Recently, the issue of abolition of the orderly system came up in public discourse once again, this time owing to an incident in Kerala. The daughter of the Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) of Kerala assaulted the police driver, by repeatedly hitting him at the back of his neck, for coming late to pick her up from her morning walk. The Kerala government, in response to the public outrage that followed, suspended the ADGP, and said that it is taking steps to ensure the abolition of the orderly system.
Whether the state will succeed in doing so or not is still up for debate. Various commissions and governments have previously observed the need to abolish the system, on the grounds that it has an adverse impact on the morale of the police personnel. Despite this, it continues. However, before venturing into why it is difficult to abolish, it is important to look at the system more closely.
The Orderly System
The orderly system refers to the practice of deploying constables as orderlies, for the personal service (official and domestic) of seniors in the police force. This system is prevalent within the armed forces as well. The system is seen as a colonial remnant, and is heavily criticised as being susceptible to gross misuse by senior officers. The First Report of the National Police Commission(1979) observed that from the point of view of the police officer, the system provides an opportunity for those in the lower rungs to come in contact with the senior leadership at an unofficial level so as to build a relationship based on trust, respect and affection. However, it also noted that “there can be no two opinions regarding the impropriety of utilising constable orderlies on domestic chores…The Constables are rightly agitated over the practice which smacks of a feudal set up and is highly derogatory to their sense of self-esteem and morale…We are convinced that the orderly system as is now in vogue is vulnerable to malpractices which cannot be effectively got over by mere exhortations or instructions…we recommend that the orderly system as it exists at present be abolished” (p. 42).
To understand why the system survives, despite such criticisms by various commissions and governments, we need to look at the policing system more closely.
The Indian Police: A colonial relic
Modern police in India was formally conceptualised in the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny, by The Police Act, 1861. Although the Constitution of India, marking our foray into democracy, gives States and Union Territories exclusive powers to enact police acts [the Constitution of India puts ‘Police’ and ‘Public Order’ as entries in the State List in the Seventh Schedule, giving states exclusive rights to legislate on these matters], those that have done so are still guided by the archaic 1861 Act. The police in India, in so far as it continues to follow the same administrative structure, where the force is answerable only to its administrative superior and not the populace it governs, is still looked upon as a colonial organisation.
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Modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary and imagined specifically as a paramilitary organisation, the impetus behind the modern police force in India was to secure the dominance and hegemony of the British minority. Upendra Baxi, reflecting on the continuation of a colonial policing system has noted that when a decolonised society maintains its inherited police organisation, refusing to adapt to the aspirations of free society, it gets a colonial-repressive police organisation and colonial-repressive political regimes. This, he suggests is because of the intent of the governing elites. [See chapter‘The Indian Police: A Colonial Minority?’ in The Crisis of the Indian Legal Systemby UpendraBaxi(pp. 84-120).]
The colonial policing system, in its administrative setup, was seen to be necessary to maintain “order” and “discipline” within the force. David Arnold in his study of the Madras Constabulary from 1859-1947 [Police Power and Colonial Rule: Madras 1859-1947by David Arnold] notes how its recruitment patterns reflected this impetus. The police force itself can be divided into two factions, i.e. the superior police or the administrative branch; and subordinate police, predominantly composed of the constabulary. The superior police is today represented by the IPS cadre. The organisational structure of the colonial police was governed by two principles: one, racial, whereby Europeans alone could be trusted with positions of responsibility and command, and Indians were to be necessarily subservient; and two, a system of supervisory control was seen to be most effective, in a society where the Europeans were present in a very small number and had to rule over a far greater number of the indigenous population. This pyramid like structure and hierarchy can still be seen in the organisational makeup of the police, where the constabulary forms about 86% of the total police force, while the supervisory positions, i.e. the IPS cadre, is less than 1 percent (0.86%).
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Originally, the superior police was predominantly manned by the British; subsequently,with the Indianisation of the police force, it came more and more to embody the indigenous patterns of social stratifications. As David Arnold writes, by the 1930s and 1940s, the senior positions in Madras police were mainly drawn from Brahmans, and other upper castes like Vellalas, Naidus and Nayars, mostly coming from families with landed wealth and professional status.At the bottom, the poor pay conditions and menial and despised nature of the work, saw increased recruitment of scheduled and backward castes.
