The incidents of police torture and fake encounters in this part of the world are not new and appear with regular intervals but the death of Salahuddin in police custody has shaken the conscience of society at large. The anguish and shock of the public was particularly intense due to the tall claims of the PTI in their election manifesto to reform the thana (police station) culture. Such promises generated hopes of better governance along with protection of human rights and ensuring justice in all tiers of our society. But every now and then, the country echoes with violations of human rights which overshadow the glorious sacrifices and achievements of the police, particularly in Punjab and Sindh.
The obvious question is: Why do such incidents occur so regularly? Lack of accountability is the answer. Had cases like those relating to the Sahiwal encounter and Naqeeb Ullah murder been taken to their logical conclusion and the culprits brought to justice, more such incidents might not have occurred.
The callousness of all law enforcing agencies is institutionalised and continues as a norm behind the iron curtain. Common people were shocked as the video of the Salahuddin incident found its way to the public eye via social media. Demands have been made for the removal of the IG and other concerned senior officers. One would have given the supervisory officers the benefit of the doubt had this been an isolated incident. However, the brutality, fake encounters, qabza (encroachment) and the general haughty and laidback attitude are endemic to say the least. With this backdrop, calls for accountability and reforms are understandable.
While harping on the clichés of reforms and change in the thana culture, we ignore the basics of policing embedded in the Police Rules 1934. The rot stems from omission to follow the guidelines in the rules. The Police Rules require every police officer, whatever the rank, to be regarded by every law-abiding person as a wise and impartial friend and a protector against injury to his property. When mutual confidence and cooperation are lacking, private persons and village officials resort to connivance with criminals to safeguard themselves against any risks. Proper relations between the police and the public in a district depend primarily upon the personal attitude of the superintendent, and the example set by him and enforced upon his subordinates. The most important duty of a superintendent is to know the people of his district and to know what his subordinates are doing. Such knowledge can only be gained by full personal accessibility, active touring, thorough and intelligent supervision and a sympathetic interest in the life of the district and the facts and difficulties of the work of his subordinates. He must inspire confidence in his subordinates as well as in the public. While staying alert to check the abuse of power by his subordinates, the superintendent must also be accessible. All supervisory officers should ensure direct access to themselves, unimpeded by their subordinates and they must be ready to patiently hear the complainants’ grievances. Unfortunately, the regular abuse of power by police officials proves that the supervisory officers appear to be ignorant about what their subordinates are doing. This might be on account of absence of personal accessibility, minimal touring, and a lack of thorough and intelligent supervision and sympathetic interest in the life of the district.
From a sociological perspective, the situation is aggravated by the cultural norm of chitrol, a colloquial term used for lashing with a leather belt to extract confessions — a rather common practice in Punjab. Anyone with a gentlemanly demeanour is generally considered to be a maatha (weak) officer. On the contrary, dabang and daada (bold, inspiring fear) are the terms used for officers that deal in a harsh way and hence yield results quickly. The Punjab Police works in an environment of feudalism — mainly authoritative — based on the lord and serf relationship. The superstructure and relationship in such a society are of an exploitative nature, bonding the serf to the feudal. The instruments of the state are generally aligned with the feudals to the detriment of the rights of the hapless tenants and other marginalised sections of society. The unnoticeable characters called kammis (menials) suffer daily in different ways but do not appear important in the corridors of powers and the ruling elite. The feudal class of the ruling elite seeks to fortify its already acquired status by subjecting society at large to its appropriation. Those attached to lands also consider the phenomenon as their fait accompli. This belief of fatalism keeps them in a system of psychological bondage and chains, difficult to be broken. The police also operate in the same socio-economic conditions and the psyche of the officers, particularly at the police station level, is conditioned by the material conditions and associated social relationships. This puts the staff of the police station to work in a clientele status of the feudals. The ugly combination of the police station staff with the ruling elite and lack of supervision makes matters worse in terms of human rights.
Strangely, the Chief Minister of Punjab and the federal government in a knee-jerk reaction found the solution in posting ASPs as officers in charge of police stations and the establishment of an independent external inspectorate to act as a watchdog of the police without diagnosing the real problem. No reforms can be successful if introduced in isolation. Meaningful reforms are associated with socio-economic reforms by eliminating feudalism and ensuring implementation of existing laws through better supervision, inspections and objectivity in promotions and postings.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 2nd, 2019.