Copping onA blanket ban cannot be the answer to isolated incidents that call for a very different approach
The recent National Human Rights Commission report on the Tarai unrest touched upon a matter that is sometimes blamed for police violence at times of civic unrest—police fatigue. Hence, its recommendations to the government included one asking it to address the problem of ‘deployment...in the field for long hours, lack of timely supply of food and water, inability to take rest when tired...’
That the national police force is highly overstretched is clear to everyone. But to learn it has been charged with 1,008 different tasks boggles the mind. Citing an internal study by the Research and Planning Directorate of the Nepal Police, Himal Khabarpatrika newsmagazine noted that these police responsibilities arise from the various roles it has been granted by 44 different acts, covering sectors from gambling, essential services, civil code, to notary public, donations, passport, forestry, etc, etc.
It is thus no surprise that we find the police presence everywhere, seemingly trying to bring order into our daily lives. And, in Bhaktapur, at least for now, that will include patrolling cinemas, restaurants, lodges, snooker houses, futsal grounds and parks looking out for students who may be playing truant from their studies. According to the police chief in charge on this operation in Bhaktapur, they were compelled to adopt such a measure in order to control fistfights, gang brawls and drug abuse, all of which he attributed to students bunking classes. The police have even gone a step further and warned owners of the establishments mentioned above against admitting girls and boys wearing school and college uniforms.
Coming soon after the (thankfully, quickly rescinded) decision to proscribe futsal in Kathmandu for quite similar reasons, it is indicative of a mindset that can come up with just one response to any presumed infraction of the law: the ban. It follows attempts over the years by overzealous police officers to prevent men from keeping long hair or wearing earrings and even dingo boots with women being cautioned against donning mini-skirts, all in the name of curbing crime.
Thankfully, this time there has been some pushback from the public. As reported in these pages, ‘lawmakers, student leaders and parents’ associations have condemned the move taken by police, terming it a direct encroachment on personal freedom’. The news report also quoted the president of the powerful Nepal Students’ Union as declaring: ‘Controlling students is solely the matter of the concerned schools and colleges. The step taken by police is by no means justifiable. It is against the law.’ Hear, hear!
Community policing gone wild
Police forces the world over are usually strong proponents of the ‘broken windows’ approach to fighting crime. So called after the 1982 article, ‘Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety’, this form of policing emphasises the need to control social disorder in order to reduce crime. Authors George Kelling and James Wilson write: ‘…if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken…Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.’ They end their article with the intuitive, ‘Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police—and the rest of us—ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.’
Although there have been studies since to challenge these assertions, the broken windows approach has been adopted by many police departments and Nepal’s is no exception. In fact, something akin to it is clearly mentioned as one of the objectives of its community policing efforts: prevention of ‘social disorder, neighborhood decays, and delinquencies and thereby solving them in timely manner with the support of community’. The abortive ban on futsal and the ongoing watch over Bhaktapur students appear to be in line with this stated objective. But that also assumes a proven link between a rise in crime and some young (and old) men wanting to keep fit with a quick round of futsal after a hard day’s work or between an increase in juvenile delinquency and a few kids bunking some boring class to have fun. As it turned out, the police had swooped into action because some people complained about the noise from futsal ground while in Bhaktapur it was some parents who had asked the police to act against their children who were apparently more into drugs than into school. But a blanket ban on futsal per se or watching movies in school uniform or hanging out at a snooker joint similarly clad can hardly be the answer to isolated instances that perhaps require counselling more than police action.
In fact, this kind of Big Brother policing appears very similar to what is practised in China, one that has a strong element of absolute control over society. In contrast to western societies where the police are generally called to act upon the commission of an offence, the Chinese model reflects its political system. The focus is on preventing crime through education and moral persuasion with the help of families, clans and other social groups, and follows the official ‘mass line’ in which the people are expected to support the police as part of a larger system of social control. The outrage over here perhaps highlights the difference between a people’s democracy and a liberal democracy.
There are many other examples of police overreach mentioned in the Himal Khabarpatrika article which criticises the police for trying to get involved in any and everything, particularly when there is even a hint of financial or other gain. Hence, the police are present at the airport checking the permits of those going for foreign employment; they are the ones who monitor the practice of hundi money transfer (which is actually the remit of the Nepal Rastra Bank); they monitor the content of the electronic media; and disagreements over financial transactions are resolved at the police station and hardly ever reach the courts. It was for the same reason that the police lobbied against an industrial security force to replace the policemen on guard duty in factories, and insisted on retaining airport and embassy security with itself. No wonder it is saddled with 1,008 areas of responsibility. Also, no wonder that of the 13 police chiefs we have had in the 25 years since the 1990 restoration of democracy in Nepal, nine have been charged with corruption.
It would be to its own benefit if the Nepal Police were to focus on what it was set up to do: Control crime and maintain law and order. There are other agencies already in place to take on some of its work, and if need be, the government should be ready to create new specialised ones instead of expecting an overburdened, albeit forever willing, police force to pick up all the slack. Going beyond its brief only serves to sully whatever name Nepal Police has left.