The painful truth

Updated 28 Jan 2019


The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE PTI government’s handling of the Sahiwal incident was in no way different from their predecessors’ handling of similar incidents. Promises of reforming the police and punishing the culprits will be used to delude the people until a similar incident enters the limelight. Sadly, our collective consciousness has only brief flashes of awakening and, that too, only when confronted with incidents of huge magnitude.

In the last few decades, security and law-enforcement institutions have mastered the art of managing or downplaying tragedies. The war against terrorism has provided them with a means to sweep everything under the carpet. They have learnt, in the process, that parallel to a pathetic criticism of the system, such incidents would also initiate a dialogue on security-sector reforms — thus justifying the acquisition of more resources to strengthen their practices.

No one in the system, from the civilian setup and security institutions to the judiciary, can afford to order the audit of ‘police encounters’ conducted in recent years. It can bring to the fore a flood of tragedies, which the system is unable to confront. A recent media report has quoted the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan as saying that about 3,345 people have been killed in police encounters from January 2014 to May 2018, including 23 women and 12 minors.

The public’s response to such incidents, meanwhile, is inconsistent. Our society, which succumbs to mob violence in periods of distress, typically glorifies ‘encounter specialists’ and justifies their acts by pointing to weaknesses in the country’s criminal justice system. These collective emotional responses help in understanding the collective psychology of a society. While expressions of grief and pleasure determine strengths and weaknesses within a society, they also determine how power balances itself in critical moments.

As seen in Sahiwal, law enforcement has mastered the art of downplaying tragedies.

In both contexts, the issue requires a critical inquiry into our security structures and the mindset they have created. The law-enforcement infrastructure that Pakistan inherited and evolved over the years has indeed been failing, mainly because of growing complexities and challenges of internal security, and the inability of the state to reform the system. The government and security institutions want quick fixes by applying a firefighting approach. In doing so, they have developed an aptitude for establishing parallel security structures rather than reforming existing ones.

For example, each province has parallel security forces to combat terrorist threats. Punjab has the Elite Police, created in 1997 to tackle counterterrorism and violent crime, but the province has since raised another dedicated counterterrorism force in 2014. Interestingly, they employ human resources from troubling departments for these new ventures. This process not only exposes old fault lines but also gives rise to new challenges of coordination and authority.

This is precisely what happened in the case of Sahiwal, where ambiguous coordination and confusion over operational authority resulted in an easily avoidable tragedy. To a certain extent, such vague situations suit counterterrorism and other law-enforcement departments as it allows them to justify the impunity they broadly have within the system.

At the same time, flaws exist in the threat perception of state security institutions. This has much to do with a changing militant landscape, as well as the processing of the gathered intelligence and information.

Pakistan’s security structures have been built around the notion of enforcing the writ of the state, and it is hard for them to develop a compatibility with the concept of the rule of law. Apparently, these concepts look the same but compete with each other when put into practice. The former is an authoritarian notion, but the latter demands the responsible use of force as well as accountability of law-enforcement personnel.

It is hard for the country’s security institutions to follow some basic principles of rule of law, which mainly comprise equality before the law, uniform laws and processes, government bound by law, the efficiency of justice and the right to a fair trial. They believe their job demands complete impunity — and the whole system somehow supports this notion. Society also demands extreme punishments that sidestep legal procedures. For one, people largely applaud movies that glorify extrajudicial measures and fake encounters as ‘indispensable’ acts of justice.

Law-enforcement personnel routinely cross legal and judicial red lines because the state and society not only encourage but also reward them through out-of-turn promotions and other monetary incentives. It would thus be worthy looking into the professional profiles of the police and other law-enforcement officers to identify the major reasons for their promotions. Once, during an interview, a senior police officer admitted that cases of fake encounters are not properly probed because many, he alleged, are done at behest of the government. One can understand why the burden usually shifts onto the judiciary; it is projected that security institutions are sincere in their job and they adopt extrajudicial measures only because of slow and lengthy legal procedures.

The state and security institutions know it will not be long before the Sahiwal incident is erased from the memory of the people. It will not take much time, as the next time an alleged dacoit, rapist, terrorist or absconder is killed in an ‘encounter’, both broadcast and print media will glorify the ‘encounter specialist’ behind these operations.

The only thing that worries civilian and non-civilian security institutions is the concern that a reaction to such incidents might reach the point of instigating a sociopolitical or rights movement. The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement is one example, and many others like it can be found in neighbouring countries. The institutions perceive such movements as a direct threat to their impunity, and believe that internal and external enemies of the state can exploit such movements. Such incidents bring their blue-eyed ‘encounter specialists’ like Rao Anwar into public debate, lend credence to rights-based movements, and encourage voices demanding accountability.

Sadly, instead of correcting their practices and ensuring the rule of law, they will continue to hush voices expressing legitimate concern, and, instead, glorify their successes in establishing the writ of the state.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2019