In a police state, we all live on a knife’s edge. And the slightest error in judgment on part of a citizen may have lethal consequences. This ever-present fear is inconsistent with our vision of a free country.
Several things might happen as you drive your Corolla through a police check-post. One of them is death, as we recently found out, following the fatal shooting of a young man named Taimur who failed to stop his vehicle when reportedly flagged down. That is rare, but is in line with the culture of excess that inhabits law enforcement agencies in our country.
You’re driving an ‘Applied For’ vehicle around Islamabad and before you’ve had the chance to soak up the new car smell, you might find yourself being stopped by a police officer at a check-post. You may present all pertinent legal documents, none of which may dissuade the officer into letting you go. An exhausting verbal exchange may ensue, which the officer will attribute to the current ‘security situation’ and the need for them to thoroughly investigate you.
This ‘investigation’ may possibly culminate in a polite request for ‘chai’ as part of your celebration of a new car. At this point, you may decide that Rs200 is a fair price to effectively terminate this interaction and get back to your business, and you may choose to oblige the officer’s request.
On another occasion, you may find yourself being stopped on a highway being asked to present a mythical ‘No Objection Certificate’ that you never knew you required. Your car, with a license plate from Islamabad, may find itself being inexplicably flagged down in Lahore. Why? Ostensibly, you have violated a law that you had never heard of until that day. Again, you see, it’s because of your country’s terrible 'security situation'.
You may have had the misfortune of having a female colleague or friend in the passenger seat, and having a torch light flashed in your face by a police officer six minutes later, investigating your relationship with the “ladies” – always plural, for some reason. You may argue that this does not concern the officer, and the officer may argue back that this is somehow part of his job due to the dire 'security situation'.
When this has happened to you five or six times, even you – a law-abiding citizen – might find yourself cowering behind the steering wheel, and passing through a police check-post like you’re smuggling narcotics. You may even be tempted to ignore the police officer who’s telling you to stop, which we now know, may get you killed.
One may expect this drastic measure should a vehicle attempt to barge its way into the GHQ or the Secretariat. But when this starts happening at an ordinary police check-post – like the two or three you pass every day from home to work in the twin cities – you may end up reevaluating the value of a citizen’s life in Pakistan.
Generally speaking, we’ve been conditioned to direct the blame at ourselves foremost, before directing it at power structures that ought to change their mode of operation. Social media users have been quick to condemn Taimur for his own death, as part of a larger point about the need to obey rules, as if none of them ever ran a red light, or engaged in any other non-violent offence. This does not even address the controversy that, according to Taimur’s family, the CCTV footage does not show his car being flagged down by the police at all.
For the past decade, the authorities have been overplaying the ‘security’ card, steadily steamrolling one civil right after another before our very eyes. The ‘security’ card has been employed ad nauseum to justify the cumbersome bureaucracy and the most frightful corruption. And this has occurred simultaneously in open view of government’s own cavalier attitude toward security like continuing to use fake bomb detectors at airports and other high-value facilities.
In this political environment, it is not only a terrorist who attempts to run through a police check-post. Making the same error in judgment is also a disgruntled citizen who is fed up of police corruption and the relentless loss of personal and civil liberty. And while not stopping when flagged by police is not ideal behaviour, we ought to agree that in a civilised state, this error shouldn’t necessarily lead to death by gunfire.
Lamentably, our response is not to address the bureaucracy, corruption and the sheer despotism, but to have the public simply adapt to these chronic maladies. A good, productive citizen stuck at a check-post ought to blame nothing more than his own kismet, and think only of what he can do to adjust to the reality.
On February 3, Taimur was shot to death by the police who then reportedly fled the scene.
For whose security this police check-post existed, I do not know. But I know it did not keep this 27-year-old Pakistani safe.
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