Police Act, 1861

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Police Act, 1861 marks the final transition from the Mughal system of government to that of the British colonial state system in Bengal in so far as the execution of law and order was concerned. It specified the authority, the rules of recruitment, transfer and promotion of the police personnel, the modes of investigation and charges to be brought against the suspects, intelligence activities, discipline and deployment of police force.

The Act follows many experiments in the past for devising a system suitable to the new colonial rulers. The first major change was made by Governor General Lord cornwallis under the 'Regulation for the Police of the Collectorship in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa' in December 1792. Cornwallis' system came to be better known as the Thanadaree system in so far as the collectorships or the newly formed districts were divided into several thanas or police jurisdictions, each under the control of a Daroga or chief. The District Magistrate controlled the entire system in the district in his capacity as the District Judge. The system introduced an element of hierarchical order in the police organisation, strengthening the arms of the Magistrate and exercising efficient control over the police in the interior, hitherto managed by the zamindars.

The system was however flawed from the very start. The jurisdiction of the Daroga extended over a vast area (each nearly 400 sq. miles of area) but he was given a very small establishment. Moreover, as typical of Cornwallis' arrangements, the native officials were given very low salaries so that no individual of any kind of education or of good family background joined the new police force. Those who joined the force compensated for their low income by exacting fees and money through corrupt and oppressive methods. Moreover, the district-based police force did not have any link or relation with other similar forces in the country so that the criminals, once they could leave the district boundary of the place where they committed crimes, could escape detection or punishment.

In order to provide some uniformity and control over the system, the office of the Superintendent of Police for the entire Bengal Presidency was established in 1808. However, the jurisdiction being too extensive the single post of the Superintendent could make no impact. Consequently, in 1853 the post was abolished and the Divisional Commissioners (created in 1829) were given charge of coordinating and supervising the force within their jurisdictions. In 1854, the Lieutenant-Governor Sir Frederick halliday divided the province into nine Commissioners' Divisions for police purposes with 37 districts.

However, all these changes and reforms meant very little for the very basic character of the force remained unchanged, which means it was ineffectual, oppressive, corrupt and utterly useless for maintaining peace and law and order. Even Halliday was forced to admit that the police organisation in Bengal 'had hitherto been a standing reproach of Indian Administration in Bengal'.

One area that was singled out as the principal cause of the corruption of the police force was their low salary. Though in the 1850s the matter was mooted and recommendations made by the Bengal Government, they were turned down by the Court of Directors who wanted to look into the police question for the whole of India and not for Bengal alone.

The sepoy revolt of 1857-58 however shattered the hopes of reforming the police in the near future. Nevertheless, it also revealed the necessity of having an efficient police force. In August 1860, Lord canning appointed a Police Commission under the chairmanship of H M Court to recommend measures for the 'creation of a perfect and economical Police'.

The Commission carried out a detailed investigation and gathered all relevant information. Its final findings centred round the consideration that the police of the country had to be organised as an integrated force under a unitary control. It cited the Irish Constabulary Police system as a model and declared that it 'would absorb itself all the qualities of a military police'. It was also emphasised that 'every part of the Force was to be held responsible for every duty, preventive or detective, properly belonging to it'. The police, the Commission emphasised, was to form 'a separate department in each Local Government or Local Administration under the immediate authority and control of its own'.

It would be under an Inspector General of Police (IG), who was to be responsible for the efficiency and discipline of the entire police establishment. He was to have the chief inspecting and controlling power over the police. The executive functions of the Commissioners of Divisions were to cease. The Inspector General was to be assisted by the Deputy Inspector General. At the district level there would be a District Superintendent of Police who would be subordinate to the Inspector General in all matters relating to the internal economy, the management of the police force and its efficient performance. He was to be likewise responsible to the Inspector General for every action of the district police. In case of a bigger district an Assistant District Superintendent of Police would be appointed.

