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Police Reforms Are Necessary in Punjab Province. Why Won’t PTI Do It?

Why has it become impossible to reform Punjab’s police under the PTI government?

Umair Jamal
Police Reforms Are Necessary in Punjab Province. Why Won’t PTI Do It?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in Punjab has been on a mission to find a perfect candidate to lead the province’s police. So far, the PTI government has changed five inspectors general (IGs) in a span of two years following promises that the party is committed to reforming and depoliticizing the institution.

However, recurrent changes at the top of Punjab police are hardly meant to depoliticize the institution, giving it necessary independence to function impartially. If anything, the PTI is trying to do the opposite.

In an attempt to find a team of officers that can lead the party’s campaign to uproot key opposition loyalists within and outside the Punjab police, the PTI government may have started an intra-departmental tussle.

The PTI’s federal and provincial governments have also gone out of the way to protect the Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) of Lahore district. The officer recently landed himself in fierce controversy after making derogatory remarks against a rape victim and undermining the authority of his seniors. The PTI’s provincial government didn’t consult the former IG, Shoaib Dastgir, while appointing Lahore’s current police chief. Dastgir refused to lead the institution given that the CCPO Lahore’s appointment was made without his knowledge.

Efforts on the part of the PTI’s government indicate that the party is pushing for a change whereby the Punjab police’s top hierarchy develops stakes in the party’s political future. In Punjab, the PTI has learned that if it wants to control the province and frustrate its political opponents and their workers, it needs to uproot the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) support base in key posts and districts that matter electorally. Zoha Waseem, an expert in policing and counterterrorism, in Pakistan says that the fact that PTI’s government has refused to remove the CCPO Lahore police says a lot about what the party wants to achieve with the appointment. “The post of Lahore’s police chief is crucial for determining which officers are posted in what departments and police stations in Lahore. This then determines how people, including party workers of different parties, are controlled and monitored by the party in power,” Waseem told The Diplomat.

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Apparently, the PTI is following the same policy that the previous PML-N government practiced for more than a decade when it comes to managing the Punjab police. During a rule that lasted more than a decade, the PML-N virtually transformed the Punjab police into a political arm of the party. During the PML-N’s rule, the whole institution was personalized. For instance, any officer favored by the party leadership was offered key posts and assignments regardless of their rank or merit. For the PML-N leadership, the loyalty of officers mattered more than their performance in the field. Several police officers from Punjab have been rewarded by the PML-N after retirement in the form of key post in the Parliament and other places.

“There are officers in Punjab Police that are loyal to the PML-N, which isn’t surprising given how entrenched the party’s roots are in the province. Essentially, the PTI is trying to break these linkages by posting PML-N loyalists away from important places or disempowering them,” Waseem further said.

Arguably, the PML-N has entrenched its support base within the institution so deeply that the PTI believes that unless it changes this dynamic, its chances of securing its political future in the province may face setbacks. Thus, the “PTI’s so-called restructuring of Punjab police is dedicated to dividing the institution from within,” argues Waseem. “I’m not necessarily convinced that this is not something the PTI will not want. Again, if there are PML-N loyalists in Punjab Police, then the PTI needs to make efforts to create rifts within the institution of the police,” Waseem noted further.

A former inspector general of the Punjab police who spoke with The Diplomat believes that ongoing interference from the government is undermining the internal autonomy of top posts within the institution. “The sense of internal autonomy in the top hierarchy has deteriorated further in Punjab police,” Khawaja Khalid Farooq told The Diplomat. On widespread claims related to the poor performance of the IG’s position, Farooq questioned “how can the government or anyone else expect Punjab police chief to work efficiently and focus on pressing issues dealing with police reforms when he is not sure about his own fate.” Farooq warned that “if interventions continued to take place on the basis of likes and dislikes of officers, then Punjab’s police performance may change for the worse.”

The fact that on average the PTI has changed each IG after four months shows the party’s intent to have its way with the institution chief regardless of the likely implications. “In Punjab, controversies regarding the nature of transfers and intra-departmental feuds impact police-citizen interactions, especially for the police station level officers that are essentially responsible for the law and order situation on the ground,” Farooq observed.

The PTI’s government may not have developed the same level of links within the Punjab police as the PML-N, but this is definitely something the party is trying to achieve with the ongoing political interventions in the institution. However, unlike the PML-N, the PTI’s problem is that the party’s leadership in Punjab is not good at developing relationships with the bureaucracy and keeping issues away from the media’s glare. The PML-N’s government in the province, on the other hand, did well on this point: The party had a deep understanding of the bureaucracy’s workings and kept things under control — which is hardly the case with the PTI’s government. “The frequent transfers in Punjab’s administration are an indication that the province’s bureaucracy is not being supervised and governed effectively,” said Farooq.

It is entirely possible that Prime Minister Imran Khan is not being truthfully informed about the ongoing crisis of governance in Punjab. The fact that Khan has continued to stick with a highly incompetent chief minister in the province shows a lot about the kind of information he is receiving from his advisors. To a great extent, the looming governance crisis in Punjab, which is originating due to the PTI’s inability to work with the province’s bureaucracy, may end up hurting the party’s political future in the province.

Further, if the PTI is trying to displace the PML-N’s lobbies in Punjab police by introducing its own factions in the institution, then the issue may blossom into a full-blown crisis in the coming months. This is hardly an effort to reform the institution. The PTI’s government is well aware of the nature of reforms needed to uplift the institution’s performance. To an extent, the party achieved this successfully in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, where the IG’s post was empowered greatly and internal autonomy was injected to inoculate against political interference.

Waseem says that the “PTI has ignored some very detailed and well-researched proposals for Punjab police’s reforms because it doesn’t suit the party’s political agenda in the province.” For instance, former KP IG, Nasir Khan Durrani, who delivered on the PTI’s police reform agenda in KP province, was given the same mission in Punjab two years ago. However, once the party figured out that to manage Punjab, the police there needed to be controlled, he was let go.

“I am not optimistic about reforms in Punjab police – at least not reforms that can improve policing and police work in ways that benefit the common man and Pakistan’s various communities at large,” Waseem said.