Uttarakhand’s revenue police system

Source: By Avaneesh Mishra: The Indian Express

In the wake of the murder of 19-year-old Ankita Bhandari, allegedly by her employer Pulkit Arya, the demand to replace the ‘Revenue Police’ system in Uttarakhand has once again gained ground. In the murder case, there are allegations of the revenue police not registering a complaint in time and even siding with the accused.

Ankita Bhandari was killed on the night of 18 September 2022. The accused then informed the local Patwari (as the area falls under revenue police jurisdiction) about her disappearance but no case was registered. Patwari Vaibhav Pratap did not inform anyone about the case and went on leave. After the matter came to the limelight, the case was transferred to the regular police on 22 September 2022 and three accused, including Arya, were arrested for murder.

Patwari Pratap was suspended and later arrested by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the case, for negligence and on suspicion of siding with the accused.

After the case, Uttarakhand Assembly Speaker Ritu Khanduri wrote to CM Pushkar Singh Dhami, requesting him to end the revenue police system. The state cabinet has now given its nod to a proposal to replace the system with the regular police.

Although the regular police force exists in Uttarakhand, its jurisdiction does not extend to several hilly areas. At present, the revenue police jurisdiction covers over 50 per cent of the state in terms of area, and about 25 per cent of the population.

The Revenue Police system

The system of revenue police was brought by the British over a century ago when crime in the hilly areas was low. The motive was to save money and resources by not deploying regular police.

Under the unique revenue police system, civil officials of the revenue department have the powers and functions of the regular police. Whenever a crime takes place, the revenue police of the area files an FIR, investigates the case, arrests the accused and also files a chargesheet in the local court.

In case of heinous crimes like murder, rape, or crimes against Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), the case is transferred to the regular police. The process, however, takes days or sometimes months, as the revenue police first forwards the information to the district Superintendent of Police (SP), and the SP will hand over the case to a regular police station. Often, the delay causes the disappearance of crucial evidence or weakens the case in other ways.

In other states, the core function of revenue officials is to maintain land, cultivation and revenue records of villages, and collect revenues on behalf of the government. The revenue officials like patwari and kanungo compile data on crop production, perform election-related duties, and collect census and literacy data. They are also given the duty of implementing government schemes and preparing birth, death, and caste certificates.

History of Revenue Police

In the 1800s, the rulers of Tehri lost their territories to Gurkhas. They requested the British to oust the Gurkhas from Garhwal and promised to pay in return. However, after the war, they could not pay up and in exchange, the British kept the western part of Garhwal.

In the year 1815, the British ousted the Gurkhas and as per the famous treaty of Saigauli, the river Kali became the international border of the British India and Nepal. As the British wanted the natural resources and minerals found in present-day Uttarakhand for revenue, they put in place a revenue system with the posts of patwari, kanungo, lekhpal, etc , common in the Mughal administration. However, they realised that the hills saw little crime, and it was decided unofficially that no special police was required except in towns like Almora, Ranikhet, and Nainital.

After 1857, the British Police Act 1861 came into existence. It now became necessary to give the revenue police system a legal basis. In 1874, the Scheduled Districts Act came into force. One of the objects of this Act was to make special provisions for such parts of British India which due to their distinct geographical, demographical and socio-economic features were never brought under the general laws.

Under this, the patwari was given the power of a station officer of police. His supervisory officer was confirmed to be the kanungo. The practice continued even after Independence.

Seven years after Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh, the Uttarakhand Police Act replaced the Act of 1861. However, in the hill parts of the state, revenue officials continue to have the powers and functions of the police officer.

Problems with the revenue police system

Advocating the need to end the revenue police system, a retired IPS officer who served both in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand said the revenue police system has become obsolete in times when crime has become global.

The biggest problem with the revenue police, he said, is the fact that revenue officials are given the additional task of policing with none to minimal training.

“One of the major tasks of the police, along with investigating and solving a crime, is to prevent criminal activities. The prevention of crime, either by collecting intelligence or creating a fear of law and order, cannot be done by the revenue officials. In investigations, they sometimes take days or months to transfer cases and all evidence is gone by then. Being a border state, Uttarakhand is very important from a strategic point of view. In this scenario, the existence of revenue police brings major threats,” he said.

Also, in a tourist state like Uttarakhand, problems arise when a case is connected to other states. Coordination with other districts or states, which the regular police can do, is difficult for the revenue police. They also have a constraint when seeking forensic help.

In the case of regular police, there is a hierarchy. Based on the seriousness of a criminal case, an official ranging from a Sub-Inspector (SI) to a Deputy SP can take over. However, in the case of the revenue police, the patwari is the highest investigation officer.

Also, revenue police officers do not fall under the Police-Forces (Restriction of Rights) Act, which restricts certain rights conferred by the Constitution to the members of the forces charged with the maintenance of public order. This is to ensure proper discharge of their duties and the maintenance of discipline. Thus, on several occasions, revenue officials have gone on strike from policing duties, demanding adequate resources or freeing them from policing responsibilities.

The plans and the challenges

The Uttarakhand High Court, in a landmark judgment in 2018, ordered the state government to abolish the “century-old practice” of the revenue police system.

“…more than a century old practice of the revenue police system… in many parts of the state of Uttarakhand is ordered to be abolished within six months,” the order stated. The court order came in the backdrop of a woman’s alleged killing by her in-laws for dowry in 2011 in a village in the Tehri Garhwal district, which comes under the revenue police system.

However, the state challenged the matter in a higher court.

Earlier this month, after the Ankita Bhandari murder case, the state cabinet gave its nod to a proposal to replace the revenue police system in the state with regular police. The plan is to be implemented in a phase-wise manner. In the first phase, the area of existing police stations and police outposts will be increased.

In addition to that, permission has been granted to six new police stations and 20 police outposts in areas where there is a rise in tourism and commercial activities.

A former police officer in the state welcomed the decision, but said that doing away with the revenue police system will not be an easy task. “Many people have a vested interest in letting this continue. In areas under the jurisdiction of revenue police, the fear of police isn’t there and it allows several illegal activities,” he said, mentioning past incidents when violent protests were held after the government transferred areas from revenue police to normal police.