Discomfiture of law

Published December 22, 2019
The writer is a lawyer and academic.
The writer is a lawyer and academic.

RECENTLY, an honest and competent police officer, Dr Rizwan Ahmed, who had been posted only four months ago as SSP in district Shikarpur, was not only summarily relieved of his charge but banished from Sindh by the provincial government. He was apparently punished for breaching a ‘verbal’ official embargo that prohibited police officers from holding press conferences, but the actual cause of his removal lay in local politics that pitted him against a powerful pro-government feudal-tribal clique which had been extremely unhappy with him for his sheer independence and relentless drive against criminals.

To set the record straight, the officer didn’t hold a presser, nor did he accuse any particular political party or person. But, invited by the local media to discuss law and order, he only highlighted the unfavourable sociopolitical conditions in which the district’s police operated in and, by way of illustration, referred to a notorious gang of criminals who he believed was being patronised by some powerful local sardars and politicians.

Law and propriety demanded that the government should have instituted a high-powered inquiry to look into the veracity of his allegations. Instead, it removed him without consulting the IGP, who is the overall in-charge of provincial police and legally empowered to make such transfers/postings of all officers working under him. As to the provincial government’s interference in the internal administration of police, the superior courts have categorically declared that “the police hierarchy, acting through the Inspector General, must have control over its own affairs”. The judicial pronouncements are in line with the universally accepted principle of an independent police force “which is a sine qua non for the rule of law and enforcement of fundamental rights”.

All over the democratic world, police has evolved into a unique arm of the state. It is distinguishable from other armed forces by its innately civil nature, apolitical object, benign training, and public interface. And it is also inimitable by its functional duality — maintaining a pervasive sense of security among law-abiding citizens, and yet keeping criminals in a constant state of awe and foreboding. But, unfortunately, for all the recent efforts put into reforming the provincial police, our police have yet to shed their negative image.

Should a police officer serve as an ‘instrument’ of ruling politicians?

Apologists may see this perception as a holdover of decades of dictatorial dispensations that used the police as an anti-people repressive force. However, this view becomes suspect when this negative perception receives a new lease of life under a ‘democratic’ government which is not shy of using the police to serve its narrow interests, and even expect officers to see criminals through a political rather than legal prism.

This raises the question: should a police officer, or any other public servant, serve as an ‘instrument’ of a ruling party’s politics, including helping it win elections? This question has acquired enormous significance over the years, particularly in rural and sub-urban districts that perennially suffer from a host of issues — illiteracy, insecurity, inequity, epidemics, tribalism, feuds, gender bias, and so on.

Therefore, notwithstanding the neoliberal mantras, the state continues to influence large swathes of the rural landscape that remain helplessly reliant on the district administration (including police) for essential goods and services — jobs, hospitals, schools, sanitation, roads and, above all, security. Therefore, a ‘transactional’ compact between the ruling party and its local affiliates has evolved, by which the latter enjoy substantial latitude in ‘cherry-picking’ the most ‘pliable’ officers, particularly police officers, in order to instrumentalise them for their local sociopolitical agendas.

Unfortunately, this compact has led to a rise of vile oligarchic politics, which has not only smothered the spirit of electoral democracy but has also dealt a mortal blow to meritocracy — the soul of public service. The pristine and highly cherished virtues of public service — honesty, efficiency, diligence — are no longer treasured. The secret of a career officer’s ‘success’ is now increasingly identified by his willingness to comply with the commands of his political masters, regardless of their legality or propriety. Thus, the apolitical concept of public service has degenerated into a newfound idea of ‘personal service’ that envisages public servants as personal retainers of the powers that be.

As a result, upright officers find it difficult, if not impossible, to hold their ground vis-à-vis powerful interests unless provided with an institutional protection ensuring certainty of tenure and operational autonomy, within the framework of law. The law must come to the aid of public services, if the citizens’ fundamental rights are to be protected under a robust rule-of-law regime.

The writer is a lawyer and academic.

shahabusto@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, December 22nd, 2019

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