Vol. 5 Num 558 Wed. December 21, 2005  

Alternatives to crossfire

Like many other aberrations in our body-politic, the phenomenon of the 'Crossfire' and the resultant deaths are not giving rise to appropriate corrective reaction and sadly enough such abnormalcy is threatening to become a part of our way of life, at least in so far as the law enforcement sub-culture is concerned. The unfortunate part of the ominous scenario relates to the spill-over effect on the mindset and work ethic of the general population and the youngsters including those in public service in particular. It is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate a patent wrongdoing from the lawful action as per the book. Faith in the efficacy of the lawful process is being gradually eroded. Slowly but steadily, the members of public are being forced to acquire the traits of the audience of the gladiatorial fight of ancient Rome. Mobocracy is gaining ground and the guardians do not tell us to follow the correct and saner course of action. There is not much talk about the desired alternative which is obvious but needs to be retold before the country reaches the precipice.

It is in the background of the above observation that there is an urgent necessity of looking at the threat that is allegedly neutralised by the 'Crossfire' actions and if there is an acceptable alternative to the highly questionable modus-operandi of a vital state organ in manifest violation of internationally accepted operational standards.

The malady and rationale for action
The unadmitted explanation or justification of the 'Crossfire' deaths is that hard boiled criminals committing murder and extortion and several other aggravated crimes are beyond the reach of law. In the same vein it is also given to understand that some parts of the country are affected by the dangerous depredations of extremist elements of different hues who cannot be brought within the clutches of criminal justice system. Public fear coupled with apathy and indifference caused by the threat and intimidation of the criminals and extremists are often cited as insurmountable hindrances to the apprehension of such desperados by the enforcement apparatus.

Under circumstances as above, the regulatory authority, it is presumed, is left with no other choice but to resort to extra-judicial killing to wriggle out of an unbearable situation. There is a feeling that the right thing has been done although in a wrong way and that the successes achieved justify the means pursued.

Police regulation and the reality
Regulation 33 (a) of the Police Regulation of Bengal says "No Police force can work successfully unless it wins the respect and good-will of the public and secures its cooperation. All ranks, therefore, while being firm in the execution of their duty, must show forbearance, civility and courtesy towards all classes". The reality, unfortunately, on ground is different despite the best efforts. Before we venture to find out the causes of those behavioural aberrations that have a substantial bearing on the crime and order situation, we may list the deviations that are us under:

Misbehaviour with complainants: There is a virtual absence of service orientation and many policemen fail to realise that the complainant at the police station is often an aggrieved person much like a patient who goes to the doctor, and any misbehaviour with him would be construed as nothing short of demonic brutality.

Other misbehaviour: Verbal abuse and ill-treatment while on patrolling duty, harassment of innocent relatives during arrest, roughing up inmates during house search, ill-treatment of traffic violators, unnecessary pushing around during VIP protection and security arrangements cause a great deal of public discontent.

Illegal detention: Several persons are rounded up supposedly as suspects and detained for longer period in the lock-up. There are instances of innocent persons falling into the clutches of erratic policemen.

Custodial violence: Perpetration of third degree torture on suspects in police custody is taken as a matter of routine by many policemen. Excessive custodial violence has resulted into deaths.

Other police indiscretions would include non-registration or minimisation of a graver crime, false implication of innocents, fabrication of false evidence, excesses during crowd control etc.

Crime and corruption by policemen: The significance
There have been cases in which the protectors of law have themselves turned into its prime violators. Instances of policemen associating themselves in crimes like rape, robbery, extortion are on the rise. Although corruption is a malaise that has afflicted our society as a whole, corruption in police has an extremely deleterious implication for their over-all image for two important reasons: one, being in uniform the corrupt policeman immediately catches public attention and two, since the complainant the police deal with is often a person with a grievance any corrupt demand imposed on him pains him beyond measure.

Pleasing political masters
If political interference has wreaked a near havoc in our police now, it is largely due to the fact that police officers themselves, including some at the helm of affairs, have evinced an undiluted proclivity to please the political bosses for their personal and professional aggrandisement. These officers have set a bad example for the entire force and that is where the police-politician nexus, much to the detriment of the norms of law and justice, comes into operation.

The alternatives
In view of the preceding paragraphs, it would appear sensible to any discerning observer of our socio-political scene that preparing and properly equipping our police force -- the principal crime preventing and investigating agency under the law -- should receive the highest priority in tackling crimes of desperate nature as against the extra-legal vigilante action now being indulged. There is nothing like a tall order. Requirements are simple. Those are as follows:

a) The local police should be allowed to work unhindered. Postings and transfer of all ranks should be on professional consideration. The local MP should not dictate as to the suitability of the officer-in-charge of his constituency. His advice may be taken into consideration.

b) Primary importance has to be accorded to the collection of intelligence as the information network is vital to the fight against criminals and extremists. Financial allocation on this head should be noticeably substantial along with posting of appropriate personnel to the intelligence outfit. Proper information will reduce the necessity of the so-called big operations.

c) There should be sufficient financial and administrative arrangements to inculcate a scientific mind in the investigation of crime as distinct from the present emphasis on interrogation and confession. The CID forensic laboratory should be modernised for encouraging scientific investigation.

d) There should be sufficient funds for witness protection and victim support in this regard to offset intimidation of state witnesses. This would be needed in connection with successful prosecution of veteran criminal and extremist related cases.

e) There should be separate legislation for long-term detention in specially appropriate cases.

f) The earmarked tribunals should be given all support in conducting expeditious trials. Adjournments should be minimum.

If the above can be ensured then there would be no reason to indulge in the alleged less-than-legal action. The need for creating an overall environment in which the policemen can perform their legal duties with a sense of pride and fulfilment without feeling hamstrung on account of legal, administrative, financial or political problems can hardly be overemphasised. At the same time the supervisory police leaders have to make a conscious endeavour towards bringing about the much needed attitudinal changes in the police forces.

Finally, we all have to remember that anti-insurgency or crime operations require sustained and patient approach and a lawfully constituted government cannot rush into legally untenable spectacular action as that saps the credentials of a democratic polity.

Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former Secretary and IGP.