Sixty six years ago when we, the people of India, gave ourselves the Constitution, many things in life were far simpler. Crime was one of them. It was mostly a localised phenomenon. Burglary was
the most frequent crime. Terrorism in its present form was unknown to the world. Organised crime ordinarily meant a few gangs of robbers who were active on roads in remote areas. Financial crimes were mostly about forged bank cheques. There were no computers and even science fiction writers had no clue about cybercrimes.
Cut to the present time. Terror attacks, cybercrimes, national and international syndicates dealing in narcotics, inter-State human trafficking and money laundering through international hawala channels are part of the modern-day crime scenario.
The police have two important duties—maintenance of law and order, and prevention and detection of crime. Due to the localised nature of both these issues, police was kept in the State List of subjects
in the Constitution. While maintenance of law and order continues to be a local issue, crime has dramatically changed its contours over the last six decades. And this change in crime pattern is so overwhelming that State police forces across the country are struggling to cope with this challenge.
In the existing scheme of things, we have various police forces which work within their respective States. For criminals located out of their area, they depend on the State concerned for help.
For example, after committing a crime in Chennai, if a person hides himself in Mumbai, the Tamil Nadu police has to take help of the Maharashtra police. The probability of their bringing the criminal to justice in Chennai will largely depend on the willingness and efficiency of the Mumbai police. In such cases, half official and half personal kind of coordination is somehow ensured because all police forces are headed by centrally-recruited IPS officers. But both in theory and practice, we have no mechanism either at the State or Central level which can ensure such fugitives are apprehended quickly and punished.
The police have to work within their States but criminals have no such boundaries. Rather, they understand and exploit this situation to their advantage. Smugglers involved in narcotics trade procure
opium from Madhya Pradesh and ganja from Manipur and sell it across the country. Organised gangs of human traffickers lure vulnerable girls from States like West Bengal, Odisha and even Nepal and sell them in metros. In recent years, fake chit fund companies from Kolkata have cheated lakhs of investors in Odisha, Andhra and Gujarat. While criminals can move all around, the police continue to be confined to State borders.
A criminal committing a crime in one State and playing a mini Vijay Mallya by hiding in another does not tell the whole story.
In this digital age, criminals do not need to move an inch to rob their targets. Sitting in safe places, they can fleece people around the country knowing well that police can hardly punish them for their crimes. Recently, a gang of young cybercriminals were caught in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. They lured around 6.3 lakh gullible people online to invest a few thousand rupees each in their fake company. The amount they netted was Rs 3,726 crore. Looking at the sheer number of investors across the country, one can easily guess that a State police can hardly do justice to such a mammoth probe.
Investigation of terror-related cases in the last two decades has especially made it clear that it is incredibly difficult for police to deal with pan-India crimes with limited jurisdiction. In other countries with a federal structure, police powers are divided between central and provincial governments. The
US, for example, has a system of federal and local crimes. Their FBI can take action to prevent and investigate federal crimes like terror, major frauds, organised crimes, human trafficking and cybercrimes. Canada and Australia also have separate agencies to deal with federal and local crimes.
In India, the CBI is the main national agency which deals with such cases. But it can investigate a case only on request by a State government or on an order by a constitutional court. It cannot take up any case on its own just because of its magnitude or importance for the nation. The NIA can suo moto take up investigations but it has a limited mandate of dealing with terror-related cases only. The NIA was established in 2009 in wake of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and its constitutional validity is still a matter of debate though. Since terror is a sensitive subject, no State has openly opposed it as yet. Unlike State police, the focus of the CBI and NIA is on investigation and not prevention of crime, which is far more important for a safe society.
In view of challenges posed by new age criminals with international links, a countrywide institutionalised police apparatus is essential. Only a national body can oversee prevention and detection of such crimes. Moreover, to ensure prevention of such crimes, centralised gathering and timely dissemination of intelligence across State boundaries is a must. The existing system of fragmented and ad hoc police response cannot deal with crimes with national and international ramifications.
Historically, the working of federal structure has been a complex issue in India. Even when frequent misuse of Article 356 seems like a thing of past, States still complain about the big brother attitude
of the Centre on various administrative and financial matters. So, the idea of sharing police powers with the Centre is bound to be vehemently opposed. But in the interests of the people and nation, we have to think about bringing the police into the Concurrent List of the Constitution sooner or later.
The author is a serving IPS officer
Follow him on Twitter @arunbothra