IN recent days, Punjab has emerged as a territory occupied by a brutal police force. The response to a series of custodial deaths has either been outright ridiculous — as in the case of banning smartphones to prevent any unwanted footage from escaping premises that are manned by policemen — or confused and disorderly. The latest gory chapter began with the appearance of Salahuddin Ayubi, the ‘ordinary Pakistani’ who was nabbed while allegedly attempting to steal from an ATM machine and who later died while under police interrogation. Given the impunity with which the law enforcers operate, it is no surprise that others have since also made the list of victims of police brutality. The custodial deaths have caused a stir, with many demanding police reforms in a country where accountability is still selective and where the institutions supposedly meant to monitor excesses against the people are either completely ignored or woefully underutilised. In this regard, the National Human Rights Commission, which has been dysfunctional for many months now, is a case in point. The IG Punjab is scheduled to appear before the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights today, amid apprehensions that this opportunity for lawmakers to propose improvements may be lost because of the existing polarisation in parliament. It is apparent that the PPP-proposed Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment) Bill, 2015, did not catch the fancy of a divided National Assembly, which failed to pass the piece of legislation in the stipulated 90 days. But lawyers say that the laws are very much there. There are sufficient legal provisions in place, not least courtesy of Police Order 2002, which governs the workings of the force in Punjab. And a basic on-the-spot remedy recalls that a magistrate can be asked to investigate custodial deaths under the Code of Criminal Procedure.
The government of Punjab has moved towards establishing some kind of a larger board, comprising people from various walks of life, to oversee police functioning. Also, as opposed to a system where the violation of rules is an ailment exclusively afflicting low-ranking policemen, senior members in the hierarchy have now been warned that it is they who will be held responsible for any excesses committed under their watch.
These may all be useful ways of dealing with an increasingly desperate situation, and the suggestion that everyone should be bound by the existing laws makes eminent sense. But what is also needed is for both the people and the authorities to avoid the strange logic that accepts, justifies and condones brutal and illegal police violence in all its manifestations inside the thanas, the improvised lockups and indeed in public spaces. The job of clearing the mess has to begin somewhere. Why not begin at the place where it hurts and bleeds the most — ie right at the top?
Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2019