A new report by Human Rights Watch says India is modernizing rapidly, but that its police forces have failed to evolve from the repressive forces designed by colonial rulers. It has called on the government to transform the institution from one that is anachronistic and abusive into one that promotes the rule of law.
Human Rights Watch says it has compiled the new report not just by talking to victims of police abuse, but to police officers, as well, to see what leads to an abusive pattern of behavior on their part.
The human rights abuses which the report investigates have been documented in the past. The report says the most pressing are the police failure to register crimes, arrests on false charges and illegal detention, torture to elicit confessions, and extrajudicial killings.
Naureen Shah at the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch says a police culture where abuse is an institutional practice has been handed down from the time when India was ruled by the British.
"They are often relying on old methods of policing," Shah said. "When they were first constituted as a colonial force in the 1800's they were taught to use repression, fear - the public's fear rather than its cooperation. And, that is still the way they are doing policing today."
The report says this has led to an unprecedented public distrust and fear of police and to people avoiding it, fearing demands for bribes, illegal detention or torture.
The problems are aggravated by what Human Rights Watch terms the "dangerous state of disrepair" in the police force. It says the force is "overstretched and ill equipped". India has just one police officer for every 1,000 residents, compared to the global average of 333. The report says police infrastructure is crumbling and decaying police stations lack vehicles, phones or computers. The working environment for low-ranking police is often dismal.
Naureen Shah, who spent time at police stations, says constables and junior police officers are given no training or equipment for professional crime investigation techniques.
"A lot of the police we spoke to did not seem to realize or did not seem to understand that there were other ways of doing things," Shah said. "If we said 'why is it you torture so much to get a confession,' one police officer said to us, 'What do you expect me to do? Do you expect me to sit the fellow down and ask him politely if he committed the crime? He is not going to tell me anything. These harsh methods are necessary.' So, there is a lack of awareness that there are other ways of doing things. "
The report also says police often face interference from state and local politicians and are routinely asked to drop charges against those with political connections.
Human Rights Watch calls on the government to increase accountability for abusive police officers and for a change in the police structure and working conditions.
Demands for police reforms have been on India's political and public agenda for many years. A 2006 Supreme Court judgment directed the government to insulate the police force from political interference, enhance its accountability and give police autonomy in staffing. The government elected this year has promised to initiate such reforms, but similar commitments by successive governments have remained unfulfilled.