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The major fault lines

Updated August 22, 2013


WHAT happened in Islamabad last Thursday was no parable; we saw the state of Pakistan in a microcosm, with all the major fault lines etched in bold relief.

How did gunman Mohammad Sikandar get the idea that his desire for the enforcement of Sharia entitled him to illegally acquire dangerous weapons and try to seize power? He got this idea from the state’s tolerance of unlawful actions of a growing number of religious zealots.

The freedom granted by Gen Zia to religious militants to defy authority anywhere and receive help from public servants has never been withdrawn. Nobody has been punished for breaking the law and destroying public and private property during demonstrations organised by religious factions.

For more than a decade militants in the guise of God’s servants have been challenging the state. They are resisted only if they indulge in violence, the self-appointed jihadis’ privilege to slam the state is not seriously repelled. Arms licences have been generously allowed to members of the religious elite and the weapons brandished by their guards and escorts are generally not checked.

The common perception that one can get away with anything by shouting a religious slogan is the source of the greatest threat to Pakistan. Sikandar is only the latest adventurer to confirm this.

Much is being said about the incompetence of the Islamabad police, while the Sikandar affair has only proved the decline of policing throughout Pakistan. The capital police did not have a stun gun and when one was acquired its sharpshooters did not know how to use it. The state’s neglect of the police force’s need for modern tools is an old story.

When the militants overran Swat a few years ago and the fall of Peshawar was considered imminent the provincial police only had old and rusted rifles that could not be used. Its armoured carrier had broken down and its constabulary was deployed in faraway parts of the country. Balochistan has been in the throes of armed conflict for decades but its police force’s need for modern rifles and submachine guns and trained personnel has only recently been acknowledged.

The police have suffered greatly by having been eclipsed by other law-enforcing agencies. Former inspector-general of police Afzal Shigri was quite right when he referred to the police force’s loss of self-confidence and efficiency as a result of the trend for entrusting routine police functions to the Rangers and even to the army.

It is time the disastrous consequences of assigning police functions to the Rangers, Frontier Constabulary, Frontier Corps and army units are realised. Whatever be the strong points of these services they are not trained to perform police functions. The policy of treating the paramilitary forces and police as interchangeable instruments is making the former more corrupt than before and the latter more brutal and less efficient. If the country keeps acquiring the features of a police state, the standard of policing cannot but fall. That is a major fault line.

The Islamabad affair also highlighted the hazard inherent in the tendency of superior institutions to meddle in the work of their subordinate functionaries. The interior ministry has no business to tell the Islamabad police to do this or that. It should deal only with the chief commissioner of the capital city.

Once the interior minister had expressed his wish that Sikandar should not be harmed physically his role in the affair ended. He will increase his difficulties if he considers the security of Islamabad his personal responsibility or forgets, while making long speeches at press conferences, that he is no longer leader of the opposition. True, he will be held to account for the actions of officials tasked with maintaining law and order but the latter’s freedom of action should not be interfered with.

Here we are touching on a wider problem. The present practice of high executive or judicial authorities assuming the duties of base-level officials is having a most deleterious effect on the administration. Regular oversight, discipline, supervision are legitimate means available to superior echelons of the administration for keeping their subordinates on the right path and ensuring their efficiency. But if a police chief starts investigating a matter that an assistant sub-inspector should do or if a superior court starts doing what should be done by a magistrate the result is bound to be chaos.

Finally, a debate is going on whether Zamarrud Khan acted bravely or wrongly or whether he was both brave and wrong at the same time — just like late air marshal Nur Khan was brave and wrong when he sprang to overpower the man who had threatened to hijack a PIA plane. The former PAF and PIA chief was hailed for his courage but he was also criticised for endangering the safety of all the passengers and the plane itself. The question is why did Zamarrud Khan decide to risk his life?

Three explanations are possible. First, since all those who matter are declaring that the state has become dysfunctional, the more conscientious citizens believe they have a duty to keep the ship afloat. Secondly, those charged with protecting the citizens have been telling them to defend themselves. So everybody is on his own. Thirdly, no law prevents a mujahid of any hue from breaking a police cordon. No policeman has been suspended for allowing religious agitators to break into courtrooms and threaten judges hearing certain cases. Zamarrud may have been at fault but his critics had better mend their tattered state.

Remember what Ghalib said about the perceptive ones who could measure the river by a drop and the whole by a fraction?