Playing cops and robbersNepal’s administrative and police structures were grafts from the British imperial model.
As a child studying in India, I remember hearing about these very important individuals—“the DC” and “the DM”. Even though I was told that “DC” and “DM” stood for the portentous-sounding “Deputy Commissioner” and “District Magistrate”, to my young mind their importance sprang from the fact that they went around with red beacons flashing atop their cars. Much later I figured out that the DC and the DM were the same person and who also sported another “DC” title, that of “District Collector”.
In essence, it was the same guy (was always a guy) with three different hats: as the Deputy Commissioner, he was the chief executive of the district, as the District Magistrate, he was the person responsible for maintaining law and order, and as the District Collector, he was the chief taxman. This personage literally had power over life and liberty of everyone in the district. With just around 350 districts in all of India at the time, the domain he controlled would have been pretty substantial.
That was the administrative structure dreamt up by the British colonial administration to keep Indians under its thumb. For the express purpose of subjugation, assisting the DC-DM was another important official, the Superintendent of Police, who headed the district police force.
British imperial model
It has been said that to keep a check on its far-flung territories, the British Empire had the choice of either setting up a civilian police force with unarmed personnel such as the bobbies of the London Metropolitan Police or an imperial one like the para-military Royal Irish Constabulary, created specifically to put down Irish separatists. For obvious reasons, the colonies received a police force that had worked for Britain so well in Ireland, and India was no exception. In fact, there was no hiding their intent with Sir Hugh Rose, the commander-in-chief of the Indian army in the mid-19th century, being attributed the words: “No system of police has ever worked better for the suppression of political agitation or agrarian disorder than the Irish constabulary.”
Unfortunately, for Nepal, as it transitioned into the modern era in the 1950s and transformation from a feudocracy to liberal nationhood, both our administrative and police structures were grafted from the British imperial model upon the recommendation of Indian advisers. Thus, our Chief District Officer has shades of the authority granted to India’s Deputy Commissioner-cum-District Magistrate (the role of the Collector seems to have been withheld because the Ranas had a pretty effective system of tax collection in place). It is for the same reason we have a police force that, as a top Indian police official, KS Dhillon, has said, “is there for the protection of…the rulers, the establishment, it is not there for the protection of the people”.
Apart from the imperial police orientation itself, another factor that contributed to the wide distance between the police and the people in Nepal is that for the first two decades and more, the Nepal Police was headed by a succession of Gurkha veterans from the British Army. They had no reason to take issue with the national police undergoing regimentation akin to an armed force. Echoing Dhillon, a ranking former official in the Nepal Police, Govinda Prasad Thapa, writes “the police was established with a revolutionary and military culture, with the primary objective of supporting the political regime or government in power. Service to the people was a secondary concern”.
Do we not know it well? Protection of the rulers often takes that most innocuous form, the “transfer”, the tried and tested trick for use by the government of the day as and when required. Witness the recent transfer of 18 Superintendents of Police in the run-up to the upcoming local election. Who would believe that these 18 were shuffled around since the government wanted to ensure a free and fair election?
Not that there have not been efforts to project a more friendly face of the police with campaigns such as “community police” and “Prahari Mero Sathi” (My Friend, the Police). Recalls Thapa, community policing included getting involved in programmes such as women’s literacy, public health, environmental preservation and youth activities. But there were naysayers within the force because they “failed to realise that it is possible to be community-friendly while simultaneously being an effective police officer”. As for the second attempt, I cannot imagine there being many takers of the possibility that police behaviour could change overnight with just a snappy slogan but no concrete action against any violation of trust in the touted police-public friendship.
As I have pointed out previously, one reason for the inability of the police to be more people-friendly could be because they are grossly overworked. A 2016 internal police document found that under the authority of 44 different acts, the Nepal Police are burdened with 1,008 different tasks, having to do with gambling, essential services, the civil code, donations, forestry, passports, and so on, besides fighting crime. That does not appear to be so uncommon. Take the British government white paper on police reform in England and Wales which says that the police face a lot of demands and that although the “main job of the police is to catch criminals…only about 18% of calls to the police are about crime”. Basically, policing involves a lot more than playing cops and robbers, as our own police would know very well.
Fake police officers
Despite these overwhelming responsibilities, what is amazing is that some police officials still find time to engage in “extra-curricular” activities. A sure indication of the kind of weight the police throw around is the arrest of “fake police officers” that makes it to the news regularly. Without the involvement of the actual police in all sorts of nefarious dealings, it would not make sense for crooks to pretend to be cops. A Google search for “fake police 2022” (in Nepali) showed the following on the first page itself: “Two arrested for cheating in the garb of fake police”; “Eight arrested for looting by impersonating police”; “Fake police ASI arrested from Bhadrakali”; and “Fake police arrested with drugs”. And, we are just in the third month of the year.
Police reform that had started after the end of the Maoist conflict did not go anywhere. But change it has to in order to tackle the many problems ailing it, and it needs to start at the very top. A good example what is possible comes from Robert Mark, who headed the London Metropolitan Police in the 1970s. Asked what he hoped to achieve, he is reported to have said “arrest more criminals than we employ”. As his obituary noted: “His achievement…was to make corrupt officers within the Met—and there were literally hundreds of them—feel like outsiders themselves.”
Any takers in the Nepal Police?