There could be no two opinions on the significance of responsible law enforcement in a democratic polity. At the same time, one can link lack of good governance to a climate in which enforcement of the existing law, particularly criminal law, is not attended to in the right earnest. Media reports indicate that Bangladesh would have fared much better in international parlance if not for the worrying infringements of civil liberties. This assessment is distressing when one sees Bangladesh's commendable achievements in other socio-economic indicators. It may, therefore, be time to take a dispassionate look at the factors contributing to such a scenario and devise measures for improvement.
There is no doubt that a long string of “bad news” stories have adversely affected public perception of the police. One needs to look beyond that and ask if we, as a society, have really ventured to create a caring and responsive police organisation. Have we seriously pondered why an inherited colonial system has been expanded and strengthened to ensure continuation of its repressive role instead of going for a system that truly serves the people?
One needs to take a historical perspective to understand this. The fact is, Bangladesh had attained independence after a bloody independence struggle and then adopted a liberal, democratic constitution while retaining the colonial administrative, police and judicial structures, without recasting them to meet the demands of the changed situation. How can you promote liberalism with a colonial mindset?
The colonial police system operated in the light of the imperial ruler's need to establish a relationship of control, coercion and surveillance over a subject population. The question is, how would such a system fulfil the aspiration of an independent democratic polity.
The above reference has been cited to highlight the systemic deficit and to understand what happens when the institution is afflicted by organisational, managerial and policy crises.
The tasks, however, are multiple and daunting. In particular, the alleged human rights violations pertaining to extra-judicial killings and the enforced disappearances demand special attention. Our credentials as a democratic polity would not attract critical feedback if we could firmly reject, and disown, the mentality that those who could not be dealt with within the law have to be dealt with beyond the law.
Another disconcerting point that comes to mind relates to the so-called political withdrawal of criminal cases. Although late in the day, it may still be beneficial to examine if such withdrawals by administrative fiat are an undermining of the criminal justice system.
Coming to the specifics of policing, can our citizens expect that the alleged selective application of law against opponents—political or personal—at the behest of persons of influence will not become a norm? Shall we make genuine efforts to ensure that the police are not perceived as agents of the party in power, and are in fact members of an organisation publicly maintained to enforce the law? The police need to be a provider of service to the community, and not be an entity exposed to exploitation.
As far as basic reform is concerned, it is still not too late to initiate action. Our politicians know very well that policing in Bangladesh has been by and large a one-sided affair, with the communities having little or no say in local policing plans and strategies that affect them most. Our politicians, including legislators, know very well that the Police Act of 1861, the key police law, is silent on the issue of community consultation. This law focused on the responsibility of communities to ensure order, and should any member steps out of line, the whole community would face vicarious punishment. The situation has not changed much.
The politician's mind has to appreciate that the Police Act, 1861 was principally aimed at administering a static, immobile and backward rural society living in villages and small towns. It envisaged exercise of authority without local accountability. It presupposed a society without any constitution, basic and fundamental rights, organised public opinion, and mass media projecting the public interest. The need, therefore, is to initiate informed debates and ultimately enact a suitable police act, as has been done in a neighbouring country.
A reasoned view is that police and law enforcement reforms need to be done in tandem with reforms in the criminal justice system, and in broader governance we need to overcome the inertia by stirring a moribund system into action. Enforcement reforms, if left unattended, will only undermine our security.
The organisational objective is important because in the colonial model the policemen are accountable to their superiors, rather than the public or the law. Their duties are tabulated for them, and there is little or no room for discretion—clearly, such a police force would dictate a very different relationship between police and society. The distinction between society and state and between state and government gets blurred.
We have to remember that a police organisation which is controlled is a source of great power to its controllers. Has there been any societal effort to monitor police power carefully and harness it for the good of all? It needs to be remembered that to place police and their power solely under the authority of the executive government is to give that arm of government power to enforce its will on society and overrule opposition.
Is it likely that our leaders who came to occupy positions of power after the departure of the British and Pakistanis were enamoured of the administrative and police system left behind by the colonial powers, and enjoyed exercising power and authority—oblivious to the fact they were the ones who had once demanded far-reaching administrative reforms?
Is the public getting caught in an increasingly norm-free, unpredictable and unjust environment? Who is responsible for transforming policing from the professional imposition of a coherent moral consensus on society into unethical activities?
While the prevalent wisdom of a section of our society shifting all the blame onto the politicians is untenable, it is also not in the broader public interest to make sweeping observations like “people are not safe even in their bedrooms, rape is common, murders are frequent, mugging is routine like a traffic jam,” without the benefit of appropriate analysis and statistics and cognizance of the broader perspective. It is time for substantive police reforms to plug the systemic holes, control the deviants and, where necessary, weed out the bad hats.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP and a columnist of The Daily Star.