The subordinate force was to consist of the Inspectors, the Head Constables, the Sergeants and Constables; the Head Constable would be in charge of a police station, and the Inspector, of a group of such stations. The village police was to remain but would be brought into direct relationship with the general constabulary. The Commission recommended that all 'officers should be Europeans'. But an Inspector of Police could either be European, Eurasian or native. It was also specifically laid down that the Divisional Commissioners would cease to have any police responsibilities. Upon the question of relations between the magistracy and police, the Commission made it clear that no magistrate of a rank lower than the District Magistrate should exercise any police functions. So far as the District Magistrate was concerned his immediate control over the police was to continue, for he was the person who had the charge of the district administration in its totality, especially in matters of law and order.

The Commission also prepared a draft bill embodying its recommendations, which eventually was passed as the Police Act V of 1861. The Act defined the nature, characteristics and scope of the police force; degrees of punishment for the offenders; rules governing the appointment, transfer, promotion, dismissal and discharge of police personnel; modes of investigation and search for criminals; General Diary of the cases (GD), First Information Report (FIR); discipline and deployment of the force; the power and jurisdictions of various officials etc. For Bengal, a sum of 40 lakh rupees a year was sanctioned for police expenditure. Mr Carnac was appointed as the first Inspector General of Police of Bengal.

The Police Act of 1861 proved to be the cornerstone of the modern police of India and much of the provisions of the Act are still in force in the country. In one respect it made the final departure from the age-old traditions of the country in that the new police would have no connection with the community, being totally a stipendiary body dependent upon the government. Furthermore, the Magistrate who replaced the Mughal Faujdar lost all his police functions but remained an executive officer with control over police matters and in addition retained judicial authority in the administration of criminal justice.

The chief feature of the Act was that it made the policing of the country the sole responsibility of an independent and separate department. It was moreover based upon the principle of the separation of executive and the judicial functions - a principle, which advocated that, the executive function of apprehending an offender and the judicial function of trying him ought to be in the hands of two different authorities.

The hope for a better, free from corruption and efficient police force, however, was dashed from the very beginning. To begin with, a much lower budget than needed was sanctioned for Bengal in the name of economy, so that a small number of police personnel was recruited. More importantly, because of the low budget, the salaries of the police could not be raised. The new system failed also because of its high military profile with much emphasis upon 'drill and discipline'. Drilling and discipline were so rigorous that educated young men of good family background were unwilling to join the force. As a result less educated persons and non-Bengalis filled the gaps with the result that they failed to win the confidence of the people.

The provisions of the Act also led from the very beginning to friction between the Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police at the district level over the management and deployment of the police force. The friction soon touched all the layers of the set-up. Such frictions naturally did not augur well for the new police system. Even the question of the separate existence and independence of the police was criticised by no less than the highest authority for it was thought that such separation was not suitable for a country 'which is used to be ruled by a single 'despot' all the time'.

George Campbell, the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal firmly believed that the principle was alien to the oriental idea of concentration of power in the hands of an individual. He argued that the Magistrate was the 'executive head of the District' and accordingly to him the police 'are the visible symbol of authority in the eyes of the people in the interior and whomsoever the Police look to as their local ruler, the people soon acquire the habit of also so regarding'. He concluded that if police were kept separate, then it would be impossible for the District Magistrate to retain his prestige as 'executive head of the District and local representative of the Government'.

Thus began from his time a distinct policy in favour of the Magistrate exercising more police power. The Magistrate was allowed to control and interfere in police administration, including matters relating to discipline, promotion, appointment and dismissal of personnel. Things went so far that by the 1870s the Inspector General of Police became merely a concurring authority in the case of the appointment of the Inspectors.

By 1902, when the next Police Commission was appointed, the Police was no longer an independent body and the principle of separation of power was totally forsaken. The Commission, however, reaffirmed the Act of 1861 but the overwhelming interest of the empire never allowed a peaceful co-existence of the forces to whom the idealistic principle of separation of power was applied. [Sharif Uddin Ahmed]