Monday, November 24, 2014

                                  BANGLADESH POLICE: SOME IMPRESSIONS                                                                  

 An Indian visitor to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, will find the newspaper reports on crime and police fairly familiar.  Like in India, police is media’s pet whipping boy. Policemen, jointly and severally, are lambasted for highhandedness, brutality and corruption. The reputed British journal The Economist (dated June 18-24, 2005) quotes Odhikar, one of the human-rights groups active in Bangladesh, claiming that as many as 168 people have been killed by the security forces in ‘crossfire’, a local substitute for ‘fake encounters’ in the first five months of the current year. In the same vein the Bangladesh Institute of Human Rights reports two hundred people being killed by the law enforcement agencies in the first half of the current year, an increase of nearly three times over last year. One message rings loud and clear – the need to sensitise these forces to human rights.
 The bete noire is the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Sounding very much like India’s Rapid Action Force, a wing of the para-military CRPF, RAB was created on 26 March, the Bangladesh Independence Day, last year. It has seven battalions in the field. A Director, who holds the rank of Additional Inspector General of Police, heads it. The real operations are controlled by the Additional Director who is a full Colonel of the army.  RAB has a fair dose of deputationists from the defence forces. Only one-third out of a total force of approximately 5500 is from police, ostensibly to conduct the investigation and to ensure that RAB conforms to law. Each battalion is under a Lt. Colonel of the army. In the beginning full-fledged Superintendents of Police were placed as Second-in-Command. There was furore as the Ss.P. refused to work under the Lt. Colonel on point of parity of rank. Putting Additional Ss.P. as 2-i-C resolved the impasse. Created to combat gunrunning and organised crime that was beyond the capability of the police station, RAB has developed a long arm. So as not to depend entirely on the feed from the local police, it has added an intelligence wing. Some successes have come RAB’s way but, going by media reports, it has earned more opprobrium than encomium. It seems that in its brutal campaign against alleged criminals, it has shown scant regard for human rights. Not only the fourth estate but also leading public men, political parties and human rights groups are intermittently up in arms against the highhanded and at times extra-legal methods employed by RAB in carrying out its given task.
 The police feel particularly helpless in handling incidents of political violence that is endemic in Bangladesh and in which both the contending big parties, the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Awami League (AL) are implicated. The Economist further quotes Odhikar reporting 526 political deaths in 2004. The local heavies of the ruling party are generally better placed to sway the law enforcing agencies. Such crimes put the police in an unenviable situation; they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Only a few of these get highlighted in the international press, such as the grenade attack on a rally of the AL last year in which Sheikh Hasina, a former Prime Minister and now Leader of Opposition, was among the lucky survivors. At times like this police do not know how to react though, theoretically, a police force should know that mayhem is mayhem and should deal with the situation in a purely professional manner.
 Many of the allegations against the police may be unfounded or exaggerated but during his stay of seven weeks spread over two visits within a span of three years this author did not come across an official denial or clarification. If the police department has a public relations wing, it needs to be activated. To be fair to the police, they have not delivered too badly given their handicaps. Nor should all the ills of the police be placed at the doors of the present political dispensation.
Bangladesh has stuck to the British-Indian model of policing more closely than perhaps India. The criminal justice system remains virtually unchanged. There has been very little tinkering with the major laws. The sections of the Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act remain the same as in the original legislation. Only the prefix ‘Indian’ has been removed and rightly. The Indian Police Act of 1861 is still in operation though it is now known as Bangladesh Police Rules. The departmental hierarchy remains what it was in 1947. Police in India is a state subject.  Not so in Bangladesh which has a common police force for the whole country still headed by an Inspector General. His rank has not been upgraded. He still equates with the Major General and that is a disadvantage in a country where the army predominates. It was after overcoming a stiff resistance from the army that the government allowed him to fly the flag on his car; no other police officer is permitted that.
 The strength of the police force underwent substantial increase in the 1970s. More police stations had to be created to contain the landless sarvaharas (proletariat), a left extremist upsurge in northwest Bangladesh akin to then ongoing Naxalite movement across the border. Ten battalions of armed police were raised to assist the army that was then fighting insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. After the operations were over, these specially equipped and trained police personnel were deployed for conducting elections and on such other jobs that kept them in close contact with political elements. Soon they lost their bite and became like other policemen in the country.
