Reforming the police


What happened on GT Road near Sahiwal on January 19 was another reminder that we need radical reforms to democratise the repressive colonial police system and structure. In the Sahiwal case, four people, including three members of a family, were killed in broad daylight by CTD Punjab.

Out of the four killed were a father, mother and young girl, who were assassinated in front of three minor children, and initially declared terrorist suspects. The reality was exposed by the 10-year-old son of the massacred family who survived along with his two young sisters, and a video made by an eyewitness. In its initial inquiry, the JIT constituted to investigate the incident has accepted that innocent people have been killed in the Sahiwal police action.

This brutal murder has provoked a strong reaction on social media and also caught mainstream media attention. The CTD did try everything to get away with this, showing once what little respect for human life the police have. This horrific incident is not the first of its kind. Extrajudicial killings and fake encounters have become a norm over the years. They clearly manifest that our criminal justice system has been broken. No serious effort has been made in the past years to fix this problem. Instead torture, humiliation, violation of fundamental rights and extrajudicial killings have become the order of the day. We have seen transfers, postings and suspensions of officials after every tragic incident. But such actions never seem to stop people from being killed in extrajudicial killings or fake encounters.

I have no doubt in my mind that there are brave, honest, and kind-hearted and law-abiding police officials in the police service who are thorough professionals and committed to serving the people. However, they are eclipsed in a culture of corruption, misuse of authority and favouritism. And even they become hostage to this repressive, rotten and outdated system.

Gruesome massacres like the Sahiwal incident or the Model Town case or the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud in a fake encounter tell us that there are serious problems with the present colonial police system. Our ruling class issues emotional and charged statements and promises to bring reforms in the police system after every horrific incident. But they really want to keep this police system intact.

More than two dozen commissions, committees and task forces have failed to reform the police in the last 71 years. The ruling class was never, and is still not, willing to reform the police structure. The question is: why has the ruling elite been unwilling to bring about the much-needed reforms in the police system. There is simple a answer: because existing system is tailor-made to protect the interests of the powerful and to repress the masses. And it perfectly suits the elite to maintain their hegemony over the people.

They fully understand that the present system, structure and laws are more than 150 years old. The police system and laws are not compatible with the modern needs and challenges of the 21st century. They know that the existing police system is repressive, cruel, inhuman and contemptuous towards ordinary people. But still they want to maintain this system because it is serving them well.

British imperialism built this colonial police system after the 1857 war of independence to repress and exploit the Indian population. The adoption of repressive policing tactics may be understood as being integral to the overtly political function of the police in the colony, which entailed protecting the colonial power from rebellions and mass resistance.

Yet, it would be a mistake to view colonial policing as being confined to such functions; colonial forces were also concerned with crime control but this was generally secondary to the maintenance of internal security and public order.

The political and military character of policing has historical origins. Politicisation means to maintain the political hegemony of British imperialism. The British policing culture in India was distinctly political in nature. Policing was aimed to legitimise British rule in a way that the army could not, giving a ‘civilian face’ to what was essentially paramilitary rule. The colonial policing culture was based on paramilitarism; ‘penal excess’ as exemplified by the excessive surveillance of the local population and police brutality used against them; politicisation; centralisation; and ethnic bias.

Police reforms should be aimed at decolonising, demilitarising, depoliticising, democratising and decentralising policing. The depoliticisation of the police force means not only to free it from political interference but also so it doesn’t only serve the ruling elite.

The unreformed Pakistani police system has shown itself to be pliant and amenable to manipulation by the political interests of the ruling authorities at any given time. What are needed are not just reforms in the organisational structures of centralised police and paramilitary forces but also some rethinking to update and modernise criminal laws such as the Police Order2002, the Pakistan Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), anti- terrorism laws and the Evidence Act. Only this can ensure the protection of the fundamental human, political and democratic rights of the people at the bottom who often become victims of lawless police violence.

The monopoly of legitimate use of force lies with the modern capitalist state. And the way this monopoly of force is exercised by the police critically affects the form of government and reflects the state structure: in an authoritarian state, the police exercise the monopoly of force in an authoritarian and brutal way. In a well- entrenched democratic state, there are many more limitations on what the police are allowed to do. These limitations are intended to secure human rights, especially civil liberties and political rights.