IT was a cold day in February 1994. Three Afghans armed with pistols and hand grenades had hijacked a school bus from Peshawar. They took 74 schoolchildren and staff hostage and made their way to Islamabad.
They parked the bus outside parliament. The then interior minister, Naseerullah Babar, immediately reached the scene to negotiate with the hijackers. He engaged with them tactfully and got the situation shifted from outside parliament to the Afghan embassy where he managed to get most hostages freed. When talks failed, army commandos took over killing the hostage takers and freeing the rest of the hostages.
Nineteen years later, an armed individual, Mohammad Sikander, with his small family, managed to park his car on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue and started firing in the air brandishing two automatic weapons, effectively holding the entire nation hostage for more than five hours.
The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, deliberately prolonged the situation in order to physically overpower the offender and ordered police officials not to shoot the man. The high drama ended due to PPP leader Zamarrud Khan’s daring but reckless effort. That sent the law-enforcement agencies into action.
Comparing the two incidents, the late Naseerullah Babar deserves praise for saving the lives of all hostages and arriving at the crime scene himself, while Chaudhry Nisar’s handling of the situation deserves a thumbs-down for putting the lives of citizens and reputation of the country at risk.
Technically speaking, even after the passage of almost two decades, our interior ministry has not learnt anything. In fact, it is dependent upon individual action instead of standard operating procedures (SOPs) to deal with these kinds of situations. The incident exposed our law-enforcement agencies’ poor standards of training, technical skills and security measures and reflected badly on the attitude of the executive.
The Islamabad police miserably failed to act in accordance with the law and procedures. The presence of the media at any crime scene is a given nowadays. The only surprise was the indulgence of the media anchors as deal brokers and guarantors by taking the gunman on air and allowing him to abuse the government on television.
Under the Police Order 2002, in an emergency the power to issue orders lies with the head of the district police. Therefore, in order to be a disciplined force the police should follow the chain of command.
Yet it is interesting that, contrary to his claims pertaining to political interference in police matters, the interior minister himself issued orders in violation of the law while sitting in Lahore instead of leaving the matter in the hands of the SSP. The latter was not only present at the spot but was doing a brave job by engaging the gunman.
Under the law the job of the interior minister is not to take the reins of the police in his hands but to make policies, guidelines and SOPs and oversee their strict implementation to ensure flawless and effective performance of the law-enforcement agencies.
Meanwhile, the checking at the entry points of cities is always random and in the absence of any proper information there are fair chances that a vehicle, even if it is loaded with explosives, can cross the pickets without being checked.
The state of Pakistan immediately needs to decide whether or not it wants to face the phenomenon of terrorism seriously and whether the political parties are ready to formulate a consensus against terrorism. The objective of curbing terrorism cannot be achieved without taking ownership of the war against militancy and without devising a proper counterterrorism policy, backed up by the provision of resources and improvement in training and equipment, skill development, intelligence-gathering and sharing capabilities.
It is of utmost importance for a force to maintain the perception of being powerful and superior. It would not be wrong to suggest that the morale of the law-enforcement agencies has been lowered due to the questionable use of suo motu powers by the superior judiciary.
The registration of murder cases against former military and civilian high-ups despite having legal immunity, as well as one-sided prosecution and biased media reporting are also contributing factors in the failure of the law-enforcement agencies.
It is impossible for any force to act confidently and bravely if there are apprehensions about facing prosecution. Law-enforcement operations require swift actions where the chances
of wrong decisions being taken cannot be ruled out. Therefore, to address these problems humiliation through the media or in open courts is not the solution.
The government will have to act wisely and swiftly to bring about fundamental changes to restructure the police departments and provide them with all modern facilities to enhance their capabilities to deal with situations such as the one witnessed recently in the federal capital.
The writer is a lawyer.