Pakistan’s police vigilantism: Its Roots & Effects

A common misconception about the Pakistani state is that it is a military-run organization, with the military making all internal and foreign decisions that impact Pakistan’s citizens. The Pakistani Police, an organization from the colonial period, operates covertly in vigilantism on behalf of the country’s political elite or on behalf of the state for many years.

Police vigilantism has always been a key tool of Pakistan’s authoritarian and brutal politics, according to a convincing argument prof. Zoha Waseem recently made online. She continues by saying that the Pakistani security state’s reliance on extrajudicial police brutality has helped advance certain political and economic goals. The results reached by Zoha Waseem, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Warwick in the UK, are supported by a variety of sources, including media accounts, human rights records, and police investigations.

Statistics from a number of Pakistani cities show that there is police-led violence. More than 3,400 individuals were murdered in police confrontations between 2011 and 2022, according to data gathered by Zoha Waseem in Karachi.

Similarly, according to official statistics from the Punjab province, between 2018 and 2022, police murdered more than 600 individuals during encounters. As a result, throughout the reported period, the police have murdered more than 100 persons annually on average. Using 154 open-source articles from the Dawn, has produced statistics for 2021 on the use of fatal force by law enforcement. According to this study, at least 217 persons died at the hands of the police, with 194 of them murdered in clashes throughout Pakistan. According to these figures, there were on average 27.16 reports of police violence each month in 2021. Last year, one event was recorded per day, or an average of 0.9 per day. With 22 encounters, 20 extrajudicial executions, custodial fatalities, and accidental deaths documented, December 2021 stood out as the bloodiest month. A total of 34 persons passed away in December, of which 30 were murdered by firearms in conflicts, three died while being held in jail, and one died unintentionally while participating in a conflict. The month of March 2021 was followed by 20 incidents of interactions and 20 cases of fatalities at the hands of law enforcement, of which 23 occurred during shootouts and two occurred while the victims were being held by the police. With 18 suspects dead in a firefight with police, five taken into custody, and two innocent people dying in encounters recorded in 18 distinct events, June saw the third-highest number of reported encounters and extrajudicial murders.

Pakistan’s police force has its roots in British colonial-era organizations. Insecure Guardians author Zoha Waseem contends that the colonial logic of police still governs today’s law enforcement. This makes it possible for the State to continue to rely on extrajudicial police brutality. The officer class and the lower rank and profile are clearly separated by the police’s colonial framework. The institutional pressure to perform increases since the lower levels’ primary responsibility is to obey commands. As a result, using excessive force is inevitable, regardless of whether it is mandated by higher-ups in the police department. When police activities are portrayed as addressing risks to national security, leading to the operation of the police as “violence workers,” this tactic is made simpler to implement. On a more general level, it is simpler for the State to defend police vigilantism as “necessary” when it uses war analogies such the police being “on the frontlines” and waging the “war on terror.” A continuous lack of confidence in Pakistan’s general criminal justice system also sustains such militarism and the violence that results from it.

State favoritism of certain police officers is another aspect that fosters police vigilantism. According to Zoha Waseem, the 1990s case of Rao Anwar SSP is an instructive one. He was trained to be a “violence worker” at a time when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi looked to be the largest security danger to the State and when police personnel were expected and rewarded by both the civilian and military elite to “fight terror with terror.” However, Anwar (and Chaudhury Aslam afterwards) were not the only police personnel who were used as pawns to further political objectives, nor were Karachi or Sindh unusual in having experienced such unofficial policing methods.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) administration in Punjab utilized its control over the bureaucracy, notably the police, to influence election results in 2013, according to research by Hassan Javid, a professor of history at Lahore. The “extensive networks of patronage and clientelism” that the PML-N developed made this possible.

However, the PML-N’s control over the police did not just exist at this time. Similar events occurred in Punjab in the 1980s and 1990s when police encounters first became common. From 1997 to 1999, encounter murders rapidly escalated as they were militarized to target PML-N opponents.

This was made possible in part by a connection between Punjab’s PML-N, crime, and police. During this time, two infamous police officers—Naveed Saeed and Abid Boxer—were known as “encounter specialists” and both were allies of the Punjab government. The Gogi Butt gang, in particular, was known to have strong ties to Saeed, who also killed mobster Hanifa Baba, who “coincidentally happened to be opposed to both the PML-N government and its criminal allies.”

The relationship between political parties, criminal activity, and the police, according to Javid, “must be understood in the context of how governments in Pakistan have historically used their control over the police to exercise a check on their political opponents.” What motivates and propels the police to take informalized action and act “off the books,” i.e., engage in police vigilantism, is the need to maintain this “check” on forms of political opposition (i.e., employees of opposing political parties, members of insurgent organizations, dissidents, even journalists).

According to Zoha Waseem, the Pakistani state is unlikely to abandon police vigilantism as a tactic since it aligns with their view of governance. In many countries across the globe, the police, first and foremost, carry out the “work” of the government. Political power brokers invent security risks and prosecute things and people as they see appropriate. Given this fact, there is still a risk that internal state policy will be securitized. Because of the continued application of a colonial police rationale, this policy also becomes entrenched.

For any administration to even begin to seriously consider police reform in Pakistan, where police accountability and openness are the watchwords, the country’s present predicaments are just too severe. Additionally, this indicates that police vigilantism will often go unstudied. Pakistan still has a ways to go.

Independent journalist Shinwari is headquartered in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Leave a Reply