BASED on a colonial policing system modelled on the Irish constabulary, the Police Act of 1861 furnished Pakistan with a police structure geared towards maintaining public order. This colonial law remained in place up until 2002. During this period, almost 30 reports on police reforms were drafted by various commissions, committees and experts but never fully implemented. For the first time, in 2002, a report given by a group of police officers to the National Reconstruction Bureau was converted into a modern law. However, in 2004, before the new law could be fully implemented, a political government inducted by the military ruler effected fundamental changes to the proposed legislation, which mutilated the key principle of police accountability to the public. Nevertheless, despite these changes, the legislation retained some important features for sustainable policing in Pakistan with greatly reduced bureaucratic or political control.
The Police Order (PO) of 2002 was based on three fundamental ideas: depoliticisation of police, operational and administrative autonomy, and credible accountability. However, as the proposed structures for achieving these objectives were never made functional, the benefits of a reformed police could not percolate down to the people. Not only did complaints against police persist, but the notorious thana culture remained entrenched. Sadly, due to a lack of political will to reform the police, a well-intentioned initiative floundered.
In abolishing the concurrent legislative list including criminal laws, the implications of the 18th Amendment were interpreted by some vested interests to suggest the transfer of exclusive jurisdiction over police laws to the provinces. This interpretation implied a disregard of Articles 142 and 143 placing criminal law under a concurrent jurisdiction and maintaining the status quo of PO 2000 in accordance with a 2003 Lahore High Court judgement. The honourable Lahore High Court had held that as PO 2002 was relatable to the enforcement of criminal law, it fell into concurrent jurisdiction. As it was never challenged, this verdict attained finality.
Surreptitiously, vested interests have proposed a 19th-century police structure.
Despite this legal provision, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh changed their police laws while Punjab wrought major amendments in PO 2002, thus compromising it substantially. However, the issue of the status of police law was resolved by the Supreme Court in its judgement of Jan 21, 2019, which, removing ambiguity, stated that the police is concurrently subject to the legislative and executive competence of the federation and the provinces in relation to the matter as covered by Article 142-B and Article 240 of the Constitution. The apex court further determined the framework for collaboration between the federation and the provinces for enactment of police laws.
Having neglected to address police reforms, successive governments have failed to establish a police force that is depoliticised, professionally autonomous and answerable to the public. Perturbed by such negligence towards legislation on a vital aspect of governance, the judiciary initiated a process of police reform as an important segment of the criminal justice system, establishing a committee comprising nine select retired IGPs and serving heads of the police forces from all the provinces. In its first meeting in May 2018, then chief justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar motivated the participants to work with him to reform the police so as to extend justice to the citizens, particularly victims of crime. Noting that it was time to work for posterity, he emphasised the judiciary’s commitment in this regard. The terms of reference broadly included a model police law, police accountability, investigative improvements, urban policing, alternate dispute resolution, counterterrorism and legislative reforms.
The committee completed and presented their report in September 2018. Following Nisar’s retirement, the new chief justice Asif Saeed Khosa continued the process and, under his direction, two areas were immediately addressed using available resources and existing laws, including redressal of citizen complaints and investigative improvements. In less than eight months, district complaints offices have been set up and improvements in investigation have been undertaken through improved training and involvement of district assessment committees to review closed cases to address weaknesses.
The results have been phenomenal. Within a few months, of the 96,026 complaints received, 89,609 have been addressed by the police. Further, petitions under Section 22-A of the Code of Criminal Procedure have been reduced by 39.7 per cent in the lower courts and by 14.2pc in the high courts. The assessment committees, comprising all stakeholders, has been monitoring the quality of investigation and prosecution of cases, leading to visible improvement in the quality of investigation, with a new direction of morally upright, merit-based process for evidence collection.
Under the aegis of the Law and Justice Commission, police reforms have progressed with exceptional success. However, the government has suddenly decided to amend the police law against the backdrop of a number of cases of police high-handedness in Punjab. Surreptitiously, vested interests employing the terminology of PO 2002 have proposed a structure dominated by bureaucratic control and enhanced political ingress in policing, thus reverting to a 19th-century policing structure to address 21st-century challenges. The proposed changes conflict with the KP Police Act of 2017, which is premised on 80pc of PO 2000 with some additional autonomy. Interestingly, this was projected by the PTI as a major achievement of its government in KP. Before winning last year’s election, the PTI leadership repeatedly pledged that this reformative police law would be rolled out nationwide if they were elected to power.
The Law and Justice Commission has also written to the government, urging it to implement the recommendations of the Police Reforms Committee and conveying the directives of the CJP that operational and administrative autonomy of the police, being vital to the independence of the judiciary, should be maintained strictly according to the January 2018 verdict of the Supreme Court. The question is whether the government will choose to abide by the judicial verdict, or once again distort the police law for narrow political ends under some pretext, thus further damaging what remains of an unstable law enforcement structure.
The writer is former IGP Sindh and convener of the Police Reforms Committee, Law and Justice Commission.
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2019