An article titled, “The audacity to do what is right” (April 5, 2019), in this newspaper has implored the leaders of Bangladesh to help in the massive clean-up of the police force wherein “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 enforcing agencies.” The writer's premonition is that without the proposed clean-up, the leaders “will soon find a state plagued by lawlessness, with a miserable, demoralised citizenry—a state that will become extremely difficult to govern.”
The alleged scenario is without doubt, a very dismal projection that must worry every right-thinking citizen about ensuring rule of law and the orderly conduction of public affairs. The question is why there have been less than serious efforts to truly professionalise a vital public service organ of the State. One also needs to know why apolitical growth of a service befitting a democratic polity has not been a priority with the political leaders. In other words, why this paucity of audacity to do what is right?
I am of the view that for an appropriate appreciation of the State of affairs with regard to law enforcement agency, the historical perspective needs to be understood. The fact of the matter is that the Bangladesh State was the product of a violent freedom struggle. While it adopted a written, liberal democratic constitution it retained the colonial administrative, police and judicial structures without recasting them to meet the changed situation. The “colonial repressive” character of the police organisation emerged when the governing elite of a decolonised society decided to retain the inherited police organisation, ignoring justified demands for change.
If we retrace our steps further we will see that the nationalist leaders of the subcontinent who came to occupy positions of power after the departure of the British were enamoured by the administrative and police system left behind by the colonial power and enjoyed exercising power and authority, oblivious to their own demand during the freedom struggle for far-reaching administrative reforms.
Under the circumstances, it would not be an exaggeration to observe that on assuming power our political leaders failed to introduce administrative changes in tune with the provisions of the republican constitution of Bangladesh. Consequently, the police could not appreciate the aspirations of a democratic polity and act accordingly. It has to be remembered that for the British, the maintenance of their rule was the prime consideration and that crime control was only a secondary objective to be achieved through the fear of the police.
The National Police Commission of India had reported in 1977 that unregulated political intervention in police work was a matter of serious concern. In a democracy, police could not be wholly autonomous and political intervention was both inevitable and necessary to some extent. What appears to be interference to police officers was sometimes justified supervision on the part of elected representatives.
In view of the above, there is a necessity to specify areas where government interference is justified and where it is not. Such a venture points to the necessity of setting up a Security Commission that should largely be comprised of non-political persons. However, care should be taken to ensure that political interference does not garb the alleged politicisation of police force.
The prevalent wisdom often tends to put all the blame on the political class, ignoring the negative role of the police leadership. If political interference has wreaked total havoc as alleged, then it is no less due to the fact that the police officers themselves, including some of those at the helm of affairs, have evinced an undiluted proclivity to please the political bosses for their personal and professional aggrandisement. These officers set a bad example for the entire force and that is where the police-politician nexus, much to the detriment of the norms of law and justice, comes into operation.
One has to admit that the police deviance is symptomatic of a system-wide problem. While officers' personality features represent one element of the problem, organisational culture and practices are also often responsible for police misconduct. Herein surfaces the issue of positive political direction because policing is a field of activity in which interaction between the world of the powerful and the world of the powerless are manifested. Hence, theories of policing must emphasise principles of purpose and principles of values.
Mr KS Subramanian, a Former Officer of Indian Police Service observes, “Politicians do not want to professionalise the service because control over it is central to political conflict in a divided society.” In our situation, we need to examine if the police leadership stands handicapped in effectively contributing to organisational renewal and revitalisation, research and training, and the nurturing of professional skills.
The present government has spent and continues to allocate huge sums of money for increase of police manpower and other technical and logistical development. In budgetary terms this is unprecedented and demands unqualified admiration. It is, therefore, time to do some substantive organisational renewal by means of legislative intervention.
Coming to policing in Bangladesh, one has to note with dismay that the structure of the Bangladesh Police is governed, even today, by the Police Act 1861, an Act passed by the British rulers to suit their imperial interests. A new Police Act which can redefine the role of the police and lay down in no uncertain terms that the duties of the police include safeguarding the rights of the people is urgently necessary.
The Indian National Human Rights Commission in its annual report (1994-95) has endorsed the various practical recommendations of the Indian National Police Commission (volume: ii, chapter: xv) to insulate the police from extraneous pressures and yet make it accountable to the people. A neutral and non-political police force can perform their duties in an efficient, impartial and human manner and function as powerful protectors of human rights. This needs political will and commitment and strong public pressure on the government to bring about systemic reforms in police.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP.