What the Rakesh Asthana Case Reveals About Police Reform in India

DESK BRIEF: The Asthana case is the tip of the iceberg of unimplemented police reforms in India.

The motivations behind the challenge to Rakesh Asthana’s appointment as Police Commissioner, Delhi have been questioned ever since the case’s inception. However, a closer look at the case reveals wide-spread disregard for the SC’s rulings on police reform.

The Centre for Public Interest Litigation’s (CPIL’s) petition contends that Mr. Asthana’s appointment four days before his retirement was unconstitutional. It violates Prakash Singh v Union of India (2006 and 2019), the SC’s landmark Judgment on political interference in police affairs. It further violates the Indian Police Service’s internal rules on inter-cadre deputation. Typically, the Police Commissioner, Delhi, is chosen from the AGMUT (Arunachal-Goa-Mizoram and Union Territories) cadre—Mr. Asthana is from the Gujarat Cadre. 

Mr. Asthana previously held important posts in Gujarat, including Commissioner of Police, Vadodara, under then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The Union Government is intent on minimising CPIL’s  challenge to a personal vendetta against Mr. Asthana. As proof, Mr. Asthana provided the Court with a series of disparaging tweets made by CPIL’s lawyer, Mr. Prashant Bhushan, criticising Mr. Asthana’s earlier service. 

The Asthana case is the tip of the iceberg of unimplemented police reforms in India. In the Prakash Singh Judgments, the SC notably held that high-ranking police officers must have fixed tenures to shield them from political influence. However, in September 2021, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative reported that not a single State Government had reformed local police rules to be fully compliant with the SC’s directives. A number of State governments have seen contempt petitions filed against them for violating the Judgment.

Additionally, senior police officers seem to share CPIL’s concerns with Mr. Asthana’s appointment.

‘If officers from outside the cadre are brought [despite there being no extreme contingency to do so], the police as well as citizens suffer,’ says Dr. Meeran Chadha Borwankar, Former Pune Commissioner of Police, in conversation with SCO. ‘Neither do they know the officer nor does the officer know them…[familiarity] is a very important ingredient of any top leadership position.’

The pace of the hearings, which have been adjourned multiple times over the last nine months, bodes ill for a speedy resolution. Much-awaited proceedings will unravel how the Court implements its rulings on police reforms in India. To read SCO’s latest reporting on developments in the Rakesh Asthana’s case, click here.

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(This post is extracted from our weekly newsletter, the Desk Brief. Subscribe to receive these in your inbox.)