Preventive Powers of Police in India and Namibia

Some Observations on Different Approaches in Constitutionalism

Clemens Arzt

Professor für Staats- und Verwaltungsrecht, Hochschule für Wirtschaft und Recht, Berlin.


This contribution for Roberto Toniatti is a very first attempt to point out some aspects and differences in establishing a modern rights-based police law (i.e. law and order policing as distinguished from criminal procedure) after independence in two very different countries, both of which, to my knowledge, have never been in the focus of his research. On the one hand, I will shortly look into the legal framework of policing in India. This country is often referred to as the biggest democracy with a stable history of constitutionalism since 1950, but one has to point out that this picture has been sullied on various occasions. I will mention here, for example, the state of emergency under Indira Gandhi as well as the more recent crisis of constitutionalism and rule of law - especially under the second term of PM Narendra Modi. Besides, various recent decisions of the Supreme Court of India, for decades an “activist” Court protecting human rights and fundamental rights, have also drawn much criticism from a rights-based approach.
On the other hand, I will focus on Namibia, a not so well known country on the southwestern tip of Africa, which has, to put things into perspective, fewer inhabitants than Berlin. Namibia, after having been a German colony until WW I, went through a long and bloody struggle for independence against decades of South African rule and its apartheid system. The country only gained independence in 1990. Namibia is often cited as one of the most rights-based countries on the African continent. So, what did Namibia do differently compared to India? Obviously, the present endeavor has no chance but to remain on the surface, yet it will hopefully succeed in underlining some major differences between the two countries. This contribution draws on research and earlier publications on Indian and Namibian law by this author. However, this is the first attempt to juxtapose the very different experiences and approaches in both countries. It is still “work in progress” and therefore any comment on the subject from readers is warmly welcome.
The focus will be on “preventive” powers of police, in contrast to police powers in criminal procedure once a crime has been / might have been committed; i.e. criminal justice. This notion explicitly does not refer to “preventive detention” under Indian Law, but to “ordinary” and “everyday” means of policing, e.g., arrest, search, interdictions to stay in a certain area or measures against assemblies, like dispersals, and many others. In India, such powers are settled in both Union and State Police Acts, as well as in the Code of Criminal Procedure. From a rule-of-law-based point of view, this reduplication is problematic because it lacks transparency, since it is not clear, under which law and legal prerequisites the police are allowed to act.

Giving the police leeway as to which statutory provision or legal rule to apply, often leads to the decision to revert to the law with lower legal thresholds. Thus, from my point of view, a strict and clear-cut distinction and separation of (i) law and order policing from (ii) police powers in criminal procedures, is at least one step to contain such powers in the interest of the protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights. This may sound very “legalistic” and certainly cannot lead to any result if the public understanding remains that in law and order policing it does not matter what the law of the land is because the police do not obey the law anyway. This apparently really is the case, as so many Supreme Court decisions and findings of various Commissions demonstrate and confirm. However, this results in legal nihilism, which certainly is not in the interest of a material or substantial rule of law.

Ma tutto questo, in che modo riguarda Roberto Toniatti? Noi ci siamo conosciuti nell’ inverno del 2006/07 a Trento e non so neanche se il festeggiato si ricorda ancora di me. Uno dei vantaggi di essere professore in Germania è sicuramente quello di essere assegnato un mezz’anno di ricerca abbastanza regolarmente. Allora scelsi l’ateneo di Trento per una ricerca sulla libertà di riunione in Italia, protetto dall’ Articolo 17 della Costituzione Italiana. Mi resi conto che la tipica percezione tedesca sull’entusiasmo italiano di manifestare la propria opinione in luoghi pubblici non era rispecchiato nella giurisprudenza italiana, salvo la monografia di Alessandro Pace del 1967, la quale, arrivando a Trento in prestito bibliotecario da Bologna, non aveva neanche le piegature dei fogli tagliate; 40 anni dopo la pubblicazione era ancora intonsa. Allora mi misi al lavoro scrivendo un libro sull’argomento. Durante uno degli ultimi giorni all’ateneo trentino fui invitato da Roberto a presentare l’esito del mio lavoro. Molto diverso da un evento comparabile che aveva avuto luogo alla fine del mio anno academico in India (“research about law on powers of police in India is totally needless because they do not obey the law anyway”), Roberto con grande amichevolezza accolse le mie ipotesi scientifiche con le parole “avevamo bisogno di qualcuno dall’estero per finalmente analizzare questo topos”. Sicuramente esagerato ma che momento edificante dopo tanti mesi di dubbi sul progetto scientifico. Allora mettiamoci in moto per un lungo viaggio dall’Asia all’ Africa…

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