For days, police in Pakistan have braved rioting mobs of a far-right religious group, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). While Pakistan has decided to ban the TLP after the latest wave of deadly protests, it is unlikely that the ill-fated police will see any respite.
The TLP’s protests brought the country to standstill after its leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi, was arrested in Lahore on April 12. Last week, Rizvi told his followers to start preparations for a long march on April 20 as his party’s demand for the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan had not been fulfilled by the government. The TLP, which for years has rallied crowds over the issue of blasphemy, warned the government of deadly protests in November last year if the French ambassador was not expelled over controversial remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron.
In the province of Punjab alone, more than 300 police personal were seriously injured while at least two were killed in clashes with the TLP’s workers. The police, armed with riot gear, ran for their lives as the TLP’s protesters used guns to pursue them in streets.
“The TLP armed men opened straight fire on the police and our four constables were injured,” a senior official of the Punjab police told Dawn. This is perhaps the first time that TLP has openly used arms against the law enforcement agencies.
The police’s top leadership didn’t condemn the TLP’s violence or made amends to equip its officers braving violence in streets. Roughly 40 police officials were abducted by TLP protesters and search operations had to be carried out for their release. In one case, the police carried out an operation to save the Model Town superintendent of police and five others from TLP protesters in the middle of Lahore.
The lack of support from the police’s senior ranks and the government alike is “a stark reminder that lower-ranked police officers are utterly disposable and dispensable” said Zoha Waseem, an expert on policing in Pakistan, on Twitter.
Explaining the reason behind the lack of support for police, Waseem further noted on the social media platform that “perhaps states like Pakistan prefer to have their police institutionally weak to enable the involvement of the military in internal matters, allow the politicization of the police to meet political and economic interests, and avoid institutional independence to ensure the silence of police command and leadership.”
The growing anger in the police’s ranks is visible, indicating a further breakdown of the institution. Recording her frustration over the lack of support from the senior ranks and the state, one assistant superintendent of police said in a Twitter post “I am hoping our seniors in Punjab police are unforgiving about this. If we are turning a blind eye to this, then we lose every right and authority to command. Hoping against hope that the government doesn’t turn a blind eye to this.”
On Tuesday, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) threw its support behind the TLP’s violent protests and promised to revenge the death of TLP workers killed in clashes with police. “Don’t trust Pak state institutions and their promises. Armed struggle against them is the only solution,” the group said in a statement. This further raises fears that police in the coming weeks may face attacks from militant groups like the TTP or TLP’s armed sections. In the past, the TLP and other sectarian groups have openly targeted police in Pakistan for carrying out counterterrorism or counterinsurgency operations on behalf of other law enforcement agencies, particularly the military. In 2015, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a banned militant organization, assassinated Punjab province’s Home Minister Shuja Khanzada after police carried out major operations against the group in the province. The LeJ, which also has ties with the TTP, promotes an “agenda of establishing a Sunni Muslim kingdom in Pakistan.”
The TLP’s rising threat to a poorly skilled and ill-supported frontline force like the Pakistani police should raise alarm bells in policymaking circles in Pakistan. It should not be a surprise if the TLP’s leadership also joined hands with the TTP at some point after a blanket ban on the group or reemerged under a different name. What makes the TLP a bigger threat is that it has millions of followers across mainland Pakistan who support the group’s core agenda surrounding the subject of blasphemy.
It is unfortunate that the state institutions continue to use ill-equipped and poorly trained police to implement their badly planned counterterrorism policies without revamping the institution’s capacity. This has been happening despite the fact that Pakistan has fought militancy for decades without investing in an institution that is the key fighting force in this regard.
Most militaries across the world are not “trained or equipped to deal with internal law-and-order crises” and mostly “act as a backup force that is ready to move in if needed in support of police action,” writes Hassan Abbas in his recently published report “Reforming Pakistan’s police and law enforcement infrastructure: Is it too flawed to fix?”
Thus, “whether it is to combat insurgency or terrorism, a good police force is any state’s best bet.”
Abbas further notes that “[t]here is a broad consensus in Pakistan that after decades of abuse and neglect, its police force is failing to combat crime effectively, uphold the law, provide basic security to citizens, and fight growing militancy.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons behind the police’s terrible reputation and widespread reputation as a failed institution, which in turn furthers violent attitudes toward its officials in situations like the ongoing protests.
On the other hand, the military, rangers, and other law enforcement agencies’ carefully crafted image of able and upright institutions may, at times, help to preempt such situations. For instance, over the last two days, there have been many videos showing the military’s officers being greeted and respectfully spoken to by TLP protesters in streets while policemen were thrashed in a disheartening manner.
“Lack of police expertise in countering the growing extremist menace is undermining the stability of the Pakistani state and claiming thousands of lives in terrorist attacks,” noted Abbas, adding, “This shortcoming is catastrophic, as counterterrorism will be part of the portfolio of the Pakistani police for years to come.”