WHAT are the legitimate jurisdictions of the police? Why are they paid out of the public purse? Surely, the main purpose of keeping a police force is to maintain law and order. To this end, the police are allowed some coercive powers such as arrest and detention of individuals, investigation of civil and criminal cases and forwarding the accused ones to courts to be subjected before the due processes of law. The police are also empowered to take 'reasonable' actions to quell public disorder; they can apply physical force to stop rioting and prevent destruction of properties and loss of lives. The list would indicate that the police are entrusted with nothing but beneficial functions in the public interest and authorised to work to attain these welcome objectives.
But in reality, the police in Bangladesh are more and more appearing like tormentors and oppressors of people in all walks of life. Take, for example, the recent case of the Kansat incidents. The local people there had protested to draw attention to their miserable conditions from not getting supplied with electricity. Consumers across the country have been demonstrating in many places to draw attention to their power-related distresses. Perhaps the people of Kansat become restive while expressing their grievances.
In that case, the responsibilities of the police were greater to handle the situation with the greatest care so that things did not go out of control. But the press have, without exception almost, reported in details about the Kansat episodes that established the facts of the very aggressive and uncaring response of the police to a developing situation that led to the tragedies. Twenty persons were killed mainly from police firing in the incidents. Villages turned desolate as people fled from the marauding policemen who allegedly entered homesteads and resorted to plunder and indiscriminate beatings of men, women and children with complete disregard to any sensibilities. The affected people described the police barbarities to be no different from what the Pakistani forces of occupation perpetrated on them thirty-five years ago. But those things were done by the alien Pakistani ogres. Could the people of independent Bangladesh ever think that they would be similarly treated by their own police who were supposed to be working to defend them from lawlessness and save their lives and properties?
Government spokesmen have said that people at Kansat were egged on by political elements working behind the wings. Politically motivated persons were attempting to take law into their own hands. In that case, police certainly had all the rights to try and re-establish law and order at that place. But could not that be done by not firing and killing so many people? Were there not other ways than rampaging through people's dwelling places and driving them out of there in terror-stricken conditions? From all appearances, police overreacted and applied an overdose of force or disproportionate force compared to the situation that confronted them when they should have practised restraint and tried public relationing as ways of pacification. In no way, police were performing their duly expected benevolent role as the custodian of the lives and properties of people. Police actions at Kansat were the opposite of such a role.
Let us take another recent example. Only last month, a housewife in Dhaka having an upper middle class background went out of her house -- while an opposition rally was going on nearby -- to accompany her child to school. After putting her son to school, the unlucky person was returning to her house on foot. She was also a pregnant woman as well as a diabetic patient. Thus, her walking back home was a medical requirement. Probably, to this woman of genteel society, it never crossed her mind that she could be so humiliated or be so barbarically treated by her country's policemen. The police took her to be a participant in the rally. They resorted to beating her that led to a fracture in one arm and other serious physical injuries on her person, apart from the severe mental trauma and other indignities she suffered. Now, according to press reports, the victim of this barbarism and her husband are receiving threatening calls to withdraw the cases she lodged against the offending policemen. Not only that, she has been charged by the police as an arsonist. The case against her is seen to be a fabricated one, a vain attempt by the police to justify the brutalities against her. But none will believe that the innocent housewife was plotting arson. Her father was a retired judge and her husband is a practising advocate. Even half-wits will have to try hard to accept this account of the police that she is an attempted arsonist. Besides, what rules in the police manual says that a pregnant and sick woman coming from a decent station in life can be so clubbed, molested, injured and traumatised physically and mentally, only on a certain suspicion?
The country's leading human rights organisations including the prestigious association of female lawyers have spontaneously come forward to legally seek redress actions for the unpardonable depravity shown towards her by the police. They would not do so if their consciences were not too pinched by this lowliest of behaviour on the part of the police.
The latest targets of police brutalities are the sports journalists. Newspapers were full of pictures and reports of photo journalists who got beaten up at Chittagong stadium last Sunday as the patience of policemen there gave way too fast as a consequence of a little altercation they had with some of the sports journalists. But the photo journalists could probably never think that policemen would beat them so badly only for arguing with the latter over some trifles. Thanks to satellite television, the spectacle of Bangladeshi sports journalists getting so savagely treated by their policemen were beamed round the world. This will not in any way help to maintain the image of Bangladesh as a tolerant and democratic country where the police respect fundamental human rights and behave, as they should, with members of the public. According to some press reports, the captain of the Australian cricket team, Ricky Ponting, produced a short video film out of the scenes of Bangladeshi policemen pouncing down on their own photo journalists. Foreign sports journalists were aghast at the sight of this violence and the cause of Bangladesh cricket will not be served any as cricketing venues in the country come under the international limelight as trouble sports where the enforcers of the law themselves take the initiative to be so unruly.
Actions by the police of the sort discussed above only go to underline the fact that they fear nothing in engaging in such malevolent activities. There is hardly any control of them by the government. If there was, then the police would not be so uncaring in their violation of human rights and ignoring any duty of care they ought to observe as they interact with people in relation to their professional duties. People say that police's arrogance, high-handedness and most arbitrary ways of dealing with situations, have crossed all limits. The common view is also that police have been emboldened into thinking that they have been given an unwritten licence to do whatever they like as they are working for the administration in suppressing political dissent. For doing this favour, it is deduced, the administration also looks the other way and appears prone to be non-reactive to cases of excesses committed by the police. But people's mood are tuning incendiary as a result. The signs are in the wall. Unless the government recognises at the soonest the imperative of putting the police force on a harness in respect of their vile activities, people's wrath could break out in serious form, any time and anywhere.