As the country become a state of thieves?” Such a strong remark by a High Court judge was in reference to the strange reality of many policemen leading hard lives while others lived in expensive houses. The remark was made during the hearing of a writ petition challenging the legality of the OC (Officer in Charge) of a thana in Satkhira to refuse a case of torture of Md Fazlur Karim and the looting of valuables from his home. The nature of the case and the way the judges have reacted highlights how distant many members of the police force have become from the values and duty they are oath-bound to uphold.
It is sad that after 48 years of our independence we are having to remind our police force what those values and duties are. Do we really have to spell out that the rule of law is a fundamental element in democratic governance and the police force, along with other security agencies, are the primary actors to maintain and uphold it? A police force is a crucial and mandatory component for any modern society but of course it must be one that fulfils its functions in the interest of the public that it serves. The police are supposed to be the protectors of the law who will ensure the safety and security of the public. Thus honesty, professionalism, ethical behaviour, compassion and sincerity are basic attributes that are prerequisites of the job description. Unfortunately such virtues are becoming rarer than ever among many members of the various law enforcement agencies who consider themselves invincible and literally, above the law.
The Shyamnagar OC's arrogance is an offshoot of this degradation that can be seen in many other thanas, something the High Court has stated as giving the entire police force a bad name. Despite the successes achieved by the security forces in fighting terrorism and other crimes, despite so many law enforcers trying their best to provide security to the public, the misdeeds of some of their colleagues have made ordinary people look at such security forces with fear and mistrust.
The case we are talking about goes like this: According to news reports, on February 17, around 11 pm, a man with whom Fazlur Karim had a land dispute, came to his house with a few accomplices and attacked him, beating Karim up, looting gold jewellery, cash and other valuables. The attackers also damaged Karim's boundary wall and ran away. While the attack was going on Karim managed to call Shyamnagar's OC who told him he was too busy and would deal with it later. Karim then called 999, the emergency police number, and told an SI—but by the time the SI came the attackers had already left. The next day Fazlur went to the police station but the OC refused to take his case and so he decided to send an application to the Satkhira Superintendent (SP). On February 26, the SP asked the OC to take the necessary steps but he did not register the case.
So what is going on, a naïve citizen would ask. Apparently the Officer in Charge of a police station wields a lot more power than the Superintendent of the entire district. This absurd tilting of power has not happened overnight but over decades of allowing this culture of impunity and one-upmanship to flourish. The same report quotes the High Court asking “where do they get the audacity?” referring to some OCs setting up “courts” at their convenience at night to conduct arbitrations.
Apparently this audacity comes from a lack of accountability within the police force where nobody has the courage to challenge a haughty high-ranking officer who is directly flouting the law, disregarding his duty and providing no protection to the victim. This is probably the lesser of crimes that members of the police force have been accused of. There are widespread allegations against police and other security forces of crimes as serious as forced disappearances, torture and death in custody, extortion and so on. We hear very few cases where the accused police personnel have been convicted and sent to jail. They are either transferred or closed.
But the biggest blemish on their image has been the blatant politicisation of the police by successive governments, resulting in a loss of public trust in the law enforcement agencies.
In a democracy, people's constitutional rights and freedoms are supposed to be protected through the police. They are empowered to apprehend anyone on the streets, arrest, pick up and detain anyone they deem breaking the law. But such power can only be wielded under strict guidance and without violating fundamental rights which should be ensured by those in charge of the force and ultimately the home ministry under which it functions. But the increasing number of cases of negligence of duty or criminality among members of the police points to the fact that making sure law enforcers adhere to a strict code of conduct is not the highest priority. Moreover the close relationship many high-ranking police officers have with influential political figures gives them the immunity to get away with anything.
The result of this adulteration is a major weakening of the police force to combat crime and ensure security for the ordinary citizen. Those in power must realise that such a weakened police force leaves the entire country in a precarious position in terms of internal and external security.
Providing logistical and financial support are the easier ways to strengthen the police force. They would include paying decent salaries (especially to lower ranking law enforcers), providing adequate accommodation and various benefits for police personnel at all levels. Better resources such as efficient forensic labs and expert personnel as well as digitalising documentation can speed up investigations. Increasing the number of law enforcers—those who can be spared innumerable VIP protocols—to actually provide protection to ordinary civilians could go a long way in improving the image of the police in the public eye.
All this is possible but completely meaningless without a major clean-up within the force. This includes removing corrupt practices such as extortion, filing of false cases, refusal to take cases, harassment of opponents, unlawful arrests and disappearances, extrajudicial killings—just to name a few reasons why people are not exactly cosying up to the police. This means inculcating the highest moral standards as a part of police training. Which in turn, requires complete de-politicisation of the law enforcement agencies.
Unless our leaders make a concerted effort to help in this massive clean-up, they will soon find a state plagued by lawlessness, with a miserable, demoralised citizenry—a state that will become extremely difficult to govern. The question is do they have the audacity to take that step. To do the right thing.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.