Published May 9, 2021
Police and TLP protesters come face to face near the Yateem Khana Chowk in Lahore | Arif Ali/White Star
Police and TLP protesters come face to face near the Yateem Khana Chowk in Lahore | Arif Ali/White Star

Violent protests by the now-banned Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan once again put the police in the direct line of attack, resulting in hundreds of casualties in the service. Police complain that their concerns fall on deaf ears, while they are often castigated for their brutality. Is the issue simply one of reforming the police?

The protests began on Sunday, April 11, intensifying the following day when the police were ordered to arrest Saad Rizvi, leader of the far-right religio-political group Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan [TLP].

Major roads and highways across the country were blocked, forcing people to observe a lockdown far more stringent than any recent government-imposed Covid-19 lockdown. As markets remained shuttered and people stayed at home, clashes between the police and protesters intensified outside.

Over the course of the next week, videos provided glimpses of what went on. Junior police officers were stripped of their equipment, pelted with stones and beaten with sticks. The wounded officers were taken hostage and paraded. Police stations were attacked and vehicles were burnt. More than 800 policemen were injured; at least four succumbed to their injuries.

Meanwhile, at least three TLP protesters were killed. A number of videos showed TLP supporters tear-gassed and critically wounded. The group claims that the police fired directly into the crowd, that their casualties are much higher, and that the police tortured their workers.

This was not the first time TLP workers and law enforcement agencies had clashed in Pakistan, and it is unlikely to be the last.

Resentments have increased on both sides in the aftermath of these protests. Police sources claim they feel ‘betrayed’ after the government negotiated with TLP representatives and agreed to consider their demands. Meanwhile, the TLP has opposed the ban placed on their organisation, which is now under review.

The sense of betrayal on the part of the police is exacerbated by the fact that senior police officers feel their concerns over radical groups capable of inciting violence fall on deaf ears. Yet, when push comes to shove, they find themselves on the frontlines, often ill-equipped, outnumbered and without clear instructions. This long-established pattern is only one of the problems facing policing in Pakistan.


It’s been a decade since Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was brutally killed. Following the late governor’s assassination, the police have been increasingly apprehensive about the rise of Barelvi extremism, more so since the establishment of the TLP in 2016.

In a recent article, journalist Azaz Syed wrote that the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (Nacta) chief in 2016, Ehsan Ghani (a former Inspector General of Police), had issued a formal warning against the TLP, “urging that they should be kept away from the political and electoral arena.” This appeal too fell on deaf ears.

A retired inspector general of police tells me that the practice of ignoring or dismissing police officers’ reports against such outfits and organisations has been common across successive governments.

“Police are dealing with these issues on the ground daily, but our reports are not read by the government,” he says, indicating that it is not just the rank-and-file but, often, also the senior police command that is deemed dispensable and disposable by political rulers.

This was not the first time TLP workers and law enforcement agencies had clashed in Pakistan, and it is unlikely to be the last.

In private conversations, police officers admit that policies of appeasing radical groups put the police in complicated and dangerous situations. They remember the 2017 Faizabad sit-in (also led by TLP protesters), when paramilitary forces were called for back-up but they refused to intervene in aid of the police. They resent army officers then stepping in and paying off protesters who had injured policemen, demonstrating a lack of respect for the police.

Police officers also recall how their own institution and the notorious Gullu Butt (a hired goon) were used during the 2014 Model Town tragedy, leaving several protesters dead in Lahore because of a violent police response commissioned by the former government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

Consequently, they claim, there is a lack of clarity on what the police response should look like in the face of political protests. Excessive force, for which the police leadership is ‘scapegoated’, can cost the police its legitimacy, while those who refuse to use force may be punished.

A senior superintendent of police, Muhammad Ali Nekokara, was dismissed from service when he refused to use force against protesters outside the parliament in 2014, wanting to avoid another incident like Model Town. Such punishment rarely extends to the political corridors, where policies are often made without input from police officers.

More recently, the refusal to arrest Captain Safdar, Maryam Nawaz’s husband, following a Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) protest in Karachi, led to the notorious kidnapping of the chief of Sindh Police by army and intelligence officers, a stark demonstration of the forms and extents of interferences that can occur within the institution of the civilian police.

It is clear that policing in Pakistan has needed a rethink for years. This is a tabdeeli (change) the current government had promised. But, unfortunately, they have proven no better than their predecessors.


Police officers arrest a TLP activist in Peshawar during a protest following the arrest of party chief Saad Hussain Rizvi | Shahbaz Butt/White Star
Police officers arrest a TLP activist in Peshawar during a protest following the arrest of party chief Saad Hussain Rizvi | Shahbaz Butt/White Star

When the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) came to power, it championed police reform, and an independent police was one of its top commitments. But, it is evident by now that the government is uninterested in creating guidelines or improving policies that can yield better policing — during protests or otherwise.

The prime minister’s disregard towards improving policing and depoliticising the institution was obvious shortly after the PTI came into power in 2018. Readers may remember the late Nasir Durrani (former IG, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) resigning in protest as head of the then much-touted Punjab Committee on Police Reforms and Implementation, apparently because he was upset about the summary removal of Punjab IGP Mohammad Tahir.

The idea of this government being a harbinger of police reform was also called into question more recently when former Director General of the Federal Investigative Agency Bashir Memon alleged that the prime minister wanted him to act against his political and judicial opponents, in spite of a lack of evidence.

Police officers have long claimed that political interference hinders police accountability and breeds malpractice and corruption, trends observable across Pakistan. These claims must be put into a broader context and critically analysed. Only then can the police response to the TLP protests (or other protests for that matter), the state response to police grievances, and the prevailing culture of policing, be adequately understood.

Police officers claim that there is a lack of clarity on what the response should look like in the face of political protests. Excessive force, for which the police leadership is ‘scapegoated’, can cost the police its legitimacy, while those who refuse to use force may be punished.


In 2004, Fida Mohammad and Paul Conway wrote that coercion employed by the criminal justice system (including the police) in Pakistan was part of the system’s hegemonic role in cultivating “submission to the established political order.” In other words, policing has always been central to the political elite’s coercive domination over the Pakistani populace. Problems in policing are thus connected not just to the institutions tasked with policing, but also to broader political and social agendas.

Police corruption and politicisation, for instance, are inherently connected to a legacy of colonial policing, in which the institution was designed and developed as a tool of repression — largely against those deemed to threaten state or elite interests.

In their 2014 paper on police corruption and legitimacy in Pakistan, Jonathan Jackson, Muhammad Asif, Ben Bradford and Zakria Zakar wrote that, after independence, colonial rulers were “replaced by the elites of the new-born country, and the police remained unsuccessful — or perhaps, more correctly, uninterested — in fulfilling any kind of service role and, often, in providing even a minimal sense of security or protection for ordinary people. The successful capture of the police by post-independence elites meant that the general population and the police remained distant.”

It is no surprise therefore, that the police remain one of the most distrusted, corrupt and disliked institutions in the country, a fact that police officers are all too aware of.

Over the past decade, thousands have been killed in police ‘encounter killings’, which remains a notorious practice even after the extrajudicial killing of an innocent young man Naqeebullah Mehsud in police custody in Karachi generated international outrage.

Jackson and his colleagues emphasised this when their survey data showed widespread experiences of police corruption (in Lahore), low levels of perceived effectiveness and fairness, and low levels of popular legitimacy.

This legitimacy has been further compromised by a history of police brutality, in the shape of police torture and extrajudicial killings. Last year, a citizen named Rafiullah (alias Amir) was beaten and paraded naked in a police station in Peshawar, a video recording of which went viral. In 2019, police officials tortured a robbery suspect, Salahuddin Ayubi, to death. Both incidents drew widespread condemnation, leading to the drafting of the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention and Punishment) Bill 2020, that is yet to receive support in the Parliament.

Furthermore, over the past decade, thousands have been killed in police ‘encounter killings’, which remains a notorious practice even after the extrajudicial killing of an innocent young man Naqeebullah Mehsud in police custody in Karachi generated international outrage.

Such a legacy of repressive policing is complicated by the fact that, from the rank-and-file to the elite cadre of officers that form the Police Services of Pakistan, the police are inherently insecure.


It is well-established that colonial police departments were designed to subjugate and suppress colonial subjects, prevent and curb rebellions, and secure the political and economic interests of the British empire.

What is lesser known is that police officers were poorly paid and that corruption was rampant, because the overarching idea was that, to subjugate the natives, a native cop had to be subjugated as well — to ensure his subservience to the command of elite (British) officers.

Simply put, police officers needed to be a little disempowered to ensure their obedience to their masters, prevent any rebellion on the part of the police, and guarantee that the orders given to the rank and file would be carried out, even if that meant turning a blind eye to police corruption.

