Loss of legitimacy

Published February 23, 2024
The writer is a retired inspector general of police and ex-head of the National Counter Terrorism Authority.
The writer is a retired inspector general of police and ex-head of the National Counter Terrorism Authority.

THE legitimacy of the police force in any nation is fundamentally anchored in its perceived impartiality, fairness, and adherence to the principles of justice.

However, in Pakistan, the continued use of the police as an instrument of political manipulation risks eroding this legitimacy in the eyes of the public. At the heart of the issue is the politicisation of the police force. When law enforcement becomes a tool for political ends, it ceases to serve the primary purpose of upholding law and order impartially.

In Pakistan, there have been numerous instances where the police have been used to suppress political dissent, intimidate opponents, and interfere in political processes. This misuse of power for political gains undermines the rule of law and the democratic values that form the foundation of any stable society.

One of the most visible manifestations of this problem is the frequent sight of police dragging away political dissenters. The right to dissent, protest, and express opposing views is a cornerstone of democratic societies. However, in Pakis­tan, this right has been frequently curtailed un­­der various political regimes.

The sight of po­­lice forces manhandling, arresting, and detaining political activists and dissenters has become all too common. Such actions not only violate basic human rights but also signal to the public that the police are not neutral enforcers of the law but rather instruments of political repression.

This blatant politicisation and misuse of the police force has several far-reaching consequences. First, it erodes public trust in the police. When citizens perceive the police as biased and serving the interests of political elites rather than the public, they are less likely to cooperate with law-enforcement efforts.

This lack of cooperation can hinder crime-fighting efforts, as the police rely on public assistance for information and support. Moreover, the perception of the police as a political tool discourages individuals from pursuing careers in law enforcement, leading to a decline in the quality and professionalism of the police force.

Blatant politicisation and misuse of the police diminishes public trust in the force.

Second, the use of the police for political purposes deepens societal divisions. In a country like Pakistan, where political rivalries are intense, the politicisation of the police exacerbates tensions and can lead to violence. When law enforcement is seen as taking sides, it can provoke a backlash from opposition groups and contribute to a cycle of violence and retaliation. This not only destabilises the political landscape but also puts innocent civilians at risk.

Third, the erosion of police legitimacy has broader implications for governance and the rule of law. A police force that is perceived as corrupt and biased undermines the very foundation of legal authority. This can lead to a situation where citizens no longer respect or abide by the law, leading to increased crime and disorder.

Furthermore, the misuse of the police for political ends can discourage foreign investment and hinder economic development. Investors are less likely to commit resources to a country where the rule of law is weak and political interference in law enforcement is rampant.

Patronage politics benefits senior police officers in terms of postings, which are then encashed in monetary terms by them — read: ‘corruption.’ There is an embedded pattern; corrupt officers on one side of the political spectrum or the other get posted to victimise the political opponents of the ruling party, and some of the officers have been in ‘posting limbo’ when the opponents come to power.

The cycle repeats with every political cycle, and it’s common to see corrupt ‘persecuted’ officials flee on the pretext of foreign leave or scholarships, living like kings abroad. They then return with the change of political cycle, getting their dismissal from service abolished, and re-enter the system.

Don’t take my word for it; just google how many senior police officers were dismissed on charges of corruption, and then somehow miraculously re-entered the system, so casually. In this chaos, some really honest officers — the ones with spotless careers — prefer to remain on the sidelines to save their honour.

The detrimental effects of the politicisation of the police on a country’s global standing are not unique to Pakistan. In the Philippines, under the administration of president Rodrigo Duterte, the police force was widely criticised for its role in the so-called war on drugs. This campaign severely tarnished the Philippines’ human rights record and its standing in the global community.

Similarly, in Venezuela, the government’s use of police and military forces to suppress opposition protests has drawn international condemnation. In Turkiye, following the attempted coup in 2016, the government undertook a massive crackdown on dissent, utilising the police and judiciary to target political opponents, journalists, and academics under the guise of rooting out coup plotters, putting a strain on Turkiye’s EU accession talks.

These international examples highlight the far-reaching consequences of politicising the police and using law enforcement as a tool for political repression. To avoid these consequences, it is crucial for countries to uphold the independence and impartiality of their police forces. This is not only essential for maintaining domestic order and public trust but also for preserving a country’s standing and relationships on the international stage.

The continued use of the police as an instrument of political manipulation in Pakistan poses a significant threat to the legitimacy of the police force and, by extension, the stability and democratic integrity of the nation. To restore public trust in the police, it is imperative that steps be taken to ensure the independence and impartiality of law enforcement.

This includes establishing clear boundaries between the police and political entities, implementing rigorous accountability mechanisms, and fostering a culture of professionalism and respect for human rights within the police force. Only then can the police in Pakistan regain their rightful place as guardians of the law and protectors of the public order.

The writer is a retired inspector general of police and ex-head of the National Counter Terrorism Authority.

X: @Kkf50

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2024

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