In 1982 General H.M. Ershad converted all subdivisions into districts by one stroke of pen. Consequently, there are today 64 districts in Bangladesh. Perhaps to keep up with the Joneses, Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi and Khulna were declared metro cities and police commissionerates. The police commissioners are currently all in the rank of DIG and are squarely under the IGP. They are not, however, vested with as much and as wide ranging authority as their Indian counterparts.
 Through successive reforms the British had tried to give the Bengal police a civilian character subject to judicial and magisterial scrutiny. That was undone in East Pakistan/Bangladesh progressively after 1947. The rough and ready methods of the Punjab police introduced by the Pakistan Government after 1947 could not have appealed to the investigators trained under the Bengal system. Before the partition, the Bengal CID was both dreaded and respected for its efficiency and thoroughness. The Detective Department of the Calcutta Police was cited as a role model even for the London Police. The technical infrastructure, such as Finger Print Bureau, Forgery Section and Photo Section et al, was concentrated in Calcutta. Dhaka then had none of these and Bangladesh even today is deficient on this score. It does not have a Forensic Science Wing that is the backbone of scientific investigation. It is understood that this is included among the projects to be funded by the UNDP. Happily, Bangladesh has not lagged far behind India in opening the police ranks to women; one of them is an Additional DIG. The presence of women at various rungs of the police ladder is reassuring.  The image of Ardhanarishwar comes readily to mind; partial feminization or softening of the force tends to make it more sensitive.
Given the dense population of Bangladesh the police-public ratio there does not compare unfavourably with India or other less developed countries. The problem thus may lie not so much in numbers as in the low morale of the force, a result of several factors over a long period of time. Police in Bangladesh have had to function under the shadow of the army. Earlier it was the Pakistan army and it has been the Bangladesh army after 1971. After the ‘liberation’ the Bengali officers of the erstwhile Pakistan Police Service (PPS) filled the senior positions. President Zia later brought in a number of officers who had been sacked from the army. They were put through a condensed course of police training and, given their army seniority, soon occupied the higher ranks of police, causing much heart burning among the PPS officers. The present IGP is the first career policeman recruited to the Bangladesh Civil Service (Police), corresponding to the Indian Police Service, as an Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) in 1973. His two immediate predecessors had army background.
 When the author was in Dhaka in October 2002, the army had been requisitioned to flush out illegal firearms and arrest proclaimed offenders. Army detachments set up roadblocks and conducted searches of targeted houses. The exercise was repeated and for longer durations. This was a job that should have been carried out by the local police with, at best, a backup support from the city or district armed reserve. Today RAB would do it. With the army, RAB and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) in border areas, the counterpart of our BSF, breathing down its neck, the local police feel hamstrung.  No wonder that one can discern a certain amount of cynicism at the cutting edge of police administration. 
The Police Training College at Sardah, some 30 kilometres from the Divisional town of Rajshahi, was set up in sylvan surroundings by the river side, nearly hundred years ago. The British IP officers allotted to Bengal cadre were sent there for initial training. The isolation irked but there were compensations. There was enough game to hunt; there were indigo planters to socialise with during weekends. There was the Officers’ Mess to accommodate a dozen of the probationary Assistant SsP and Deputy SsP. It was rightly known as ‘Philaur of eastern India’. After partition Philaur remained in India and officers of the Pakistan Police Service came all the way to Sardah for their training. The government has since upgraded the college into an Academy and all ranks of Bangladesh police are being trained there. There is overcrowding and the worst sufferers are the ASsP. The first batch (1973) had about 150; the current lot on way to Sardah is over 250 strong. They will have to live in dormitories. This type of community living may sound more egalitarian but may not be conducive to the development of officer-like qualities. Besides, such heavy intake is bound to choke career prospects and cause loss of morale.
The constabulary needs to receive more attention. Their image has to be bolstered. Though the law speaks of a constable as an ‘officer’, he has been equated with unskilled workers and menial staff under the government. He is paid accordingly. To pay such lowly salary to a person who can put people behind the bar, howsoever temporarily, is a sure invitation to corruption. The constabulary has been agitating for a long time and does not take the assurances seriously any more. One can hope this anomaly will be addressed sooner than later.
It is time a high-powered police commission was set up to recommend comprehensive reforms. Policing the police has to be on top of the agenda. A whole new phase has to be introduced into the system, one that will make room for educated, honest and sensitive men and women to join the force.  Whether the government will have the political will to carry out any sweeping changes is any body’s guess. The recommendations of India’s National Police Commission were consigned to the dustbin. Bangladesh may be a different story.

 (Sudhir Kumar Jha)

(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar. He can be contacted at

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