In a police lockup in Nawalpur, a district in Nepal’s Gandaki Province, detainees can often be seen engrossed in books. Not only does it help them pass time but reading might even be their ticket to getting out of custody sooner.
“People are kept in lockup for 25 to 90 days, based on the nature of offence. We will consider shortening their sentences depending on how many books they read,” says SP Prakash Malla, District Police Office, Nawalparasi East.
‘Hirasat ma Kitab’, that provides reading materials to detainees, is one of SP Malla’s five initiatives, a part of the police program Working Extra Mile to bring positive changes in the community. The idea behind this particular initiative was to ensure a more humane treatment of those in lockup, prevent custodial deaths, and reduce stress that can build up in a closed setting.
“Reading helps bring about a shift in people’s perspectives. I think it’s especially necessary for those who have been involved in crimes,” says Malla. Since at any given time there are 10 to 15 people in the small space, and they are only required to work for an hour or two every day, reading keeps them engaged. Otherwise, they would have spent the rest of the hours sleeping, he adds.
However, getting those accused of various offences to read is also Malla’s attempt at a different kind of policing—one that prioritizes a change in mindset over retributive punishment.
Today, there’s a decent sized library of sorts at the police station in Nawalpur with over 500 books, both in English and Nepali. The books have been donated by local authorities, police, community folks, as well as Malla’s friends. They have even brought in books like Subin Bhattarai’s ‘Summer Love’ and ‘Saaya’ based on requests by the detainees.
“Surprisingly, people wanted to read and asked for specific books. Some wanted English novels. Quite a few seemed to gravitate towards spiritual books. We try to get them what they want,” says the SP.
Fiction is popular because most detainees are under the age of 25. Malla says that’s when stories appeal to you the most. There are also some who ask for books on law and religion as well, and spend all their time poring over those.
The station keeps a record of who has read what and how much time each of the detainees has spent reading. Based on their reading habits and subsequent behavior changes, the detainees might be able to go home sooner than expected. This acts as an incentive to read as much as they can. One detainee, Malla says, has read 19 books already.
Malla hopes they give continuity to their reading habit when they are eventually back to their regular lives. So, the plan is to have someone from the station check in on them six months after they are let out.
Malla has also been using his network to promote this system of reading beyond his station. The program has been replicated in two other municipal stations in Nawalpur—Gaidakot and Dumkibas. He recently got calls from the police headquarters inquiring about the initiative as well.
As an avid reader, Malla is always reading something. He recently finished Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Homo Deus’ and is currently reading ‘The Origins of Political Order’ by Francis Fukuyama. It’s his love for books and the compulsive need to read, he says, that gave birth to ‘Hirasat ma Kitab’.
“I used to find fiction entertaining and read a lot of it at one point in my life. Today, I prefer non-fiction—books on politics, economics, and history—because I think they have a lasting impact,” says Malla.
You could also say ‘Hirasat ma Kitab’ is being run with an ulterior motive. Malla hopes it will change how people view the police as well as improve the relationship between the two.
The reality is that people are mostly scared of the police. As law-enforcers, their job demands they put up a strict front. Malla’s initiatives, of which ‘Hirasab ma Kitab’ is a small part, are focused on cultivating respect and understanding between the police and the public as well as making people aware of violence, its causes, consequences, and how it can be prevented.
“I believe a reading habit can be the start of many positive changes and a great deterrent for crime as well. Also, people will read if they have the means to do so. We are exploring that avenue as well,” concludes Malla.