The subordinate police was primarily recruited to police the proletariat; while themselves being materially similar to the emerging proletariat in terms of wages, working conditions etc. Furthermore, here in the recruitment practices, a preference was shown for martial races — as separate from the indigenous watch guards which were predominantly recruited from lower castes to guard private property — who owing to their ritually higher status in caste hierarchy could patrol and police upper caste localities. This again, is a prevalent pattern today. While as of 2016, SCs (14.3%), STs (11.5%) and OBCs (26.4%) collectively formed almost 52.2% of the total police force in India; as of 2014, SCs (10.4%) STs (4.9%) and OBCs (11.1%) collectively formed only 26.4% of the total IPS officers, i.e. the upper echelons of police hierarchy. [Figures for Caste composition calculated using data from 1) Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions, 2) Data on Police Organisations 2016, Bureau of Police Research and Development, New Delhi; 3) Data on Police Organisations 2014, Bureau of Police Research and Development, New Delhi.]
The power differentials, within the police hierarchy must be apparent by now. Apart from the administrative setup, these power differentials are maintained through several practices, one of which is the orderly system.
Abrogation of rights to form Associations and Freedom of Speech
This situation is made more acute by the abrogation of associational and communication rights for police personnel. In Part III: Fundamental Rights, in the Constitution of India, Article 33provides for the Parliament to decide, by law, to what extent any of these rights are restricted or abrogated for members of the armed forces, or forces charged with the maintenance of public order. The stated rationale is, “so as to ensure the proper discharge of their duties and the maintenance of discipline among them.” As Upendra Baxi observes, enacting this provision, the Police Forces (Restriction of Rights) Act, 1966 denies all members of the police force two rights. First, the right to form associations, unionise or be a part of associations which are not of a purely social, recreational or religious nature; and two, to communicate with the press or publish anything except in relation to the discharge of duty, or something of literary, artistic or scientific character.
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What these effectively ensure is the denial of a collective bargaining power for the subordinate police. While one could argue that these abrogation of rights applies to the entire police force and other armed forces as well, one has to keep in mind the existing power hierarchies and accountability structures within the force, along with the overall caste composition; which cumulatively show that such abrogation of rights isdisproportionately detrimental for the subordinate police.
In such a situation, as Baxi notes, the archaic avenues of grievance redressal that do exist, such as durbars and orderly rooms, where grievance is addressed to, and redressal is contingent upon the discretion of, senior officers, proves to be ineffective. Underlying this mechanism is a regime of discipline, which mandates compliance by the subordinate police to any lawful order coming from a competent authority. Both terms remain vaguely defined in the 1861 Act, which leaves scope for gross exploitation.
Contextualising the orderly system, within the origin, development and the overall organisational structure of the police in India, one notes, as the First Report of the National Police Commission(1979) observed, that the system “smacks of a feudal set up”. Additionally, it is also a clear articulation of the power hierarchies depicted by Ernest Mandelwhen he draws the etymology of the term ‘constable’which comes from ‘stabuli’ meaning head serf of the stable; as appointed by the feudal lord. [Mandel, E. (1971). The Marxist Theory of the State. New York: Pathfinder Press]
Arguments against the orderly system have mostly criticised it on moral grounds, quoting excesses of some officers, and have not paid much attention to the power hierarchies and accountability structures within the force; which are deemed essential for maintaining ‘order’. Abolishing the orderly system, or any of its manifestations, requires an overhaul in the existing framework. As long as the police functions in a framework where the subordinate rank is accountable and answerable only to their superiors, and function without any form of relative autonomy, security or effective bargaining power, one can suspect that the orderly system, in one way or the other will continue.
Moreover, the accountability framework, coupled with public apathy towards the plight of the subordinate police, Baxi notes, allows the governing elite to exploit the police for its own parochial purposes. Therefore, when looked at from this perspective, it appears that the absolute abolition of the orderly system is not conducive to serving the class interests of the governing elite.