A young officer seized the protestor by his arm and dragged the old man towards the van as if he were hauling a goat by grabbing one of its ears. The tall, dark and skinny man was in his 60s, his long grey beard covering most of his face, his loose and ill-fitted white shalwar conspiring to fall down and his taqiyah cap tilted to one side. While surrounded by at least seven officers, he nervously took a few steps towards the van holding his pajama with his hand in an attempt to prevent an embarrassing situation. All of a sudden, another police constable leapt forward, swung his long wooden rod and hit the old man’s back with full strength. Had that rod hit the protestor’s head, his skull would have cracked open like a watermelon and he would have died on the spot.
This is what I saw in a short video posted on my Facebook page regarding the police raid on the secretariat of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) last week in which 12 people have been killed so far. No more than 90 seconds long, the video is very disturbing, enabling one to witness the vulnerability of an ordinary man. I am sure Shahbaz Sharif would not know about these details but how could he not know the poor quality of training of the Punjab police to handle these circumstances? Unbelievable. While being aware of the incapacity of the police department, did he do anything to improve its standards in the last six years? Nothing to very little. Why? Any reform in the police is a dangerous proposition for any administrator who wants to control the department the same way the police handled the old man: with complete authority and unlimited power.
Interestingly, the old man was not alone in receiving this kind of brutal treatment. Right in the middle of the video, we also find another man — a short person wearing a traditional shalwar kameez suit whose face is hidden from the camera — being battered by the police. He was hit seven times by three officers in less than five seconds. The attack on him was also unforeseen, without any caution or care of the vital organs of the body, be it the heart, brain, lungs or kidneys. I am sure Shahnaz Sharif did not know about him too. And the reason for such a blatant declaration of ignorance, I am certain, is the same: any improvement in the police force as an institution is going to hurt the political interests of the party more than it will benefit them. With better training, equipment and education, it will become too independent to be treated as an extension of the party’s administrative wing.
Years ago, when the Sharif brothers were still in exile, they had revolutionary ideas about how to improve the governance structure of the country. Whether you listened to them in public or talked to them in private, both of them, but specially Shahbaz, sounded like sincere politicians, who not only had the management skills to run a profitable organisation but also had the experience to bring about a silent revolution. That was why the people rewarded them with their votes in Punjab. Although their unconditional support to the then deposed Chief Justice (CJ) of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, contributed, their commitment to uphold the rule of law, their struggle against dictatorship and their principles against violence played a major role in their victory. The sympathy for their party had grown so strong in the last six months before the elections that Shahbaz Sharif was able to become the chief minister of Punjab even after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. A minute after the oath taking ceremony though, the vision of a new Pakistan evaporated in the air as if it had never existed and the old Shahbaz Sharif woke up from his deep sleep.
From 2008 to 2013, he ran the whole province — of 100 million people — all alone like a personal or, at best, family enterprise. Does anyone remember the name of any of his cabinet members except Rana Sanaullah in the last five years? Probably not. The reason is simple: there is no concept of combined responsibility in the mindset of a party whose leadership cannot relinquish power to anyone beyond family members. Punjab is a one-man show, always has been and will stay that way as long as Shahbaz Sharif stays in power. Beyond the role of cabinet, the local body elections (LBE), which should have been the first priority of any revolutionary who wanted to improve the governance of the province, as they are vital for a functional and successful democracy, were never held for the same reason. The police reforms, which were so badly needed for decades and should have followed the LBE could not be implemented either because of the perceived fear of loss of control.
Furthermore, contrary to the general misconception of being an effective administrator, everyone knows, in the absence of major improvement in the police structure, the governance of the Punjab government was unsatisfactory during 2008 to 2013. Unfortunately, its failure was masked by the colossal negligence of the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition in the Centre whose main cabinet members were also allegedly involved in financial scandals. That had kept the focus of media attention on Islamabad. In Lahore, on the other hand, since there was no effective cabinet, there was no scandal and hence the reputation of being clean!
After the landslide victory of the PML-N in 2013, there was some hope that the Shahbaz Sharif administration would take steps towards LBE and restructuring the institutions but these hopes never materialised even after the Supreme Court (SC) ruling. After last week’s incident, we have to realise that without bringing fundamental reforms and the LBE, it is impossible to run a province as big as Punjab effectively. We can do patchwork by suspending an officer here and there, or asking for resignation from his only known cabinet member, but I am sure that will not prevent another event just like this one.
The writer is a US-based freelance columnist. He tweets at @KaamranHashmi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org