Regardless of how one views the project of peace and justice in Pakistan – from the law and order perspective, the counter-terrorism perspective, or the criminal justice system perspective – the role of civilian law enforcement agencies, and specifically the police, features as the central character of the discourse. The police apparatus and machinery permeates throughout our society – starting from issues as small as a domestic dispute or a local scuffle, to apprehending world-renowned terrorists, and preventing national tragedies.

Over the past several years, experts in the field of law and order and counter-terrorism have been vociferously arguing that the prevalent police structure in Pakistan is tragically ill-equipped and untrained to fight the menace of modern day terrorism. We have been told that the colonial police force, inherited by the State of Pakistan at independence, is structured in a manner that can only perform the role of containing local crowds, and apprehending/investigating the traditional crimes of robbery, dacoity, and personal disputes. In fact, it has been argued that with a hundred and fifty year history and training of such policing, our police force is so entrenched in catering to colonial mob-control practices that it faces an institutional inertia towards shifting its focus to modern counter-terrorism techniques.

Even this excuse of a myth, about the age-old culture of policing in Pakistan, came crashing down in the recent Model Town tragedy, featuring the televised conquests of Gullu Butt.

Irrespective of who planned the operation and when, how it was implemented and by whom, what were the desired goals behind it and why, there is no justification – none – for the manner in which the Lahore Police (pride of the Province?) carried out its responsibilities. Hidden and nefarious political reasons and timing for conducting this fiasco aside, at least operationally, the police had a legal and Constitutional obligation to prevent the loss of life, injury to person, and damage to property.

The oft-quoted and centuries old history of the Punjab Police has allowed for the development of standard operating procedures (SOPs), none of which seem to have been followed in the Model Town tragedy. In the extensively televised unfoldings of the tragedy, there seems to be no evidence of police formations controlling the crowd, targeted and restrained laathi charge, use of water cannons, well planned tear gas, or, in extreme circumstances, the use of rubber bullets or aerial shots. It seems that, almost with a callous disregard of possible consequences, the police force resorted to horizontal live fire, as the preferred instrument of crowd control. And this decision, whether taken on the field by senior police officials, or under directions from higher authority, instantly turned Model Town into Tiananmen square.

In the aftermath, a familiar yet comic exercise of passing the blame has commenced. On the political side, to begin with, the Chief Minister claims to have no knowledge about the details of the so-called operation, or the permission for using live fire. The notorious (former) Law/Home Minister dilly-dallied about the “meetings” and “discussions” that led to the carrying out of the operation. Other PML (N) stalwarts made excuses and tried to pin the blame on Minhaj-ul-Quran workers. On the bureaucratic side, the Civil Administration remained quiet for the most part, letting police take the fall. The Inspector General of the police claims to have just taken charge that morning, and therefore unaware of the details. The remaining police hierarchy was quick to remove the SP and DSP of the relevant area, with a promise to hold the requisite inquiries.

None of this, however, justifies or provides any plausible explanation for an operation that lasted for over 12 hours, and claimed ten lives.

The truth is that the police cannot hide behind feeble excuses. It is no defence to say that the Inspector General had just taken charge, if for no other reason then simply the fact that the Inspector-General alone is not responsible for carrying out the operation. There are several other rungs within the police hierarchy. There must have been numerous meetings among the concerned senior police officials that eventually led to the planning of the operation, and deployment of a large contingent of police force. The use of live fire ammunition must specifically have been given to the constables deployed, and its use could only have been authorized by some senior command official. (Criminality on part of senior police officials who authorized the use of bullets is easier to grapple with than the idea that, without authorization, the constabulary assumed the authority to use live fire). There certainly is no justification for watching as a bystander, while Gullu Butt (and others) ransacked private and public property. And it is absolutely inexcusable to have witnessed such lawlessness, and then embrace the culprit as though he had been working under instructions of, or in collusion with, the police.

The truth is that the Lahore Police, as opposed to being a functionary of the State, acted as the private militia of PML (N), throughout this episode. Their preference, it seems, was not to prevent illegalities, but instead to achieve the partisan ambitions of PML(N), against a political rival. The local SHO, the DSP, the SP, and the CCPO, acted as nothing more than private touts of the Sharif brothers, in the knowledge that demonstrating loyalty (even in disregard of law) would please the king. And to bear witness to their tales of loyalty, they called Gullu Butt and other supporters of PML(N), so that the king could hear it from his partisan coterie.

This politically subservient culture of the police is not a one-off episode. Just recently the DPO of Hafizabad was caught, on tape, rallying crowds in favor of Hamza Shahbaz. Who can forget when an Inspector General of police took out a page-long newspaper advertisement, paid through public expenditure, praising the election and leadership of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif?

These events lay bare the ugly truth about our police force and its culture. The fact that the police is ill-equipped for countering modern terrorism is admittedly indisputable. Over and above this, the Model Town tragedy demonstrates that the police force and its culture are also incapable of maintaining law and order in regular societal conflicts. The desire to please the political masters and, through it, to be awarded with prized postings and promotions, can override the mandate of law and duty in our police force. The culture of police neither allows for any shame, nor any guilt, in the carrying out of illegal orders. Its constabulary seems hand in glove with local political touts. And its leadership has no trouble joining the ranks of ‘more loyal than the king’, if it serves their personal ambition of gaining favors with the political masters.

The problems plaguing the police force cannot be fixed through legislative measures or empty rhetoric. The police, in Pakistan, has a crisis of culture. A crisis that no external force, or directive, can rectify. This change, and its responsibility, rests with the police force itself.

And, for this reason, there might be reason to despair…

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.