Corruption, therefore, enabled the manifestation of police violence and repression.

It is essentially this inherited framework of colonial policing that continues to guide policing in postcolonial societies, especially in large parts of South Asia and Africa.

To understand contemporary police repression, therefore, it is imperative to expand upon the insecurities that continue to plague the police and that contribute to the delivery of poor policing in Pakistan.

A number of police officers and civilians alike have written about the organisational challenges faced by the police: political interference, financial hardships and job insecurity — all contributing to the so-called ‘thana culture’ (an abstract concept that seeks to capture police abuse, corruption and brutality occurring within police stations in Pakistan).

It is also worth mentioning that these challenges have co-existed with rampant crime, terrorism, political violence and contested civil-military relations.

In such an environment, the plight of lower-ranked police officers is seldom known, in spite of the fact that they constitute at least 95 percent of the civilian police and are state agents with whom common citizens have the most routine interactions.

The majority of lower-ranked police officials do not have access to subsidised housing, and most live in cramped, ill-maintained accommodation. They also do not have access to free healthcare. And the police hospitals that are available are filthy, shabby and unkempt, avoided by police officers themselves.

On the job, station-level officials are exposed not just to armed assailants and reckless drivers (including ‘VIPs’ who frequently challenge the authority of awkward constables), but also extreme heat and pollution, unsanitary work conditions, lack of clean water, lack of access to toilets, and a poor diet.

Furthermore, as I wrote in the Wafaqi Mohtasib report of 2015 (‘Mal-administration in Police Stations’), corruption at the level of the station is not just a product of excessive greed, but a practice encouraged to meet the demands of senior officers who expect regular ‘cuts’ or payments. In this way, police corruption relies on criminal activity in a given area, and both feed off each other.

Thus, certain types of police corruption are products of insecurity: lower-ranked officers are required to gather funds to keep stations running, while also meeting the demands of the higher-ups. Failing to do either can result in dissatisfaction that can cost the constable or inspector his position, aggravating work-related stress.

It is worth noting that there are no police unions in Pakistan to prevent such abuse of the police.

When the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) came to power, it championed police reform, and an independent police was one of its top commitments. But, it is evident by now that the government is uninterested in creating guidelines or improving policies that can yield better policing — during protests or otherwise.

Last year, for a project on policing Covid-19 in Pakistan, I found that a majority of police officers reported increased stress as a result of the public health crisis. They also reported an inability to communicate well with their supervisors, a fact that directly impacts how officers relate to their own organisation and deal with work-related stress.

Research carried out by academics at the COMSATS Institute of Information Technology on the police in Vehari, Punjab, revealed that, of the 120 police officers sampled, 97 percent reported suffering from high stress because of their working conditions. Part of this was attributed to strained relations between junior officers and their supervisors.

Senior officers often speak about the harsh conditions faced by lower-ranked officers on the job and due to their socio-economic backgrounds more generally. Nevertheless, misbehaviour on the part of police command with junior officers is seldom acknowledged.

During my ethnographic research on policing in Karachi, I encountered senior officers abusing their grade, and the chain of command, to bid junior officers to do their ‘dirty work’ (or that of their political patrons), such as influencing arrests.

In other words, one of the greatest problems with police culture is that the police command metes out to lower-ranked officers the very (mal)treatment they receive from the political command: orders to do their ‘dirty work’, knowing that the juniors will be scapegoated should such work backfire.


A police vehicle is seen in flames after lawyers set it on fire when they attacked the Punjab Institute of Cardiology in December 2019 | Aun Jafri/White Star
A police vehicle is seen in flames after lawyers set it on fire when they attacked the Punjab Institute of Cardiology in December 2019 | Aun Jafri/White Star

The structural issues of bad governance, vested political interests, incentives for repression, and insecurities within the institution discussed above, have generated multiple problems in Pakistani policing. Below, I would like to discuss three of these key problem areas.

I. Militarised Policing

First is the legacy of militarised policing that has been central to the ethos of colonial police structures, their postcolonial organisational development, and the overarching political environment in which this ethos has been sustained.

Militarised policing is the idea that ‘militarism’ (or the idea that states should have strong military capabilities to protect national security interests) permeate civilian policing. Civilian policing, and not just the army, becomes central to the security of the state.

Because of this, police power is created to supplement military power, and the idea of being at war with an internal enemy (criminals, militants, and even dissenters) drives routine police work.

Furthermore, the militarisation of policing (or mirroring the civilian police along military lines) is not just demonstrated through the hierarchical structure of the police and its command-and-control mechanisms, but also, increasingly, in the comparisons and competitions between the police and their military counterparts.

It does not help that policing in Pakistan, as elsewhere, is a pluralised landscape in which multiple institutions and agencies are involved in policing and police work, except that in ‘hybrid regimes’ such as in Pakistan — where civil-military relations remain contested — co-policing by police and (para)militaries not just co-produces repression, but also stimulates an unnecessary competition between the two institutions.

Such competition is fuelled by problematic state policies that deem it necessary to maintain a long-term paramilitary deployment in Karachi, and that deploy the armed forces not just for protests, but also to enforce pandemic-related regulations, as seen more recently.

In my brief research on the ‘partnership’ between the civilian police and the paramilitary in Karachi (carried out between 2015 and 2017), I found that the co-existence of both institutions resulted in a competition that was furthering the militarisation of policing.

This was partly due to the way the presence of armed and paramilitary forces cut into the legitimacy of the police, and partly due to the autonomy afforded to military institutions that police officers believe they are deprived of.

The continuation of militarised policing is also influenced by the fact that various political and social issues are routinely framed as security threats that demand swift and, at times, strong-armed responses on the part of law enforcement agencies.

This is applicable to protests, such as the TLP protests in April, as well. Protests, when securitised, are viewed as a law-and-order problem, rather than a political crisis. As a result, the police are left to rely upon conventional practices to break up protests (i.e., laathi charge, tear gas, water cannons).

There is limited importance given to non-coercive crowd management strategies that should be part of the internal standard operating procedures followed by police officers — such as negotiation, dialogue and communication between the police, public liaison officers, and protesters.

II. Police Martyrdom

Related to the idea of militarised policing, we can also observe a trend in civilian policing: shahadat [martyrdom] is increasingly accepted as part of the job description for those working in the areas of policing and law enforcement.

For instance, we see police media content routinely referring to lower-ranked officers as having joined the police to ‘sacrifice’ themselves — often quite literally.

During interviews for my doctoral research, junior officers would say to me that they “leave their homes adorning kafans [funeral shrouds]”. These comments demonstrate the everyday insecurity faced by street-level officers, most of whom, in the words of a retired police officer, “earn less than a ‘rehrri-wala’ [roadside hawker] per month.”

As police officers continued to be targeted and killed, at some point in the aftermath of the so-called ‘war on terror’, the rhetoric of martyrdom, fuelled by the effects of militarism, became ingrained and glorified in the culture of policing. We repeatedly see police officers correcting journalists and analysts for referring to slain officers as ‘killed’ and not ‘martyred’.

While efforts to recognise police martyrs may be a strategy to ensure that slain police officers’ families are granted the same financial compensation as military soldiers’ (a fair demand), in the overarching idea of police martyrdom we again see aspects of militarised policing.

The public and police, both, as consumers of this idea, now see police organisations ‘at war’ against enemies (of the state, of Islam, of the elite). And it is widely held that a police officer on duty may be expected to be martyred because of his duty (to the state, to Islam, to the elite).

But why should a street-level officer be told, or made to believe, that he has joined the police to achieve martyrdom and should thus be willing to sacrifice himself?

We frequently talk about policing being a ‘service’, not a force. It is, after all, the Police Services of Pakistan. The glorification of martyrdom may be applicable to force-like institutions — i.e., military institutions that are, by their very design, meant to fight wars — not public service institutions.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but martyrdom, or death in general, should not be normalised as the expected outcome of a public service in any country. In doing so, we risk avoiding the attribution of responsibility on the regimes whose securitisation policies have led to routine attacks against police officers.

There is also a risk that normalising police ‘martyrdom’ instead of critically questioning the policies resulting in police deaths, prevents us from seeing the problems of grooming the police as insecure agents of repression. For let us not forget, often a trigger-happy officer is shooting out of fear.

III. Discriminatory Policing

While the previous two problem areas looked at conceptual issues in Pakistani policing, I will now touch upon an outward-facing problem that affects police-community relations: police discrimination.

Discrimination on the part of the police can be meted out to citizens based on ethnic, linguistic, racial, religious, gender and class differences. Here, too, we see a continuation of Pakistan’s colonial legacy and police repression at work.

