia and lack of vision. As far as academic input is concerned, the National Police Academy hires faculty members with police backgrounds. They have no academic or research experience. Unfortunately, the general lack of quality in India’s higher education system has a direct bearing on academic standards at the police academy.

But the real issue is that these officers, after some years, have to be taken away from street policing and put back in the university system, and this is where the US system scores so high. “Want to do a PhD, join the US Army”. Most US Army generals go on sabbatical, often without any financial support, to the best universities for three to five years. Within India, the Intelligence Bureau does create a facilitating environment for intellectual growth, though they continue to have an outdated obsession with protecting their organisation from enemy agents and have not allowed their officers to go out to international academic institutions. In-breeding and closed competitions can lead to problems. Over the years, the IPS has acquired a macho, gung-ho ethos that might provide fodder for Bollywood scripts but does not really meet our national need for a thoughtful, research and evidence-driven police leadership. Police leaders will look increasingly ordinary and at sea if they lose their intellectual edge. To attract the best talent to the IPS at the recruitment stage and to then fail to renew it with exposure to global best practices and cutting-edge research seems to be a criminal waste of resources.

Establishing legitimacy

Beyond recruitment and training, the loss of legitimacy of the IPS is also related to the way officers are selected for posting and promotions. There are problems in implementing any system of a “narrowing pyramid” in the police since that may further politicise the police. But, we recommend the system followed by the United Kingdom, where officers cannot get more than two promotions in command posts (assistant chief constable and above) unless they move out of their jurisdiction. This means no one can be posted as a police chief unless he or she decides to leave the parent cadre. In the Indian context, this would mean that once an officer is an inspector general of police, he or she has to move out on deputation or else cannot be posted as police chief. Carefully cultivated political equations are neutralised if the officer moves out, and the officer cannot be appointed police chief by any act of omission and commission.

There are two further requirements, again following the UK model. First, all posts of inspector general and above should be through a selection process involving short-listing and interviewing by a committee. Second, cadre rules must be made flexible. There is no harm if government organisations search for the right talent-fit by employing human resource professionals and talent hunters. The current system of limiting selection to within a state cadre should be done away with as was done in the United Kingdom long ago, because there is no other way of preventing conflict of interest and officers focusing on cultivating relationships as a career-long obsession and benefitting from compromises made along the way.

The above suggestions are only a preliminary outline of what is required. We hope that they are the start of a much needed national conversation about the role of the IPS. Despite the emotive issues raked up by Constable Tej Bahadur Yadav and the predictable chest-beating that has accompanied it, the case for reforming the IPS based on a more sober assessment of our internal security needs remains compelling. If changes cannot be brought about, the day is not far when, giving short shrift to the vision of Nehru and Patel, the IPS may well be discarded by some decisive political leader. For far too long, we in the IPS, too, have been guilty of not admitting to the writing on the wall. An ostrich-like attitude will imperil not only the role of the IPS as envisaged by our founding fathers, but will also impose huge costs on our internal security.

Dr Sudhanshu Sarangi and Abhinav Kumar are both serving IPS officers.