In the columns of this newspaper, an erudite professor highlighted the need to "at least start a dialogue" on reforming the police. Like many concerned citizens he feels frustrated and distressed at the gross misuse of police powers resulting in grievous physical injuries including death and the uncalled for loss of individual liberty. His plea for reforming the police should strike a sympathetic chord in all sensible quarters for the simple reason that whenever any State violates its citizen's rights, one of the main instrument available for it to do this is its police force. The unpleasant reality, however, is that successive authorities have not dealt with the subject with the desired seriousness.
There is no point in blaming our British colonial masters for our police-related plight although the decay originates from the colonial past. The British had no incentive to reform the system. Now the focus should perhaps be on the continued justification of the retention of the colonial police system.
The modern Bangladeshi State that was the product of a violent freedom struggle, while adopting a written liberal democratic constitution, retained the colonial administrative, police and judicial structures without recasting them to meet the changed situation. The colonial-repressive character emerged when the governing elite of a decolonised society decided to retain the inherited police organisation, ignoring justified demands for change.
There is a reasonable suspicion that our nationalist leaders who occupied positions of power after the departure of the British and Pakistanis, were enamoured by the administrative and police system left behind by the colonial power and enjoyed exercising power and authority, oblivious of their own demand during the freedom struggle for far-reaching administrative reforms. Is there an apprehension that decolonisation and the resultant professionalisation of police will result in less political control?
The question is, what is a colonial police system? Usually, the colonial police is a para-military force whose first purpose is to support the government, and the government rather than the law is supreme. The major enemy of this police is the political subversive and not the criminal. As in an army, policemen in this force are accountable to their superiors rather than public opinion or the law. Their duties are tabulated for them and there is little or no room for discretion.
To include an external accountability mechanism dealing with serious police delinquency among other provisions for modernising Bangladesh police outfit, a draft police law was submitted during 2007-08 period. No action has been taken to modernise the 1861 Police Act. So when police officials have proposed a legislation to subject errant elements to external scrutiny, it is not understood what prevents the authority to concur. Any system of police accountability will ultimately require legislative force. Whatever system of external supervision of police complaints is used, all systems need legislation to establish both police and public powers and duties, rights and obligations with regard to complaints investigation.
There is a considered view that substantive reform meaningfully impacting police behaviour and action in our parlance would be difficult to come by in the immediate future. As such it might be pragmatic to concentrate on few segments wherein administrative intervention is likely to bring salutary result.
The first item requiring attention relates to the sanitisation of the recruitment process in subordinate ranks of police. Impartial and merit-based appointment will hopefully substantially decrease the ranks of bitter and insensitive elements who are allegedly compelled to make hefty investments to gain entry into service. Fair intake should result in lesser malfeasance.
The second item concerns heavy investments on training, particularly on attitudinal changes and brushing-up investigative skills with particular emphasis on scientific enquiry. The strategy should be to move from evidence to accused and not the other way and to gradually move away from the practice of extracting the less credible judicial confession to collection of material evidence. On a broader canvas, investment for crime prevention and detection should be accorded due priority as compared to expenditures on public order.
The third item relates to rationalisation of promotions and postings. This has to be done by promoting the professionals on merit and discarding the alleged regional or political loyalty bias in matters of posting.
The above measures do not amount to tall orders that are unimplementable but the question is whether in the absence of change of organisational goal, the same can be realistically effected. Such measures in order to be durable must not be regime specific and have to be agreed upon on a bi-partisan basis.
A free society needs, ultimately, to have its police acting for the benefit of all its members: the power of the police is too great for control to be entrusted to any single arm of government and likewise too great to allow the police themselves total autonomy. To place police, and the power they wield in the State under the sole direction of the executive government is to give that arm of government power to enforce its will on society and overrule opposition. It is also to give the individual police officer carte blanche to abuse, bully, or act outside the law to a degree acceptable to the government, even if society, or certain sections of it, finds such activities unacceptable.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP.