Politics and the police: On reinstating Kerala DGP Senkumar

The SC verdict reinstating a DGP limits the political executive’s discretion in transfers

In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled in the Prakash Singh case that the chief of a State police force should have a fixed tenure of at least two years. Despite this, State governments have failed to protect Directors General of Police from arbitrary transfers. In the event of a regime change following an election, new political dispensations assume they have an unfettered right to reshuffle officers in the civil and police services. Rarely has this assumption been challenged. The Supreme Court’s ruling reinstating T.P. Senkumar, who was replaced as head of the Kerala police soon after the Left Democratic Front assumed office last year, reinforces its 2006 judgment. It limits significantly the discretion enjoyed by the political executive in effecting transfers at whim. Expanding on the import of the Prakash Singh verdict, in which the court had given directions to insulate the police from external pressure and political influence, a two-judge Bench has delineated the limits of the State government’s subjective satisfaction in removing the DGP. No longer is it valid for the government to justify a DGP’s removal on the vague ground that it has reached a prima facie conclusion that the public is unhappy with the efficiency of the force. The government’s ‘subjective satisfaction’ about the state of affairs must be based on “cogent and rational material”, the court has ruled. On going through the record, the Bench found there was no material adverse to Mr. Senkumar, except some opinions and views.

The verdict is undoubtedly a political setback to Kerala’s LDF government, which is already battling controversies caused by the words and deeds of a few ministers. The Pinarayi Vijayan government had defended its transfer of Mr. Senkumar by citing dissatisfaction among the public about the efficiency of the police following the Puttingal fireworks tragedy in Kollam and the murder of a Dalit woman named Jisha in April 2016. However, the court noted that these issues had “suddenly resurfaced” more than a month after the incidents — that is, after the present regime assumed office. In a telling indictment, the court has observed: “This might perhaps be a coincidence, but it might also be politically motivated…” The LDF government must immediately abide by the order to reinstate Mr. Senkumar, whose original two-year tenure was to have ended on May 21, 2017, and who is due to retire in June. However, the legal import of the verdict is not confined to Kerala. State governments would do well to implement the measures outlined in Prakash Singh, the message of which was that the police must be answerable to the rule of law and not to political masters. In particular, every State should set up a State Security Commission — Kerala has one — to both guide the police and decide on top police appointments and transfers.

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