Can citizens' expectations from the police be met?
It was absorbing to read the very insightful article by an esteemed columnist of this newspaper entitled, "A citizen's expectations from the police." He had charted his thoughts on what the police should do to ensure that it did exactly what the people expected it to do, which is not much different from what in some instances the letter of the current law, albeit antiquated, and in general its spirit, burdens it to do. It is a burden certainly because of the variety of centrifugal forces that influence the function of the police.
He lays out a list of eight public expectations too, which nobody can take issue with, but the readers, and hopefully the police, would have been further benefited from his opinion as to why the police are often found woefully incapable of meeting most of those to the satisfaction of the public they are supposed to serve. What has prevented the police from being a people-friendly force, run on the well-known principle, but dishonored more often, of policing by consent and not by force? However, in all fairness to the erudite writer, he does offer his reasons as to why the Police Act of 1861 should be scrapped and replaced by a law befitting the time and the country we live in.
While we shall go into those aspects a little later, I must at this point admit my inability to comprehend some of the points made in the said article. I wonder what the writer means when he claims that the police are finding it increasingly difficult to perform their primary task of securing "law and order and the balance of power within our society has turned ominously against the forces of peace and order." One would like to know who the "balance of power" is, and, more importantly, what has caused that particular power to turn against the "forces of peace and order." Is it because the "forces of peace and order" are no longer viewed by the public as such that they have become an ancillary of the ruling party rather than a state aparatus for maintaining law and order and doing their job without favour?
He follows up by arguing that an attendant predicament is the "absence of an agreement among different segments of the society as to what is expected from the police department." Does there have to be an "agreement" on what the different segments of the society expect the police to do? Is there not a suggestion in that argument that different sections of society have different interests? One would have thought that the police have well-defined terms of reference (TOR) although they have been bound by an out-of-date law (1861), even after nearly 50 years of our independence.
The question that begs to be answered is: Have our police been able to shed the character of the force which the Police Act 1861 was meant to govern in the pursuit of colonial interest? Has the people's perception of the police, a force set up to suit the colonisers during the Indian movement for freedom, as a coercive arm of the colonial government changed?
But the writer hits the most pertinent chord when he suggests why the current police law should be binned. What he doesn't spell out, however, is the fact that there is a draft ordinance: the Draft Police Ordinance (DPO) 2007. But that document, containing suggestions that would allow the police to be an effective instrument for the service of the people, has not emerged from its incubation cell even a long 11 years after it was drafted and submitted to the ministry. But while the writer suggests that administrative and legal reforms related to the police have been stymied by an antiquated administrative legacy, I feel that not only the bureaucracy but also the reluctant politicians are unwilling to let go of their hold on the most powerful segment of the executive branch. Which politician would want to introduce a statute that makes political interference a criminal offence, as does the DPO-2007?
Thus, we continue to have a police force in a modern state carrying on its shoulders the vestiges of a law of the feudal and colonial past. Colonial laws infuse colonial mentality, and this has been eminently clear in the attitude of the policemen so far, although one must admit that there are periodic efforts by the police leadership to purge that mindset through motivational training of all ranks of the force.
It is sad but true that the colonial law that has guided the function of the police in Bangladesh has served the successive governments—the military, pseudo-democratic, and the democratically elected—very well. The 1861 Act was legislated very soon after 1857; the motivation was not to serve the people of India but to crush dissent and irredentist aspirations of the people. As we have said so often, the parameters under which the police in Bangladesh function are a relic of the colonial past—a relic that, regrettably, some would like to hang on to even now.
The DPO-2007 had suggested very appropriate and significant changes which, if implemented, could make the police free of political interference, accountable to the people, and, certainly, with a changed mind-frame of the force, more efficient. But that is not to be, we fear.
We re-emphasise as we have done before that alongside police reform there is a need to reform the police too. The mindset, both of the police, and more importantly, their political masters, has to change. Political interference must end. And the police must be given the resources to carry out their mission efficiently. Without these conditions being fulfilled, neither can the best of legislations deliver nor can the people's expectations be met.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.