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January 25, 2019

Off the rails


January 25, 2019

Pakistani society and its constituent institutions displayed their most macabre traits this past week. A couple, which had young children, was mowed down – along with one of their children – by the state’s security apparatus in broad daylight on a national highway.

Their fault: they happened to be travelling with a terror suspect. The executioners were the eagles of Punjab’s Counter Terrorism Department, the best of the best, trained as a key plank of the national counterterrorism effort which to its credit has many successful operations. However what went wrong this particular day has the entire nation seething in anger. The family’s three young children were spared but their parents and a 13-year-old sister were murdered before their eyes. Of the three, two were too young to know how their world had been upturned in those few moments, while the ten-year-old was too shell-shocked to say much to the wondering eyes of his younger siblings.

The three murdered family members were shot repeatedly by the elite force of the Punjab Police and killed in cold blood. It is possible that in the final assessment they will probably be termed as ‘collateral damage’, while the driver of their car – a friend of the slain father to whom the car belonged – was the real, intended target of some concern to the security of the state. Possibly, for good reason, though that remains to be established. But should that have entailed extinguishing the lives of the unsuspecting three innocents using a ‘friend’s’ car? An investigating body has almost reiterated what was already known, though it should now focus more on where and why the operation got botched.

Just as a comparison: the rules of war – yes, a proper inter-state destructive war – lay out some moral determinants in use of force. Such as force is not authorised against non-combatants; force will not be used against someone who lays down arms or is unarmed and ready to hand himself over as a prisoner; and whenever force is applied it must correspond to the standards of proportionality. This wasn’t war. This wasn’t even the enemy; and this surely wasn’t on enemy land. So there is a lot that went wrong that day. Most poignantly, were those executing the operation even in the know that they were wrong? In that might lie the crux of what ails Pakistan.

If indeed an honest introspection is what emerges it should totally reverse the structure, the management, the policy, and operational methodology of our very pedestrian security system in our civilian law-enforcement paraphernalia. The system of policing in Pakistan needs a complete overhaul. If this isn’t what ultimately happens the blood of the three innocents will weigh heavy on the combined conscience of this society. Unless suitably addressed, this event has the making of bringing the entire edifice down. Such is nature’s response to disregard of its balance, social and human, at the hands of heartless disrespect of humanity. This is also the consequence of a deficient state and societal structure which need immediate correction through state and leadership intervention. If not now, then never. The only way then for society is a spiral south, following which we may as well be an animalistic collection than a society.

The ‘driver’ may have been a convincing suspect and a terror-affiliate. This particular but unfortunate incident was part of a continuing series of operations against an alleged nexus of Daesh activists; four had been eliminated in Faisalabad, this one in Sahiwal, two others on the same day in Gujranwala. The botched operation in Sahiwal stood out for its entirely callous and inexcusable execution. These are the consequences of a dirty war that Pakistan has been plagued in for the last two decades.

The decadence in society around an insensitive state and its elites has enabled an environment and space for such elements to nourish and find succour right under our eyes making each a suspect unless s/he was from the elites. This perpetuated degradation in our societal order and how we have tolerated the radicalisation and mushrooming of militant groups only means that the state is now fighting a rearguard action. Kinetic operations under a non-kinetic rubric leave a lot of space for errors when either the coordination isn’t perfect or the conception is shoddy.

Seeing the woman and the children, the execution could have been easily put off, or the suspect apprehended. Both options were shelved possibly under the pressure of an operation where the capacity of the suspect to violently contend was clearly overestimated. A combination of errors via incorrect judgment and incomplete assessment of the situation gave us tragic consequences. It had ineptness and poor professional conduct writ all over it – unforgiveable and inexcusable. Yet this is the mess that makes a dirty war even more odious. The procedures and the process need to be reviewed forthwith. Command and control appeared seriously absent, making the whole episode criminal.

When a society and its systems cannot satisfy the query carried in the eyes of the three young children whose parents were shot before their eyes, the system is deemed to have failed. There can be no answer good enough to satisfy the Sahiwal three, regardless of how dangerous and dastardly a man they and their parents were travelling with. It remains an abject tragedy with no recourse to relief. Nothing ever will fill the emptiness in their eyes. Do they ever teach child psychology in our Police academies?

This war has messed us big. Yet it needs to be fought without losing rationality and humanity. Even in conventional wars with a licence to kill there is morality in combat. In half-wars as these the details can be murkier, yet one never stops being human. There are glaring failures of leadership, command and control, governance, control over administrative and law-enforcement apparatus, and an overall dismissiveness in the approach of state towards the society. This needs serious course-correction and reform and, where needed, change of face to ensure requisite capacity to make such change. Merely kicking the can down is no remedy. As is foolhardiness. Punjab is too complex a province to be charged to a novice. It needs immediate redressal.

In brief: restructure, re-train, de-politicise the police and ancillary departments; separate the political from the administrative – a reform the PTI pedalled; dump the reservations of MNAs and MPAs on keeping control of the police and the administrative bureaucracy – they are only regressive in their thinking and selfish in their motives; act on what is right, rational, corrective and reformative; shun the expedient, even if it means giving up on political advantage. And, with these measures, you will never be sorry.

The second instance of poor societal reflection was how CJ Saqib Nisar was almost booed out of office. The legal fraternity may have their reservations about him, especially how he called out the extractive and exploitative nature of the process, but he took justice to those who could not financially afford it. He was the ‘people’s judge’ and will be remembered as such. He personified ‘justice with a conscience’ than one captive of the process.

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