Recent incidents of violence, including attacks on public establishments, seem to have unnerved our police. As a result, the Inspector General of Police has instructed senior law enforcement officials to firmly address such incidence, even with the use of "more powerful weapons"—should firing rubber bullets prove ineffective in bringing the situation under control, according to the Prothom Alo. The report, quoting officials, said that the IGP expressed his dissatisfaction, as the "Hefazat-led violence" could not be brought under control by firing rubber bullets. The virtual meeting held on April 7 was attended by senior officials at the police headquarters. Within 24 hours, the media published pictures of light machine guns being put up at police stations in Sylhet, one of the districts that had witnessed some degree of mob violence in recent weeks.
These developments came after violence in Dhaka, Chittagong and Bhraminbaria left at least 17 people dead, during protests against the visit of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Moreover, on April 5, Saltha upazila of Faridpur district witnessed mob attacks on some public establishments, during protests against the government-run anti-Covid-19 drives. The scale of violence and damage caused by activists of Hefazat-e-Islam and other groups, whether provoked or planned, are unacceptable and should be condemned. But, simultaneously, we need to have an in-depth review of police practices, instead of opting for more lethal tactics.
Fortification of key public installations, particularly police stations, is understandable and perhaps justifiable, especially amidst increased levels of hostility from certain sections of society against the administration and law enforcing agencies—though some critics suspect politics is behind this. These critics argue that putting up heavy arms at police stations will unnecessarily scare off common people. They find it a convenient ploy to gain support from western countries to counter their complaints about the government's high-handed approach against dissent. But, more disturbing is the instruction given to law enforcing units to use "more powerful weapons". Using deadly force in policing has never been a good idea. In fact, it is counterproductive and fuels further discontent and anger among the wider society which makes policing even harder.
The latest instruction is even more problematic since Bangladesh police, in recent years, has increasingly been criticised by human rights groups and observers for brutality and lack of accountability. Even the United Nations' Committee on Torture in its observation in 2019 said that, "The Committee is deeply concerned at persistent allegations of excessive use of force by members of the security forces, intelligence services and the police, including the practice of shooting persons at short range in the knee, leg or elbow called 'kneecapping', which often results in permanent disability, including amputation."
Principles laid out in various international conventions and legal instruments clearly make it obligatory for police in every country to "never knowingly use more force than is reasonable", nor "abuse their authority'. They are also required to obey all lawful orders and abide by the regulations of their organisation.
Though it is quite astonishing that our police force is still regulated by the Police Regulations of Bengal 1943, it too imposes certain restrictions over using firearms in controlling unruly mobs or public gatherings. Under which circumstances police can use firearms to disperse an unlawful assembly are described by Acts 153 and 155. Act 153(c)(i) stipulates: "An order to fire upon a crowd should be regarded as an extreme measure to which recourse should be had only in the last resort when it is absolutely necessary for the defence of life or property or when a Magistrate, an officer-in-charge of a police-station or police officer superior in rank to such officer considers it impossible to disperse a mob by any other means. Subsequent provision makes it mandatory to give 'full and sufficient warning' to the rioters for immediate dispersal before any firing. The Regulation requires that the magistrate or the officer in command shall direct the firing in such a way as to secure immediate effect with a minimum of injury."
The Code of Criminal Procedure too has similar provisions like the Police Regulations of Bengal, for dealing with unlawful assembly and mob violence. It emphasises using "as little force" and causing "as little injury to person and property" in dispersing the assembly and arresting and detaining those in violation of lawful orders. Using firearms to disperse any mob can only be justified, as prescribed by the Penal Code, where it says, "in the exercise of the right of private defence against an assault which reasonably causes the apprehension of death."
It is unclear what those more powerful weapons will do, other than causing higher deaths and serious injuries. Will it not be worse when policing in the world has dramatically changed, putting human rights at the core of enforcing law? The latest spiral in violence that swept through the country started on March 26 at the premises of Baitul Mukarram Mosque, when police tried to stop protests against the visit of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One of the cases filed with the Paltan Police Station by police noted that they had used more than 1,100 rounds of bullets and about 90 shells of tear gas within two hours to tackle the crowd. Doesn't this record suggest an inclination to use more firepower than non-lethal means for controlling a rioting mob?
Opting for more powerful weapons in policing is also worrying since we do not have an independent oversight mechanism. In 2019, the UNCAT recommended for establishing "an effective complaints mechanism for victims of excessive use of force and ensure prompt, impartial, effective investigations are carried out into all such complaints." Instead of encouraging use of more powerful weapons, it would be wiser for the authorities to initiate such reforms which will restore peoples' confidence in the police.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist based in London.