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Mishandling protests

Updated December 07, 2017

THERE was no justification to keep the judicial inquiry report hidden from the public, other than the reason that it is a vast and devastating indictment of the Punjab government and police.

Under court order, and having recognised that the report could no longer be kept secret, the Punjab government on Tuesday released the report of Lahore High Court Justice Baqar Najafi on the Model Town killings in June 2014.

At the very outset, indeed in the midst of the horrifying violence that was broadcast live on television on June 17, 2014, it was obvious that unacceptable actions were perpetrated by the police on the relatively defenceless supporters of Tahirul Qadri. There are no legitimate circumstances in which 14 citizens can be killed and scores others injured by the police in an operation that was unnecessary and appeared to be politically motivated.

Almost certainly crimes were committed by officials that June day three years ago and there must be justice and accountability.

The recent debacle at Faizabad has underlined another worrying aspect of the Model Town incident: the politics of protest is growing in the country and with it the risk of violence in the streets is increasing.

That creates a new, twin challenge for law-enforcement and authorities: creating clear rules and chains of command for the use of force by the police and giving the police the resources and legal cover necessary to enforce order. The Model Town report suggests that ambiguous chains of command and unofficial orders allow responsibility for mistakes and errors to be evaded.

At its core, that is the problem of the politicisation of the police. No government, federal or provincial, current or past, has ever allowed the police to function independently. In Lahore, a specialised anti-riot police force has been created, but as long as its deployment is politically decided, there will always be the possibility of misuse of the anti-riot force.

An anti-riot force with clear rules of deployment and legally binding lines of authority is what is needed — something all governments have resisted, but that must eventually be implemented.

Of course, in dealing with violent protesters and other threats to law and order, the legitimate needs of the police must also be addressed. From adequate training and resources to legal indemnity for actions lawfully undertaken against violent protesters and other threats to law and order, the police force needs serious and sustained investments. In Punjab, the Anti-Riot Police Force Bill, 2017, has been proposed and it may have many sensible protections for the police.

A bill properly vetted by the Punjab Assembly, the police and representatives of civil society could go some way in addressing the current confusion and may become a template for other provinces to emulate.

The shocking events from Model Town to Faizabad have made clear that business as usual is no longer an option.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2017