Policing the policeA better-educated police force does not necessarily translate into a more community-friendly one
Fishing around for any bit of good news to start out the new year led to a most unexpected source—the Nepal Police. There was a story in one of the papers which noted the rather impressive educational credentials of those who passed out as police constables from training centres around the country about a week ago. Among the 2,503 freshly minted cops, there are 29 with a bachelor’s degree, 864 have completed Grade XII education, and 1,549 have at least an SLC; only 2.4 percent came with the minimum qualification of Grade VIII.
It may come as a surprise to many, but well into the 21st century government policy seeks no more than rudimentary education to become guardians of the law. Equally astounding is that similar provisions are in place in the Nepal Army and the Armed Police Force. In fact, in all three services, those with the most basic reading and writing skills are also allowed to join up in various capacities. Thankfully, regardless of what the law says, the rise in general literary levels—40 percent to 66 percent between 1991 and 2011 (with the increase much more pronounced for women, from 25 percent to 57 percent)—has also been reflected in the calibre of the new generation of men and women in blue. And, as one of the regional police chiefs said, it is society that will benefit from a better educated police force. That, of course, remains to be seen.
Cops and robbers
Here, I am reminded of a Reader’s Digest joke from the 1980s that went as follows. A foreigner in Moscow went to a football match between a Russian team and an outside one. To his amazement, he found the crowd to be very sporting since almost all of them were rooting for the visitors. Beset by curiosity, he asked why that was so only to be told that the home side was a police team.
The reason I remember this rather unremarkable story is because it resonated strongly with our own experiences in the late 1970s. Once a year in the winter, the collective imagination of Kathmandu would be captured by the annual Birthday Cup football tournament (held to mark then-king Birendra’s birthday). For a number of years, there was an ongoing rivalry between Mahendra Police Club and Thimpu XI, and a clash between those two, which usually happened towards the latter stages of the tournament, would see the entire stadium packed, with the Kathmandu crowd cheering on the boys from Bhutan with almost one voice.
In short, as a rule, the police do not evoke emotions tending towards love. It is always an uphill struggle for them to win the hearts and minds of the community in which they are embedded. There are indeed rare occasions when an individual or two do make a difference, but the general view is one of fear and helplessness. And there are instances aplenty to give rise to such sentiments such as reported recently about the distribution of gas cylinders in a Kathmandu locality where some of the precious cylinders were first being cornered by local goons, then by the police contingent sent to ensure fair distribution, and only what remained was handed out to the consumers who had queued for long hours.
A more humane force
A former police officer from the Indian state of Kerala, James Vadackumchery, rues what public opinion about the police used to be when the qualification required was Class IV. ‘Oh, this can be understood even by policemen,’ was apparently quite common. Education credentials for the lowliest police constable in India have since been raised to Class X, and, as we now know, the vast majority of new entrants into Nepal’s police force have at least that level of schooling. But a better-educated police force does not necessarily translate into a more community-friendly one.
The United States has been rocked by the publicity surrounding senseless police killings of unarmed black men and women for the past couple of years or so. It has spawned the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and presidential candidates are being asked where they stand on the issue. Everyone in the police force in the US has to have at least a high school diploma, i.e., the equivalent of Class XII here, but that has made hardly a dent in attitudes towards the minority.
The parallel with the US is relevant here in Nepal because of the way in which our own police behave towards people. Growing up in Kathmandu, I have heard countless number of times ‘Jyapu’ was hurled in insult towards Newars by the police, high and low. And, as the recent Human Rights Watch report about the unrest in the Tarai states, hateful speech remains the staple: ‘[M]any people...in the affected areas said that police used insulting and derogatory language toward them.’ One refrain appears to have been: shoot the Biharis. Let alone the insensitivity of calling Nepal’s Madhesis Biharis, the fact that orders were given to shoot human beings shows how callous the police can be about human life.
Consider another example. The current police chief from Kathmandu, Bikram Singh Thapa, upon taking office some time ago was cited adopting a three ‘S’ strategy to contain crime. The three ‘S’s stand for ‘Sweep’, when the goons will be arrested; ‘Screening’, when their records will be scrutinised and a chance given to change their ways; and ‘Shootout’, when they will be killed. Again, while wanting to see a more crime-free city like anyone else, it was disconcerting that neither human rights groups nor the police brass found it necessary to caution Thapa against an apparently trigger-happy approach to policing.
Going back to football, a few years ago, many Nepali TV channels aired footage shot outside the Dasarath Stadium in Kathmandu in which policemen in mufti were beating up supporters of a team that had just scored a victory over the police club. Unless I missed it, not a single ranking police official bothered to apologise to those bashed up for simply celebrating the win of their team. To assume that the guilty, whose actions were all captured on TV, were punished or even reprimanded is a far cry. Neither can we presume that anyone dared go to the police station and file a case of physical assault.
Simple matters can make a huge difference. If the top cops had taken a stand then and issued strict instructions all the way down against such boorish behaviour and also taken action against the errant policemen, the sense of impunity the men and women in uniform feel would be strongly tempered by a sense of their being equally bound by the rule of law. Education may help them grasp the significance of respect for human rights, recognition of diversity, and so on, but unless there is a change in the institutional culture itself, we can fill the police ranks with the highly educated with nary a chance of improvement in relations with the public.
A final thought though. I wonder what went on in the minds of these young men and women as they prepared to pass out and serve the country when they were treated to news of police chiefs being booked for corruption. It could have hardly been the most inspiring way to begin a career of service to the people. One can only hope that they take that as a reason to be better than their superiors.