Caught in the crossfire

September 22, 2014


The writer is a retired police officer.
The writer is a retired police officer.

POLICING in a politically polarised and vendetta-prone society like ours has become the most hazardous and difficult job. Pity the nation beset with bickering politicos and corruption-infested corridors of power. The police leadership walks a tightrope in an environment devoid of decency, manners, tolerance and respect for human rights.

The last three months have witnessed a horrendous display of intolerance, propensity for violence, chicanery and attempts at gross misuse of police not only to settle political scores but also to weaken an important state institution. The sit-ins and marches on Constitution Avenue in the capital are a manifestation of state paralysis.

It all began on June 17 in Model Town, Lahore. A dual citizen cleric imbued with revolutionary zeal had to be taught a lesson. Who better than the terror-inspiring Punjab police to deliver a brutal punch to a recalcitrant prayer leader who once used to sing the praises of the house of Sharif? How dare he play someone else’s game to dislodge a heavy-mandated political dispensation? Make him feel insecure by removing the barricades around his fortified office-cum-residence.

The decision was taken on a day when an inspector-general of the provincial police was made an officer on special duty, and a new chief of Punjab police was posted. The political and bureaucratic minions could not wait until the latter took charge and share the planned operation details with him. They had the loyal chief of Lahore police and his senior officers to do their bidding. Imagine an army regional commander going ahead and launching an operation without taking his chief into confidence. So much for the police chain of command, reduced to a group of pathetic courtiers of the ruling elite.

The police leadership is realising that it must muster the courage to say ‘no’ to illegal demands.

What transpired in Model Town that day was so brutal that it has earned across-the-board opprobrium. The Punjab police learnt a bitter lesson when they ended up getting all the blame for the bloodbath. Although the police officers were investigated, arrested and prosecuted, some politicians and bureaucrats were only removed from ministerial and official assignments — while retaining their perks.

The chief executive showed remorse, but did not resign by taking moral responsibility for the carnage that his hand-picked political, bureaucratic and police favourites had unleashed. When it comes to self-preservation, democratic principles and traditions are of secondary importance.

The Punjab police were put to the test again on Aug 14 when the politician and the cleric were set to embark upon their marches from Lahore to Islamabad. The rulers’ initial plan was to allow the politician to proceed, but to prevent the cleric from leaving his Model Town base. Although the newly installed provincial police chief had gone along with the policy of blockading the locality with containers, when it appeared the strategy would lead to another spate of violence, police reportedly asked for written orders from the government, while reiterating the implications of using force in the situation. This, coupled with sane advice from other political and security-related stakeholders, prevented bloodshed that day.

Next, the Islamabad police command was put to the test. The march towards D-Chowk was peaceful as were the sit-ins, which was why there was no action by police against the protesters. Then the city police chief was asked to place protesters under preventive detention and forcibly remove them, although they had until then made no aggressive move. In response, he advised against use of force that, he felt, could further aggravate the situation. Seeing no other choice, he decided to opt out and sought leave. He was thus the second IG to have said no to senseless violence.

It was Islamabad’s acting police chief next who showed grit and resolve when the leaders of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf started to lead the protesters towards parliament and Prime Minister House. Islamabad police valiantly thwarted the designs of the leaders who were inciting attacks on these symbols of the state. Using tear gas and rubber bullets was the correct strategy.

Although fewer injuries would have resulted had excessive gas shelling and indiscriminate use of rubber bullets been avoided, it should not be forgotten that many policemen, including SPs, sustained injuries at the hands of protesters armed with slingshots and lethal, nail-studded sticks. This was totally unnecessary and avoidable violence provoked by the dharna leaders.

The police find themselves in a catch-22 situation. If they avoid using force, they are chided by the rulers, and their officers lose their jobs. If they use force, detain would-be protesters or arrest those involved in violence, the leaders of the protesting parties threaten to ‘break their legs’ or put them in prison when they come to power. In other words, the rulers want them to dance to their tune while the protesters want them to give them a free hand.

This is a defining moment for the rule of law. With an independent judiciary and vibrant media, the police leadership is also finally realising that it must muster the courage to say ‘no’ to the illegal demands of those who wield authority, while protecting citizens who fall victim to the whims of string pullers.

During this summer of discontent, there are lessons for all stakeholders: the rulers should improve governance; across-the-board accountability must be ensured; police depoliticised; democracy strengthened rather than derailed; parliament bring about electoral reforms; judiciary safeguard the Constitution; and the armed forces with the support of the entire nation should defeat the terrorists who are out to unravel this state.

Let the rule of law and democracy be the ultimate winners from the present logjam. This would be a win-win for the warring parties. The people of Pakistan should be allowed to write the script for a peaceful, progressive and prosperous future.

The writer is a retired police officer.

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2014