The facts of the Sahiwal incident, the heart-wrenching videos of mortified children who survived and the shifting stance of the counterterrorism Department (CTD) are too painful to be recounted in detail. Even more painful is contemplation of the idea that those who are responsible for protecting the life and security of our citizen (i.e. the law enforcement agencies) are precisely the ones that our citizenry has come to fear.

Was the operation designed to target ISIS terrorist? Perhaps. Did it achieve the goal of killing militants? Maybe, in part. Is it possible that this operation neutralised a terrorist cell that was planning to perpetrate even more gruesome acts of violence? Possibly. But did the operation make Pakistanis feel safer? Absolutely not. Did it reduce our (constant) fear for life? Certainly not. Has it reinforced the pervasive idea that Pakistanis need to guard themselves against two forms of violence: (1) militants, and (2) law enforcement agencies? Most certainly, it did.

If this was a one-off secluded event of state sponsored violence (terrorism?), there might have been some concession that could be extended to the CTD. However, incidents like the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud by Rao Anwar, the Model Town massacre by PML(N) and countless other fake police encounters tell the story of State sponsored brutality in Pakistan. Per a recent report published by the HRCP, over the past four years (from January 2014 to May 2018), as many as 3,345 people have been killed in police encounters. Also, 10 passersby were killed and 53 were injured in these encounters. HRCP’s report further shows that this problem is not restricted to any one province. Interesting, despite all the barbarity of Punjab’s Gullu Butt police, Sindh is on top of the list in killing maximum people in police encounter, from January 2014 to May 2018.

What are the reasons for police brutality? Why is it that the police force is consistently seen as an institution to fear, even by innocent citizens, as opposed to fulfilling its promise of being the protectors of our constitutional right to life and liberty? Why is it that the police forces, across all provinces, with the recent exception of KPK, continue to operate under an antiquated paradigm of law? Why is it that the province of Baluchistan and Sindh continue to function under the Police Act, 1861 (which was introduced by colonial masters to subjugate the local population)? Why is it that in the province of Punjab, the Police Order, 2002, has still not been implemented, in letter and spirit, over the past fifteen years? Why is it that citizen oversight mechanism, envisioned in the Police Order, 2002 (e.g. Public Safety Commissions and Police Complaint Authority) have still not been constituted, despite express judicial directions from the honourable Lahore High Court? Why is it that successive political governments – from the Musharraf regime to PPP to PML(N) and now, PTI – have consistently refused to implement legal measures that would make police an independent institution that is responsible to the people (as opposed to the political masters)?

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 as well as 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. 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, at present, 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.

Irrespective of who planned the Sahiwal 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 Punjab Police (and its CTD) ‘shot first and asked questions later’. Even if CTD’s story about the suspects being terrorists is accepted, are there no standard operating procedures for apprehending a terrorism suspects who is driving down the highway in a 1000cc car? Is it all just left to the whims and judgment of the local jawan to decide when the shooting might start? Who authorizes the use of live fire ammunition, and under what circumstances is such use authorized? Why were lesser intrusive measures not employed first? Also, what happened to the idea of proportional use of force? Is it not an established doctrine of law enforcement – all across the world – that the State cannot use more than the minimum force required to neutralize the threat? Was the force/fire-power used in Sahiwal proportional to the immediate threat at hand?

The truth is that the police has no real excuse to hide behind. Not even the excuse of ‘bad intelligence’. It is no defence to say that at least one person in the car was a ‘known terrorist’. What if such a terrorist was hiding inside an apartment building, housing thousands of people? Will the police bring the entire building down, killing all the other residents, just to get to their target?

The Sahiwal incident (and earlier events of police brutality) lay bare the ugly truth about our police force, and its culture. A culture that frequently seems unconcerned with the consequences of their actions. This crisis of police culture cannot be fixed through external interventions or legislative measures. The responsibility of fixing its internal culture, rests with the police force itself – and in particular with senior officers of the police department.

All across the world, the strength and legitimacy of civilian police forces stem from their moral authority. People do not follow police directives out of fear of their lives – instead, they listen to a traffic warden, or a constable, or a senior official, out of respect for the law, and respect for the symbol of the State that their uniform represents. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, this moral authority of the police department has entirely eroded. For now, the people of Pakistan are at war: with the militant, and with a police force that frequently acts in the same manner that militants do. This paradigm is as unsustainable as it is reprehensive. And it is time for conscientious members within the police force to reclaim the promise of their profession, and reassert themselves as compassionate guardians of our collective security.


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