Policing in times of unrest

Published May 29, 2022
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

POLICING is never an easy task, and it gets harder during times of sociopolitical unrest. It tests the law enforcers’ professional capabilities, character, morale and, most importantly, how they get around their political, religious, ethnic, and social biases while performing their duties. Their personal biases and partisan tendencies along with concerns about ‘public image’ usually constrain their capacities to maintain the rule of law.

Apart from political considerations, the way the police in Punjab and Islamabad handled the PTI’s long march this week will add to their confidence and morale. The police have been under immense pressure since the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan entered the political and religious arena. The TLP-led violent demonstrations inevitably ended with agreements that supported the radical group. The police suffered the most during these protests: not only did they lose many of their personnel, but most of the time they were sidelined and paramilitary forces given the mandate of policing. Overall, state institutions and political governments also did not help the police in marshalling the required response and preserving their self-esteem.

However, the police appear to have dealt with the recent political crisis more confidently, which has played a role in forcing the winding up of the PTI’s long march within a day. Political pundits may count the backdoor efforts, low participation of the public, and the role of the judiciary as factors, but the credit for restricting the protesters within a limit goes to the police.

Read: How Imran’s march came to an abrupt end

The police too suffered losses, with three cops losing their lives while performing their duties and several others seriously wounded and also humiliated. Punjab police alone estimated the cost of material losses at around Rs15 million — as protesters had set many vehicles on fire — aside from the cost of transportation and tear gas. According to a media report, it cost the government Rs149m to maintain law and order in the capital during the long march. However, that is much less than the cost of deploying paramilitary troops to maintain law and order.

Empowering civilian security institutions is imperative for sustainable rule of law.

It was the unprecedented terrorism challenge in many parts of the country that forced the state to take enhanced operational measures, including the deployment of paramilitary forces. Karachi was an exception, where the Sindh Rangers were given diverse responsibilities to tackle organised crime and violent ethnopolitical conflict; ultimately, however, the strategy has weakened the police structure in the metropolitan city. A similar but complex situation exists in Balochistan and the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where extraordinary circumstances have led the Frontier Corps and the army, respectively, to take control of security and law enforcement parallel to existing, though weak, law-enforcement structures.

The capacity building of law-enforcement agencies, especially the police, is a long-standing issue. In addition to capacity problems, the police are also under-resourced and lack the required equipment. However, instead of addressing these issues and allocating additional resources to the police, the federal and provincial governments prefer to engage paramilitary forces in critical political situations and anti-crime campaigns. Empowering civilian security institutions and restoring the paramilitary forces to their original purpose is imperative to enable a stable and sustainable rule of law in the country.

Also read: Who ‘green-lit’ govt action against PTI?

The police as an institution can absorb the masses’ anger, which no other security institution can even think of. Whenever military and paramilitary forces are deployed in urban areas, there is a political cost. If they cannot afford the cost to save their image, the state institutions are compelled to compromise, and ultimately this capitulation encourages the actors of instability. Many police officers believe that had they been entrusted with controlling the TLP-led protests, they would have tackled them better. But the state institutions either did not trust the police or had some other considerations in mind.

Apart from policing, the issue of provocative speech also needs to be addressed. In countering extremism, the state institutions have taken a few initiatives to keep a check on hate speech. However, a more comprehensive framework is needed as there is no check on provocative political speech. The opposition believes it is their constitutional right to say whatsoever they want to in public gatherings without considering the consequences. The political leadership may use provocative language to charge the crowd rather than out of any malign intent. However, when they use expressions such as ‘khooni inqilab’ (bloody revolution), ‘jalao gherao’ (burn and lay siege to), and ‘ghassito’ (drag) the opponents, it has an impact on the minds of the masses. They should be mindful about how mob psychology works.

Using rhetoric, foul language, and provocative speech is not confined to any one political or religious party; all are culprits at different levels. Though certain laws exist to check provocative speech and police often register cases, the judiciary has not taken such charges seriously and ultimately has disposed of such cases on political grounds.

Parliament can play a role in introducing a code of civility which binds all political and religious actors to not violate the law. Such a code can be introduced with a few punitive actions, including suspension of parliament membership for a few weeks to a year, heavy fines while submitting nomination papers, etc. However, a code to exploit religion for political gain should be stringent, and it cannot come through the legislative process. It will need an accord among all political actors to say they will avoid using religion, which can provoke the sentiments of the masses.

It is unfortunate that almost every political party has suffered because of misuse of religious narratives. Even then, none of them has sensitised their leadership about the issue, which is breeding hate and increasing intolerance in society. This matter does not fall within the scope of normal policing, but it hurts the police most because in the eyes of a layperson, the police is a symbol of the state, and it is the state, they believe, that is the oppressor.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2022

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