Policing the people

The police system set up in 1861 for colonial India was “designed to be a public-frightening organization, not a public-friendly agency… for keeping the natives on a tight leash,” wrote Dr. Shoaib Suddle, “Service to the people was not an objective.”
It’s remained unchanged for over 150 years, now keeping citizens of a supposedly free country on an even tighter leash.
Dr. Shoaib Suddle, amongst his other appointments a decorated former Inspector of Police in Balochistan and Sindh, is a criminologist with a Ph.D. in white-collar crime, who has always sought police reform. He advises and interacts with concerned agencies and institutions around the world including the UN, but has had the least luck with the deeply-entrenched power structure in his own country.
There are many excellent reports on the state of the police system in Pakistan with specific recommendations for reform, equally ignored. But it’s worth starting with Dr. Suddle’s overview that traces its origins and track record, and why politicians cling fiercely to it.
It makes one consider. Would the same two parties which have to date formed governments in turn — as if by prior agreement – have been able to survive without police power? May be the first time round; subsequently unlikely. The stark blow-by-blow lessons in vivid colour across TV screens continues.
Imagine the PAT and PTI marches and sit-ins; what if everything had proceeded without the police ever making an entry? The crowds could have mushroomed and either progressed to their logical conclusion — or fizzled out without anyone getting killed or brutalized.
People know that the police can’t be our friends, and exist only to serve the government of the day, to be feared, never trusted, and largely to be steered clear of.
This completely negates the purpose of a modern police force in a democracy. Yet most citizens apathetically – and mistakenly — accept the police system as an unchangeable given, with few activist efforts for police reform. Most haven’t made the ugly links between an anachronistic police system and democracy.
In pre-British and ancient Indian times, the judiciary and executive were separate; the British consciously unraveled it. The same authority became judge and executioner. As civil unrest grew and the colonials conceded that some police reform was necessary, an 1856 directive sought to deal with the worst of the system’s ills.
It was decided that, “the management of the police of each district be taken out of the hands of the Magistrate.” But British supremacy had to remain uppermost, and it was “committed to European officers.”
The following year, though, the Mutiny of 1857 took place, and the furious British withdrew their decision to separate the police from the executive.
Increasingly, judicial and police powers became concentrated in the same hands through the District Officer – also known as Collector, District Officer, Deputy Commissioner or District Magistrate – who tried most criminal cases. While admitting that the police system left much to be desired, Sir James Stephan (Governor General’s Council, 1870-71,) nevertheless justified the status quo: diminishing the District Officers’ authority over the Natives would compromise British control. The Police Act of 1861 therefore brought no relief to people.
Within six months of independence, the Sindh Assembly passed a Bill for establishing a modern police force for Karachi. But Jinnah passed away soon after, and nothing came of it. Subsequent initiatives were spurned first by the bureaucratic elite, and then by politicians. Dynastic parties and business barons stepped comfortably into ex- colonial shoes.
Mr Vincent Del Buono, UN’s Interregional Advisor for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, led a UN Mission to Pakistan in early 1995 and made recommendations. “The present crisis comes as no surprise,” said the Mission. “Since 1960, there have been eleven separate committees or commissions established by governments in Pakistan and four international missions requested by the Government of Pakistan which have recommended major reforms of policing in Pakistan.”
In 1996, the Pakistan Government invited Japan’s Director General of the National Police Agency, Mr. Sekine, to visit. The team observed that it was crucial that police reforms focus on building a relationship of trust between the people and the police which should adopt a public service concept. Tall order. First on the list of recommendations to establish mutual trust, was the “creation of institutional structures that ensure political neutrality and democratic control of the police.” Instead, public relationing sans internal change failed.
A researcher noted that rapid and remarkable transformation occurred in police behaviour in Japan after World War II, associated with democratisation.
In 1999, a Think Tank on Police Reforms was created by the National Reconstruction Bureau, including Dr. Suddle. It concurred with past findings, that: “Increasingly the police was rendered to act as agents of the political executive rather than as instruments of a democratic state. The selective application of law against opponents, whether due to political interference or at the behest of persons of influence, became the norm rather than an exception. Political and personal vendettas were waged and won through manipulation of the instruments of state. Whatever safeguards existed against the floodgates of pressure, inducement or threat from criminals or ethnic, sectarian or other powerful elements virtually became dead. The net result of this was that people perceived the police as agents of the powerful, not as members of an organization publicly maintained to enforce rule of law.”
In 2001, for the very first time, an independent Police Complaints Authority was created and the office of District Magistrate abolished – ironically enough, under a military president.
But did it make any difference? Not in the long run, certainly not under elected governments. The draft Police Ordinance 2002 which aims at completely depoliticizing the police, making it a professional body built on merit, more accountable to citizens, more, hopefully, like Scotland Yard, still lies dormant. Mainstream politicians prefer it dead.
Suddenly, intriguingly, a few days ago, an experiment with community policing was floated in Karachi, to ‘build the confidence of residents in the police.’ People are doubtful. It was tried before and failed. Police stations generally avoid bothering vicinity residents anyway. It’s like applying band-aid on what needs major surgery, avoiding addressing defective foundations. Any step can still be overridden by the ultimate authorities – the CM or equivalent of Chaudhury Nisar or Rahman Malik on behalf of PM or President.
The police could still buy plum ‘police stations’; collaborate with ‘bhatta’ takers and other racketeers; get paid off by culprits; extort bribes; intimidate, rape and humiliate; harass travelers on roads; break into homes without a warrant; teargas and shoot non-violent, unarmed people; make unlawful, arbitrary arrests and jail them without production in court; and mete out inhuman treatment causing grievous injuries.
After openly attacking political opponents of rulers, police take the flak. The public condemns the police. So do the politicians who gave the orders to begin with. Scapegoat cops are transferred in token ‘punishment’, and business continues as usual.
Now that ideas are taking root, the next government will have to make police reform first priority. The opposition remains silent on the matter. Presumably, they don’t want change either.

 The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.


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