Ringing changes on policing

The police are trying their hands at different methods to improve their image the world over. These experiments have seen policemen taking to dancing and singing while on duty in some countries. (A wag says, in this country, too, we have singing and dancing cops, the only difference being that our guys are dancing to the tune of politicians and singing hosannas for them!)

Yesterday, we carried a dispatch from the Statesman News Service about an exemplary police officer in Bihar by the name of Pandey, who has taken a leaf out of Mughal Emperor Jehangir's book for the benefit of the public. A Deputy Inspector General of Police, he has, it is said, hung a bell outside his house. Anyone who seeks his assistance can ring it and rest assured that the good cop will rush to their help instantly or, in case of his absence, an audience will be scheduled urgently. Some 500 people are said to have benefited within the first ten days of the installation of the bell.

One is reminded of King Elara, who ruled a part of this country from Anuradhapura between 205 BC and 161 BC. It is said that he had a bell hanging outside his palace for his subjects seeking justice to sound and bring their grievances to his notice. Legend has it that the pious king even did not hesitate to sacrifice his son, when a cow brought to his notice by pulling the bell that her calf had perished at the hands of that prince! (In the modern-day Sri Lanka no cows would dare go near kings or queens, even if such bells were available and all their calves killed by young princes, lest they, too, should be dispatched to the slaughter house straight away!) There are many lessons that cardboard Dutugemunus of today and their progeny smashing night clubs and TV cameras could draw from Elara, as regards justice and fairplay.

Our police are second to none, where communication facilities are concerned! They may not have cumbersome antediluvian devices like bells hanging outside their residences or offices. This is Sri Lanka with 19 million people, of whom over 7 million are proud owners of mobile phones! They may not have a grain of rice in their stomachs but they have mobile phones in their pockets! So, why should there be any bells in public places? The police have much more sophisticated methods to help the public reach them. They have announced emergency telephone numbers. Dial one of them and, hey presto, a policeman will appear before you, the people are told. Emergency numbers are also displayed prominently by the roadside as part of a much advertised grandiose programme to combat crime.

But, this is how the system really works: Last Thursday, we had an urgent call from a Colombo suburb that four suspicious looking persons were sighted on a byroad. The foursome had been hanging around for some time and the caller suspected them of loitering with intent, claymore mine blasts and robberies being the order of the day. We, for our part, immediately relayed that tip-off to the police on an emergency number, having failed to get through to the police station concerned as its telephone was eternally busy. And, true to form, the police did nothing. A day or two later, we were informed that a house in the vicinity had been burgled!

Given the high incidence of crime, police excesses and human rights violations, what would happen if our IGP and DIGs had bells outside their houses? They may go deaf in no time due to the resounding clangs of bells day and night! Nay, they may not be disturbed at all, as they are already stone-deaf and impervious to public complaints. They are jolted into action only when they are given a bell by a politician!

Our hero, DIG Pandey is quoted as having said that policemen should not only be available for the masses but also be easily accessible. He is reported to have made public even his private telephone numbers so that people could reach him anytime of the day. Another novel method he has invented to tackle disputes in his range is 'music therapy', as opposed to the infamous 'baton-therapy' synonymous with the police forces in the developing world. Under this programme, we are told, musical groups have fanned out with the objective of dissuading people in rural backwaters from getting entangled in disputes. These moves are, indeed, commendable and worthy of emulation. But, the problem is that wherever musical groups perform in this country, there occur serious violations of the law such as stabbing incidents, fisticuffs and even bomb blasts.

One cannot but agree with Pandey, when he says, giving reasons for his decision to adopt an unorthodox method to bring the police closer to people, that time is a key factor and his initiative could save precious lives. "Some persons, though being innocent, had to land in jail just for want of timely help," he has said, "and I don't want to repeat mistakes of the past."

The plight of Machang Lalung, an Indian peasant who had to languish behind bars for 54 years awaiting trial is a case in point. He was only 23 years old when he was arrested by the police in 1951. Here in this country a villager called Jamis was kept in remand prison for 50 years! There must be many more people like Machang and Jamis who have wasted the best years of their lives in pens due to lapses on the part of the police and others.

Good Samaritans in khaki like Pandey are, therefore, a blessing for the voiceless people. They deserve honour and praise for their altruism.

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