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Who really pulls the trigger?

Updated January 29, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE recent tragedy in Sahiwal has brought police reforms back to the forefront. A new committee has been formed and the prime minister promises 100 model police stations on the way to a new, reformed force in the distant future.

This may go some way towards ending the clamour of the past week where the police and their politicisation and fallouts were debated to death in our private conversations, talk-show discussions and newsprint. And listening to it all, it seemed as if somewhere along the line, we had turned police reforms into an administrative affair.

Take a look: How the system failed us

In this la-la land that we live in, we think reforming the police is a simple matter of tinkering with the law, then pulling the politicians out (again a simple, administrative decision) and letting the good guys in (police) uniform take charge. Once the Buzdars and the Chaudhries are no longer giving orders and the Nasir Durrani types take over, the pumpkin that is the Punjab police will become Cinderella.

Also read: Waiting for the next Naqeebullah

But is it really this simple? If it were, then one of the many good guys (and more than one government appointed a good guy) should have been able to fix PIA by now.

And the police are a more complicated affair than fixing PIA, for sure.

In this la-la land that we live in, we think reforming the police is a simple matter of tinkering with the law.

And this is why the politicisation of the police is not the only problem to be tackled.

What happened in Sahiwal was hardly due to ‘politicisation’. Model Town and perhaps even the infamous incident in Pakpattan can be linked to the horrible, bad politicisation but not Sahiwal. In the latter, there was an intelligence tip-off which led to what appears to be trigger-happy cops firing on a car, killing innocent people in the process.

No politicians ordered the attack or are said to have been remotely connected to the incident. In fact, it is said that former chief minister Shahbaz Sharif kept the CTD free of political interference and neither was its head constantly transferred at the whims of those who were elected.

Indeed, the thana culture (which entails a lot more than extrajudicial killings) in Punjab is not just the fault of the politicians we like to blame for everything.

Instead, Sahiwal is primarily the result of the policy of extrajudicial killings that the state has employed for long. And neither is it limited to any one city or province. Each time Karachi is ‘cleaned’ and made habitable and safe, it’s because the police and other law-enforcement personnel are given a free hand to become Judge Dredd — judge, jury and executioner. This happened in the 1990s under the PPP’s Gen Naseerullah Babar as interior minister and it happened again after 2008. And till the stories about Naqeebullah’s death last year became public, it seems as if no one cared how Karachi was being cleaned of the ‘goons’ and the violence. Do we really believe that he was the first innocent person who was killed in a fake encounter?

Dawn Investigation: Rao Anwar and the killing fields of Karachi

Everyone turns a blind eye because it suits us — we want a safe city, where there is less crime, people feel safer and we want it quick. Who wants to wait for the system to be fixed first so that the bad guys can be identified, picked up, tried and then locked up? No one has the time.

And the hypocrisy isn’t limited to the Pakistanis. Even the West lapped up the killings of the bad Taliban as it glorified Chaudhry Aslam, as Pakistan’s ‘dirty Harry’ in news stories.

Explore: SP Chaudhry Aslam — a symbol of success for many, hatred for others

Indeed, we cannot appreciate Aslam for what he did (by naming roads after him) and condemn Rao Anwar for his behaviour. It has to be understood that if any policeman or official is given the green signal to knock off bad guys, some innocent people will always get caught in the ‘crossfire’. And we can’t praise one (Aslam) because we don’t like the men he aims for and hate the other (Rao) because his victim is innocent.

This state policy has to change; a policy in which the entire society is complicit at times and which can’t be blamed entirely on individuals, be they police officers or politicians such as Shahbaz Sharif.

Punjab was no different from Karachi. A report by Human Rights Watch commented that “The nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that in 2015, over 2,000 people were killed in armed encounters with the police, most in the province of Punjab”.

And so far, unfortunately, there is little indication that this policy is about to change; with the ‘terrorist’ threat still not completely over, there are few chances that there is going to be a rethink. And with an economic recovery hinging on an improved security environment, the latter is not going to be sacrificed overnight because of the outrage and horror over Sahiwal. This is not to say that there will be no change whatsoever; perhaps there will be. After all, the public sentiment expressed after Naqeebullah, after the death of Amal in Karachi and after Sahiwal has to bring some change. And let’s hope it does but one shouldn’t expect miracles.

Perhaps a first step in the right direction could be to establish the public safety commissions and complaints commissions mandated under the Police Act, 2002, which still continues to provide legal cover to the police in Punjab. It appears that Punjab never established such commissions and neither were these established or made effective in KP where some level of reforms did take place.

Such accountability mechanisms — which operate independently of the department’s hierarchical structure — might provide some form of checks and balances, if there is serious intent for course correction. But at the same time, the larger state policy has to change if there is to be qualitative change.

Till the policymakers change their approach, there will be no serious effort to punish those who pulled the trigger. For their finger may be on the trigger but it was encouraged to move at another’s behest.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2019