Recently, I conducted research for a project exploring the relationship between policing and migrant communities. My discussions with members of these communities revealed the everyday discrimination and harassment they face at the hands of law enforcement agencies: from extortion, to criminalisation, and sometimes being stopped for just ‘looking Bengali’ e.g., even though many of them were born in Pakistan.

Similarly, the recent police response towards civilians victimised and rendered homeless due to ‘anti-encroachment’ drives in urban areas such as Karachi, and the arrests of activists advocating for the basic right to housing, continually reminds us how policing is central to neoliberal policies and for protecting the interests of a capitalist state.

Addressing such discrimination and ‘othering’ on the part of the police — and state security institutions — demands committing to an overarching agenda that calls for shifts in social and political ideas on ethnic and religious diversity, shifts in state policies on marginalised communities, and shifts in policies that further class-based discrimination and segregation, for which the elite have always relied upon (com)pliant and subservient police officers.

Without such radical shifts, reforms that simply seek to modernise police training and equipment, cannot possibly impact the institutional culture of the police, which is currently ridden with authoritarianism, suspicion, mistrust of outsiders (including migrants and refugees), as well as institutional and individual insecurities.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list of problems and patterns, but they show how intimately social, political and even religious ideologies penetrate policing organisations.

It is no surprise, therefore, that police officers routinely look back at Mumtaz Qadri and wonder how many employees in their own institution share the sentiments of radical far-right groups. And how many police officers hesitate to engage with these groups’ violent tactics, considering them to be ‘apnay loag [our people],’ in part because of overlapping ideological beliefs, but also due to shared inequalities and cultural experiences of both lower-ranked police officers and TLP supporters.


A file photo showing a PPP activist protesting the arrest of Asif Ali Zardari from his Islamabad residence in 2019 | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
A file photo showing a PPP activist protesting the arrest of Asif Ali Zardari from his Islamabad residence in 2019 | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

Contemporary police reform projects — when they are able to survive political tussles and bureaucratic bickering — are often too minutely focused on aspects such as training and education, and procedural matters such as tenure, transfers, and postings.

While these are no doubt critical to the delivery of good police work, such changes may only produce short-term results, instead of larger ideological changes in policing.

Then there are the donor-funded projects that are too reliant on an external organisation’s interest and their vision of police reform. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), for example, funded a multi-billion-dollar project to reform the criminal justice system, including the police, in Pakistan in the early 2000s. The much-touted Police Order 2002 came into being under the ADB’s Access to Justice Programme. The ADB had referred to it as a ‘landmark legislation’.

An evaluation of this programme’s progress after the project was completed several years later, found that it had not been effective in improving police performance and accountability, partly due to ‘lukewarm’ interest by provincial governments and the continued politicisation of the police.

By the time the evaluation was carried out (in 2009), the 2002 Order had been watered down due to resistance from provincial governments, the concessions made by the then federal government of Pervez Musharraf, and multiple amendments made in the law shortly after it came into effect.

For deeper structural and ideological changes in policing, there is a need for transformative police reform. Transformative reform demands consistent police accountability, especially one that prevents and hinders racist and corrupt police practices, practices that have been at the heart of colonial policing.

Calls for such radical, ‘bottom up’ reforms have witnessed a global surge, particularly in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of the American police and the Black Lives Matter movement.

In a recently published paper on police reform in a global perspective, Professor Tessa Diphoorn and colleagues emphasised that ‘reform needs to be considered through a transformative lens that employs a multi-agency and long-term approach.’

A multi-agency approach includes looking at various actors and networks that partake in policing, both public and private. And a long-term approach tells us to think beyond instantaneous, reactionary reform efforts that often follow political events (such as elections), or violent incidents (such as high-profile police killings).

Furthermore, the authors stress taking a holistic approach that targets the larger structures of violence and which demands that we critically study the political contexts in which repressive policing occurs.

In a recent talk, Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, said that reformists need to address the regimes of exploitation, of which the police are but one part. The “locus of the struggle”, he said, cannot just be the police; instead, a struggle must take place at political levels, which urges us to shift away from neoliberal politics that enables oppression, discrimination, exploitation and a culture of authoritarian control.

Transformative reforms, therefore, need to occur on a much bigger scale, not simply at the level of the police. This is a significant, generational challenge. But without it, policing will remain central to the protection of state interests — even if that means sacrificing ‘good policing’ for the sake of an order in which regimes create and sustain radical forces that incite violence and create public disorder.

The writer is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute for Global City Policing, University College London. She tweets @ZohaWaseem

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 9th, 2021



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