DISPROPORTIONATE use of force by policemen on protestors and the former's alleged lack of adequate responsiveness to calls of public distress have once again attracted media attention.
While one would agree that making light of a serious public order situation or unconvincingly venturing to defend deviant policemen does not befit the ethos of public service, it is also distressing to see deliberate efforts to demonize the police outfit. Admittedly, none of these would do the public any good and consequently are not in public interest.
Public interest, undoubtedly, presupposes public convenience without prejudicing the rights of others. One has to admit moreover, that the rights of citizens as constitutionally incorporated are not absolute and thus subject to conditions. These conditionalities as far as they relate to freedom of movement and have a bearing on public order are usually determined and spelt out by the regulatory body. But sometimes there are difficulties encountered in reconciling freedom of movement with maintenance of public order. In fact, one could see the uneasy balance of law enforcement effectiveness desirably co-existing with civil liberty in a democratic society.
The above stipulations have been made with a view to seeing the undesirable transactions in its broader perspective beyond the immediate imperative of quickly and adequately punishing the bad hats responsible for inexcusable highhandedness. As a democratic polity we must learn to forego police effectiveness at the altar of civil liberties which indeed is as it ought to be.
From a broader perspective, it is worthwhile to recollect that the Bangladesh State was the product of a bitter and violent freedom struggle. The State adopted a written, liberal democratic constitution but retained the colonial administrative, police and judicial structures without recasting them to meet the changed situation. The repressive character of police emerged when the ruling class of a decolonised society decided to retain the inherited police organisation, ignoring a justified need for change.
Ironically, our political leaders who, since 1947, occupied positions of power, were enamoured by the administrative and police system left behind and enjoyed exercising power and authority. They were thus oblivious of their own demand of yesteryears for far-reaching administrative reforms. The periods of unconstitutional rule in Bangladesh brought out in full virulence the repressive role of the inherited police system.
The first purpose of our para-military police force is to support the State; and therefore their primary role is a political one. The State, rather than the law, is supreme; and the major enemy of the police is political subversion rather than the ordinary criminal.
The norms of modern progressive police service are, broadly speaking, that the police force should be a body of citizens in uniform, exercising their right to make arrests, but so far as possible non-military in appearance, local in their origins, and accountable for their actions. The assumption is that the majority of citizens would obey the majority of laws for the majority of the time, and that the police would be operating as far as possible by consent and not by force.
Coming to the aspect of citizens obeying the law, it is not known if the protestors in question that went to the DMP headquarters bypassed the prescribed route of movement and intruded into areas where ingress remains restricted for reasons of order and security. Were they, in exercising their right of protest and movement, causing greater public inconvenience by closing a public thoroughfare? In other words, were they doing the right thing in the wrong way? In the same vein, one could ask, if lawmen were breaking the law by applying disturbingly disproportionate force and also exposing themselves to the charge of harassing a woman?
If indeed we see the incipient signs of de-humanisation in the law enforcement culture, the remedy quite clearly, is a reform strategy. A fundamental prerequisite for success of a reform strategy is publicly demonstrated political will of the top leadership, and an on-going commitment of all stakeholders to support and sustain the expected outcomes of that strategy. When the challenge is to foster democratic governance, rule of law and human security, it is not possible to implement successfully any meaningful reforms without a broad agreement across the political landscape on the future role and responsibilities of the police.
The deviation of policemen in the form of criminal acts and other illegal activities are always deplorable as they shake the foundation of society by eroding faith and trust in the rule of law. The most visible symbol of authority can never escape criticism for malfunctioning of any description. They cannot ignore public opinion. This needs to be constantly impressed upon the rank and file. At the same time we need to create conditions wherein the policemen in our neighbourhood will give us little or no reason to gripe about their performance.
The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.