A compromised force

05 Aug, 2019

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The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

IN the 1983 classic of India’s parallel cinema Ardh Satya, Om Puri plays a Bombay police officer whose attempts at doing what he perceives to be his job — fighting crime — are repeatedly thwarted by the web of political power and organised crime in the metropolis. While he is not a naïve, blindly idealistic young officer, being in the early stages of his career, he seems to harbour the illusion that his uniform separates him from the ‘bad guys’, the ones bent on terrorising and exploiting the citizens of the city.

His valiant attempts at apprehending criminals land him in trouble with his superiors rather than garnering him the recognition he thinks he deserves, leading to his humiliation by the gangster/politicians who control the police force. The film explores the effects of the humiliation on his morale and humanity as Om Puri’s character, Anant, is made to learn the lesson that he cannot progress in this profession by doing his job — instead, he should keep the right people happy.

As a representation of the institutional malaise of the police force, Ardh Satya (half truth) could just as easily have been set in Pakistan where the police are not only considered to be ineffective in preventing and punishing crime, they are also active violators of human rights through torture and extrajudicial killings which are a part of the police’s modus operandi.

There is no shortage of proposed solutions and interventions from many quarters including parliament, retired bureaucrats, judiciary and international donors – all eager to build the capacity of the police force. Meaningful change in the police, however, remains a distant goal because the reform efforts do not confront the slow, inexorable dehumanising that takes place when a young person like Ardh Satya’s Anant enters the police force: the day-to-day sycophancy and humiliation he must endure so that he becomes a bureaucratic tool at best or a wielder of brute force at worst.

Our state has never conceived the police force to be one which serves its people.

One of the approaches to police reform that falls short advocates for additional legislation to motivate accountability within the police force. Recent efforts to enact a law on torture are one such example. These well-intentioned initiatives beg the question: why would passing specific laws barring torture make a difference when the practices are already prohibited? The Criminal Procedure Code, Penal Code, Police Order 2002 and the Constitution proscribe torture by the police.

While the intention behind the enactment of a special law could well be to set forth clearer offences and a smoother accountability process, it is difficult to see why new processes would be more effective than existing ones, especially when the causes behind the failure of existing institutions have not been honestly understood, debated or confronted.

Another approach focuses on sensitising the police force to its human rights obligations, particularly its duty to address violations against marginalised groups such as women and minorities. Such sensitivity trainings, however, have limited behavioral impact. In the area of gender-based violence, in particular, improving police responses has proven to be an intractable challenge. Raising awareness in the police force of gender discrimination and educating it about the considerable numbers of laws that have passed in the last few years for the protection of women do not have a visible impact, and the resistance to meaningfully addressing crimes against women persists. Such initiatives do not go far enough towards countering the culture in which the police force is immersed, a culture that promotes callousness towards the weakest in society.

Another target of the reform effort is the organisational structure of the police with the purported goal to disentangle the force from political influence.

In 2018, then chief justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar directed the formation of a Police Reforms Committee with several lofty goals including the drafting of a “Model Police Law to meet the challenges of the 21st century policing that ensures the police to be politically neutral, democratically controlled, effectively accountable, administratively and operationally autonomous and highly specialised professional community service institution.” But legal measures in the past with similar goals, notably the Police Order 2002, which sought to increase the autonomy of the police force, have not been successful.

Such an approach wrongly presumes that the introduction of a codified law will lead to the transformation of this institution without any meaningful change in the culture of the police force and how the rest of the state and society interacts with it. Bringing about neutrality and accountability in an institution is about so much more than putting rules down in writing. It is about the actors in the institution internalising these values.

We are a long way away from that because we do not want to confront the forces that shape the mind-set of the law enforcement. The efforts to reform law enforcement will not succeed unless we confront the fact that our state has never conceived the police force to be one which serves its people: it exists to reinforce the power of the elite. The reform that is required is no less than the re-founding and reimagining of the institution.

If theories of public policy, administration and policing do not provide solutions to the institutional malaise of the police force, we can perhaps turn to art to enable us to consider the problem more imaginatively.

Om Puri’s character in Ardh Satya offers, if not any solutions to the police force’s malaise, at least a humanist perspective from which to understand the actor caught in its web. It depicts his entrapment in a machine that constantly produces pathological behavior: a machine that forces him to violate his conscience regularly, so that the best he can strive for is a compromised justice — or half truth.

The writer is a lawyer.

Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2019