Sunday, March 2, 2008

Changing Thana Culture

Published in The News on September 17, 2004

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Changing ‘thana culture’

Afzal A Shigri

Every head of the government in Pakistan has spoken of ‘thana culture’ and has vowed to change it. Political leaders continue to speak about it and criticise police but when a meaningful change is proposed these very leaders create hurdles in changing the ‘thana culture’. Reforming police has been repeated and harped upon so consistently without any action on ground that it has become a cliche.

These perceptions are not entirely correct but when it persists it means there is something fundamentally wrong with the system that needs an intervention to change it. The shortcomings of police station are the result of a flawed system of policing in this country. No government since independence addressed this issue seriously. A number of commissions and experts looked into the police system in the country but these were intellectual exercises and were never meant to be followed. The government of General Pervez Musharraf for the first time considered the issue seriously. He personally presided over the presentations on police reforms in about a dozen meetings. His cabinet devoted three full days to consider the recommendations of the NRB on the police reforms. NRB spent quality time in examining all aspects of the reforming police. It studied the systems in more than six countries in the world and arranged open debate by all stakeholders and the provincial governments for introducing a new police law for replacing the Police Act of 1861. After these extensive consultations a model law was drafted. This draft was revised and redrafted at least thirty times before a finished product was approved and Police Order 2002 was issued.

Since the stated policy of the present political government is to carry forward the agenda of good governance, the statement by Mr Shaukat Aziz that he will introduce police reforms was a surprise. An excellent and well thought out structure for changing the ‘thana culture’ is provided in Police Order 2002. In this law the issues of police high handedness, its accountability and de-politicisation have been exhaustively addressed.

Unfortunately, the political set up on the completion of the military rule that includes MMA for their own political considerations have some how stalled the implementation of this order and now it is being changed drastically compromising the fundamental principles of check & balance, de-politicisation of police, credible accountability and structural change on functional basis. Reportedly the major amendments envisaged in the law are:

- Inclusion of members of the assemblies in the District Public Safety Commissions and reduction of members of parliament from the opposition in the Provincial and National Public Safety Commissions.

- Abolition of an independent Police Complaint Authority at the provincial level and entrusting its functions to the Provincial Public Safety Commission.

- Diluting the functional autonomy of the police command and increasing the role of the political leadership in the administrative and professional matters of police. Even redefining the terms to ensure interference of the secretariat in purely professional matters to weaken the command and control of police leadership.

- Combining the functions of watch and ward with the investigation and restoring the role of the officer-in-charge of police stations in investigation of cases.

The entire exercise of police reforms was to address the issues of de-politicisation, meaningful accountability, restoring the fractured command of police and to introduce professionalism by specialisation of functions. Abolition of an independent Provincial Police Complaints Authority and its merger with the Provincial Public Safety commission will effectively take care of extending protection to their nominee as SHO of a police station. It will also make the control of the police senior command redundant paving the way for creation of fiefdoms instead of police stations for the service of the people.

The police command that was given necessary autonomy in administrative and financial matters are again being subjected to political control thus further reducing its capability to control the men under its command. Restoration of the investigation functions to the SHO is the result of the same objective of strengthening the officer by combining all functions in one person and then ensuring the posting of a man of one’s choice. There is no check on SHO’s powers. This is the infamous ‘thana culture’ for which a serious effort was made but it seems to have been abandoned even before the new law could be implemented fully. Separation of investigation was meant to introduce professionalism and also dilute the powers of the SHO. Once the newly proposed changes are made in the law, the ‘thana culture’ will re-emerge with a vengeance and with formal legal provisions of interference by the members of the legislature we will see a more repressive, more brutal and totally unaccountable police at the operational level. The policemen will be like personal servants of the local influential and will be more of phindarees and thugs than law enforcement officers. The detestable ‘thana culture’ will perpetuate and the good governance will continue to be an unfulfilled dream.

There is no apparent reason for revising the process of reform except political expediency as the provincial governments did not like the arrangement as it involved the opposition in decision making on policy matters pertaining to law enforcement and provided a strong check on use of police to suppress their opponents. It also exposed the executive to the possibility of accountability by an independent forum for interfering with the process of law enforcement. The provinces want an un-bridled, un-checked control over police and the sad part is that it is being done in the name of good governance.

If the Prime Minister wants to send a right signal and is also committed to promote good governance he must rise above the petty political considerations and order the full implementation of Police Order 2002 in its original form. The impact will be visible and the ‘thana culture’ will die its own death and the nation will remember the PM as a saviour. The question is whether in the given political setting he can overrule the provincial governments who seem to be bent upon perpetuation of discredited ‘thana culture’ for short-term political considerations. Sticking to meaningful police reforms will require commitment and qualities of leadership shown by the leaders in these two countries. We hope and pray that the new Prime Minister will rise to the occasion and save the meticulously crafted Police Order 2002 and give the system a fair chance to be implemented and tested before making changes for short term petty political gains.

The writer is a retired IG, Police

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