Police Week: Between reforms and rituals
Ritualistically every year, a week is set aside in the month of January for observing as the Police Week. I use the word “ritualistically” deliberately, since except for the parade and general “durbar” with the PM, very little palpable seems to happen during the seven days. And of course like in all the meetings with the head of the government, various problems, and grievances of the police force are put forward, for the PM to address. Some of the issues are indeed genuine, since those have to do with increasing the efficiency of the force, while some perhaps do not fit the definition of “grievance”. Demand for increased mobility of the force, given the expansion of its operational canvass, is genuine but not so much the demand to keep the police, in certain circumstances, above the law. One must keep in mind the very wise words of a very famous US Chief Justice that the police must obey the law while enforcing the law.
I submit that the idea of a Police Week is very good, but that should be utilised to (I am certain that is done) take stock of not only the collective achievements of the force in the past year but also the failures of the force in upholding the rule of law and mitigating the consequences of the coercive effect that the law breakers of all definitions impose on the society. And the inadequacies and faults are what must be focused upon and the government be convinced of the need to address and resolve, because, the shortcomings, or the responsibility for the failures, one must admit without any reservation, is not entirely of the police alone. And if a government is really serious about the law and order issues, it will do well to resolve the problems with haste.
One must not underestimate the consequences of the failures. Those have serious long-term implications, they being directly related to the rule of law, and more importantly, to the delivery of justice since the very process of it is initiated by the police. And success of the force is measured by its effectiveness as a pawl against the corrosion of both.
And every year the Hon'ble President and the Prime Minister grant audience to the high-ranking officers of the force and deliver their important message on the occasion. This year, both the Hon'ble President and Prime Minister's missives touched on the very core of the service ethics and the raison d'être of the force. What the President said—"Serve not Harass”—should really be the motto of the force. But unfortunately, the common picture of the police that an ordinary member of the public conjures up in his or her mind is quite different. We must not forget that the guiding principle of setting up a police force in England was the concept of policing—by consent and not by force, where the law enforcing agencies are seen as serving the people not lording over them. The mere thought of a policeman must not generate fear but inculcate confidence in public minds, which is not the order of the day here unfortunately.
The PM's advice was equally relevant and must be the predominating thought behind every action that the police take in upholding the rule of law and the justice system. The PM stressed on the fact that the police must be accountable for all their actions. These are very significant words, particularly given the context in which the force has been operating in this country. And the PM's wise counsel begs a few questions.
Firstly, accountability is a two-way traffic. While the government must exercise its own oversight on the force the force must similarly be made answerable for all the acts of omission and commission that are deemed outside the law. But one can be held accountable only if the person or institution has autonomy of action and not dictated or commanded to take certain actions not of their volition. In other words only when the police are free of political control or influence and work freely can they be held solely responsible for their actions. Otherwise the government has to be held accountable for action that it dictates the police to take.
In this context it will be not out of order to query the fate of the “Draft Police Ordinance-2007.” Police reform is long overdue. It was about time that the archaic Police Act of 1861 was replaced with a new Act. And that was the whole purpose of the exercise that saw the formulation of the said Ordinance which would have, to a large degree seen the end of undue political influence on the force, which is not regime centric but have been exerted by all the regimes.
It defies logic that a wholesome document like the Draft Ordinance has been successfully shelved for the last ten years, and the police is being guided by a colonial decree that has become hopelessly anachronistic, little realising that colonial rules breed and sustain colonial mentality. But when the police want reform, then why can't they have it. The long and short of the matter is that, the rule of law must predominate and predicate every single police action. And the sooner the political masters realised this truth the better it will be for the country.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd) is, Associate Editor, The Daily Star.