Political will for reform – Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri

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The video footage of the police investigation, and the subsequent custodial death of Salahuddin, a mentally challenged person, has emotionally affected many Pakistanis.

In the past one year, from the Sahiwal incident till the Salahuddin torture case, every story of extrajudicial killing and or custodial death has left a big question mark on the government’s resolve to provide access to justice to all.

Custodial deaths have become common in Pakistan, especially in Punjab. While one was talking of Salahuddin’s death, another person succumbed to torture in a Lahore police station, right under the nose of higher authorities. Even though the IG Punjab Police has given explicit instructions against custodial torture, secret torture cells and inhumane torture prevail in the name of investigation in most of the police stations in Punjab.

The question arises: can an IG really end the ‘thana culture’? I remember a June 2013 speech by the then (newly elected) chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, claiming that the “thana-patwari” culture would come to an end by 2014 in Punjab. Shahbaz Sharif was one of the most powerful chief ministers of Punjab but could not put a dent in the thana culture, and now it is one of the major challenges for the Buzdar government.

In the Salahuddin case, a case has been registered against the concerned police officials. However, this was done in the Sahiwal incident as well, and the result is that a few months down the road, the suspended management of the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) is again running the CTD in Punjab.

The thana culture is so deep rooted that it cannot be ended with a few dismissals and transfers. To change it, one requires major reforms in the policing system. Our policing system is based on the colonial Police Act 1861, which was tailored to suit the requirement of the British Raj to keep the ‘natives’ suppressed and under control.

Since 1947, more than three dozen commissions and committees were notified to bring reforms in police governance. However, their recommendations could never be implemented. It was in General Musharraf’s era that the Police Order, 2002 was approved, and it got partially implemented (many of its pro-people provisions could not get implemented to begin with).

Under the 18th Amendment, maintenance of law and order was declared a provincial subject and now the different federating units of Pakistan have different police governance systems. We have the Punjab Police that is governed through an amended Police Order, 2002 (amended in 2003, 2009, and 2013). Transfers, postings, promotion summaries of district police officers and above are sent to the chief minister for approval in Punjab. The Balochistan Police is being governed through the Police Act, 2011 (which is a ditto copy of the Police Act, 1861 and provides room for political interference in transfers/posting of officers).

The Sindh government reverted from the Police Order, 2002 to the Police Act, 1861 in 2008. However, the Sindh High Court barred any political interference in the transfer/posting of police officials, and strengthened the IG Sindh’ office. Lately, the Sindh Assembly has approved an amendment giving powers of transfers/postings to the chief minister. Islamabad, AJK, Gilgit-Baltistan, and the Railways Police are still being run under colonial act of 1861.

The most modern policing system was adapted in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa under the PTI. Named the Police Order 2017, it has insulated the police department from any political interference. Section 17.4 of this act gives complete operational autonomy to the IG police, and is the lynchpin for its success.

When it came to power in Punjab, the PTI had given hope that it would replicate the KP policing model in Punjab too – which would have brought an end to the thana culture here. However, with the departure of Nasir Durrani in the very beginning, the Punjab commission on police reforms got dysfunctional and all attempts of police reforms in Punjab boiled down to whitewashing the building and changing the uniform (which was genuinely required). The focus in Punjab is on making new units and creating new forces, but police stations have been neglected. Out of 714 police stations, 100 in Punjab are working without a proper building, which gives room for running private detention cells by police officials.

The bright minds of the police service of Pakistan are tasked to run an ill-equipped, ill-trained (data reveals that those officials are sent for training who do not have political backing and would not get field duty), and politically appointed force. It is not only that the Punjab Police saw four IGs in the last one-year, but the average tenure of DPOs in Punjab remained 3-4 months during this period. In fact, some of the SHOs are so powerful (due to their political clout) that they can get their DPOs transferred.

The key to postings, transfers and promotions in the Punjab Police (and which would again be a norm in Sindh too after the recent amendment in the police order there) is pleasing their political masters, who need to have their loyalists as SHOs etc in their constituencies to keep the ‘natives’ under control. As long as they can please their masters, they are ‘licensed to kill’. Temporary dismissal or transfer would not hurt them because very soon they would be back in some lucrative station. This is how the thana culture gets protected and promoted.

In KP after the Police Act 2017, and in Sindh under the command of AD Khwaja and then under Kalim Imam, one witnessed major improvement in the policing system – simply because they were given operational autonomy. The same argument can be used to assess why Rangers and other paramilitary forces success in situations where police fail. Paramilitary forces are operationally autonomous and have no room for political manoeuvring.

Insulating the Punjab Police form political interference does not require an IMF bailout package. All it requires is political will, which PM Khan possess. All he needs to do is replicate his own tried and tested system in KP for Punjab and Balochistan. Giving operational autonomy to IGs, giving senior police officers tenure protection, and subjecting them to the highest standards of accountability is what is required to end the thana culture and the series of custodial deaths due to police torture.

People have the patience to survive under tough economic conditions as they understand structural economic reforms would take time to yield results. But they are losing patience on the social justice front; the result will be that without police reforms, on the one hand there would be increase in custodial deaths, and on the other hand we would witness many more incidences of mob justice. Can we afford this in Naya Pakistan?

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. Twitter: @abidsuleri