There is a common refrain amongst the public circle whether things would have moved with the speed that it has in the case of Major Sinha, were it not for the fact that he was a military officer. It would be fair to suggest that, considering the trend of police behaviour in similar incidents in the past, it would have gone the way the killing of councillor Akram of Teknaf Municipality and many more such killings have gone, virtually into the backburner. In all likelihood, Shifat and Shpira—instead of being alive and being able to give the true account as eye witness, may have met Sinha's fate. And the perpetrators would have gone about their merry ways as they have been doing so long, with blatant impunity.
And in this case too, everything was going in that direction. The SP colluded in the construction of an untruth. Their dubious plans fell through this time, because of the forum of retired military officers, RAOWA, put up a very strong position in this regard. But the several hundred others who have met the same unfortunate fate as Sinha's, many under the watch of this particular OC, on this very stretch of road, the Marine Drive, which some have renamed "Killing Drive", do not have such a dedicated organisation working for them to voice their just cause.
Thus, it is time to resurrect the issue of police reform, and if I might add, reform of the police as well, an issue which has been pushed under the carpet for long. We are still clinging on to a colonial relic—a code of conduct that was formulated following the First War of Independence in 1857 to suppress the aspirations of the people.
Colonial rules, naturally, infuse colonial mentality in those who are entrusted to implement those rules. We saw that during the Pakistan period, and we see that attitude even now, unfortunately. To live with an anachronistic and outdated law, under the completely changed concept of a free society, is a gross incongruity.
Regrettably, the police have never been allowed to function even within the parameters of the existing archaic Act of 1861, which also calls on the police to follow "legal orders". Importance of police reform has been well articulated over the past two decades by all segments of the civil society. Senior police officers at various times have called on the government to, "save this vital organ of the state from further corrosion" and go into, "in-depth examination of the police organisation, its mandate and its functional dynamics."
But the long awaited reform has not, and may never, come about. Why?
Readers would recall that the Draft Police Ordinance—2007 (DPO-2007) was put up to the government with well-considered recommendations. But regrettably, a draft ordinance that was informed by valued opinions of practitioners, bureaucrats, lawyers and representatives of civil society, including human rights organisations, is gathering dust on the shelves of the ministry.
Apparently, there is a resistance to change the status quo, which was clearly betrayed by the remarks of the Additional Secretary, Ministry of Home, made to a Bangla daily in August 2010 that the proposed ordinance was unrealistic and impracticable. He did not bother to elaborate on the "unrealistic" and "impracticable" aspects of the document. It is not hard to guess that the short shrift to the issue by the bureaucrats and the political leaders is perhaps because with the proposed ordinance in place, the police may no longer remain under their control since, among many new proposals; DPO-2007 makes illegal interference into police operations a criminal offence.
It must be emphasised that there is a difference between government control of the service, which a must for accountability, and political control which must be abjured, for the sake of rule of law. However, with the distinction between the administration and the ruling party becoming completely blurred, and with the unmitigated politicisation of the service, the question of government control has been rendered moot. This is a view shared by many police officers too.
It may be relevant here to mention that that the two other countries in the subcontinent that had inherited this colonial legacy have moved more resolutely to purge it. Pakistan has a new police act since 2002, and in India, although the Police Act of 1861 has not been totally replaced, a "Model Police Act" was introduced in 1981.
But while one talks of police reform in Bangladesh, one must also mention reform of the police psyche too, a state of mind that has not been entirely of their own making. The concatenation of events culminating in the premeditated murder of Major Sinha, betrays such a crude and debilitating culture that has accreted over time, turning the police into an object of fear and trepidation rather than an agency that engenders confidence and trust among the law abiding citizens.
But whatever reforms are introduced, no substantive changes can be effected without addressing the main problem with political sincerity. At the root of the problem is political interference, a feature not unique to any one particular regime, but to all regimes since our inception. The deep extent of political control has been betrayed in the way the police have been used as a handmaiden of the political party in power, to go after its political opponents. Almost all its agencies had been made dysfunctional, most of all the investigative agencies, which were compelled to alter the course of many criminal investigations. Such interference at all levels even now are more common than not. "We are seeing the spectacle of a police force which simply enforces the wish of the government or the party, and here the rule of law is not a respected principle. Our police have been active more in repressing dissent rather than enforcing the law." That, according to former IGP who goes on to add, "Our police have been rendered to act as agents of the political executive rather than as instruments of a democratic state."
Change in police psyche is a tall order, but necessary for an organisation to be effective. It must realise that it is not a "force"—the word force conjures up an idea of coercion, and implies that it has enemies arrayed against it. The people are not the enemy. Thus I do not feel that combat camouflage dress is an appropriate outfit for an agency that is supposed to build confidence among law abiding citizens. Of course this does not apply to specialised forces, which I believe has specific and specialised tasks. And for that reason I feel that all and every specialised force, and we have quite a few, should be separated from the general police service and brought under a separate set up under the home ministry, and under a different command altogether. The police should have the mandate only to maintain law and order, combat crime and investigate and help in the litigation process.
An independent oversight body is an essential adjunct in the administration of the law enforcing agency, which the proposed ordinance recommends to have. There also are some very important features of the draft policy including that of the provision of a "police commission" which, among other things, would oversee the workings of the force and also recommend a panel of names to the government for selecting the IGP. The DPO-2007 would ensure that the police conform to the democratic values and the principle of universal human rights. It enjoins upon the police, among other things, to be answerable to the people, who want policing by consent and not by force. Hurting your own people using the uniform as a veneer of legality is unacceptable.
Reform is necessary to ensure that the rule of law is enforced, and every single breach of law punished, and if it is a law keeper who breaks the law, with even more severity than the general public would be for the same crime.
The police should work under the rule of law, rather than the whims of the party in power, intervene in the life of citizens only under limited and controlled circumstances; and be made publicly accountable. Those are not my words but that of the said former IGP, whose comments and opinions, I found, are always informed by objectivity and backed by rational arguments.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.