Thursday May 23, 2024

The colonial machine

By Zaigham Khan
September 09, 2019
ATM thief Salahuddin Ayubi of Gujranwala, who died in police custody last week, can be seen in extreme pain during police interrogation.

“On a hot summer day, the judge was sitting in his court wearing British style wig and robes. When I told him about our plans for reforming the country’s justice system, he had such a violent fit of laughter that he fell down from his chair and I left the courtroom high and dry.”

This is how an international development expert narrates the story of judicial reforms in an African country. How would a police officer in Punjab react if you played recordings of Imran Khan’s promises to reform the province’s police department and turn it into another Scotland Yard? Though Africans have a superior sense of humour, our story of police and judicial reforms is no less amusing in any way.

More: Viral video confirms torture on ATM thief

For people, the Punjab police is the most draconian colonial machine that holds the power to pulp their lives, careers and reputation in no time. For the ruling classes, it is the most precious colonial legacy that ensures their hold over power. Without the police, elections can’t be won, properties can’t be ceased and retained, and adversaries can’t be tamed. If you have the police on your side, you have the world in your pocket.

In Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan, the Punjab Police is working as efficiently as it always had, serving its new political masters and protecting the interests of the powerful sections of society. If anyone had any doubts, they were cleared early by Azam Swati and the beheading of errant police officers who had the courage or stupidity to mess with their new masters.

The police department remains the same institution, caught up in the same existential situation. The tortured bodies of Salahuddin or other victims are merely products of a brutal machine that is primarily meant for social control. Going after some individuals may assuage public anger, but it cannot change the nature of the beast.

CCTV Video of Amir Masih lends credence to torture claims

Institutions hold immense power over individuals and this is all the more true for strongly hierarchical, uniformed forces. Institutions can get the best out of us and they also have the power to invoke the devils lurking within all of us. Police officers cannot be made to act very differently without thorough institutional reforms, and these reforms cannot be delinked from the reforms in the judicial system that makes demands on the police.

Imran Khan started his politics by attacking the colonial mindset that, according to him, created an inferiority complex in desi minds. A brown saheb mentality, according to him, was the main reason for lack of development in the country. More recently, close to elections, he attacked colonial symbols of power – governor houses, DC houses – and colonial style institutions. Reforming the Punjab Police was one of the big-ticket items promised by Imran Khan aka the PTI.

Imran had imagined police reforms through two main changes – by installing honest officers at the top who would enjoy security of tenure and by keeping the police free from political interference. Institutions aren’t reformed through such simple techniques. However, he has failed to follow these simple recipes.

Three inspectors general were changed during the first year of the PTI’s government, bringing down the average tenure of an IG to less than four months. Political interference has only worsened as PTI office-holders and its legislators have tried to rid the administration of the real or perceived influence of the PML-N and bring civil services under their control. During the first year in power, PTI legislators and party office holders have used the police as they have always been used, with legislators getting officers of their choice in their constituencies.

The police, in the meantime, have remained unchanged at best. They routinely torture suspects and witnesses to extract evidence. According to the Justice Project Pakistan, “Death by ‘police encounter’ is a common occurrence across Pakistan – suspects are taken into custody and extra-judicially executed by [the] police who claim that they were killed in an exchange of fire.”

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, during September 2013 and March 2015 almost 1062 were killed in police. A study conducted by the Justice Project Pakistan discovered 1184 confirmed cases of police torture from 2012 to 2014.

According to the JPP, “Torture is accepted as an inevitable part of law enforcement in Pakistan, and perpetrators of torture are granted impunity through a combination of socio-cultural acceptance, lack of independent oversight, widespread powers of arrest and detention, procedural loopholes and ineffective safeguards, including Pakistan’s failure to criminalize torture despite being a signatory of the UN Convention Against Torture.”

The police have not been trained to do any better. They come under immense pressure while they lack the skill set to resolve complex cases and prosecute them. Their performance depends on keeping the incidence of crimes artificially low and this is achieved simply by denying FIR registration.

The legal system demands them to arrest people named in FIRs, a remnant of the 19th century when people had no identities and they could disappear in vast ungoverned areas. Courts demand witnesses and refuse to give weight to circumstantial evidence. The police face inhuman working conditions.

Pakistan’s reaction to the death of Salahuddin Ayubi shows that human rights is not a Western agenda and it is not the job of Western-funded NGOs alone to protect the human rights of Pakistani citizens. Human rights are enshrined in our constitution; they were promised by our founding fathers and it is duty of our elected government to save Pakistani citizens from illegal use of force and all kind of excesses. It also shows that Pakistanis are not willing to tolerate this kind of behaviour any longer, even when the victim is a marginalized character, perhaps a criminal from a low-income background.

Going back to the colonial roots, there were two distinct models of British policing – the civilian model, originating in the Metropolitan Police of London, and the imperial model inspired by the Royal Irish Constabulary and developed across the British Empire from the mid-nineteenth century.

Designed to suit the interests of the propertied classes in an industrial society, the model of the Metropolitan Police was not intended for export to Britain’s colonies, though the idea of using the police rather than troops for colonial control was an attractive one for reasons both of cost and effectiveness.

For the colonies a different police model was devised, originating with the colonial police in Ireland in the early nineteenth century. The Royal Irish Constabulary was intended to crush agrarian unrest and sporadic terrorism directed against the British. Unlike the Metropolitan Police it was armed, organized on semi-military lines, housed in barracks and kept under the direct orders of the colonial government in Dublin.’

It is not the fault of the British that we have continued with the colonial model because this model suits the new masters as perfectly as it did our old masters. Imran Khan had essentially promised to reverse the age-old anomaly and give us the Metropolitan Police of London instead.

Many Rustams have come and gone, without making any dent to thepolice system, while the Azam Swatis have always had the last laugh. Why should it be any different this time?

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: @zaighamkhan