The arrest of an alleged serial child rapist in central Pakistan last week has been widely celebrated by the ruling elite in the country as a major breakthrough against criminality.
And yet, in addition to the obvious matter of this event exposing some uncomfortable truths about worsening social norms across the south Asian country, the case has vividly highlighted the powerful reality of a ruling structure that remains too detached from the country’s mainstream.
The hunt for the alleged rapist, known as Imran, was triggered following a widespread outcry over the discovery of the mutilated body of seven-year-old Zainab Ameen from a trash dump in Kasur, a densely populated city in central Pakistan. Unlike the past when many similar cases were quickly hushed up, the public outcry over this particular heinous crime was probably a reflection of the changing times in and around Pakistan. The matter quickly became known to just about every household all over the country.
It was therefore hardly surprising that “justice for Zainab” — the social media campaign — became a lightening rod for a range of activists, right from the media to members of Pakistan’s increasingly vocal civil society and even politicians. All were united in their demand of thorough investigation. In spite of Imran’s arrest, the case has also highlighted a downside to Pakistan’s present-day evolution.
Zainab became the eighth victim of Imran adding to a string of children who were all abducted from Kasur in the past three years, subsequently raped, killed and mutilated.
The sense of urgency to promptly investigate the case came from key officials, notably Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab, as it became clear that public protests in Kasur against Zainab’s killing were ready to spread.
Looking back at the events driven by the reaction, its now clear that the authorities in Punjab were forced to act quickly and decisively as a huge political cost stared right at face of the establishment. Going forward, there are two equally important lessons to be drawn from what will be remembered as a memorable week, though for a very tragic reason.
As Pakistan has confronted unending security challenges from militants along the border with Afghanistan, the country’s resolve to also tackle many of its internal security challenges appears to remain weak. Anecdotal evidence from large cities clearly suggests that the reforms that ought to have been made in the policing network are far from having even begun in the first place. Scores of policemen deployed to serve the elite, notably ruling politicians and high officials, stand out as a rather uneasy sight. And yet, there is very little evidence of a qualitative or quantitative rise in deployments across individual neighbourhoods to protect the common people.
Meanwhile, archaic methods still govern the ways in which police works across Pakistan, suggesting that this fundamental pillar of governance remains out of date and even out of shape. For ordinary Pakistanis, an oft witnessed daily sight is that of traffic policemen standing on roadsides and stopping vehicles driving by. Typically, top of the line limousines such as Mercedes, BMWs and SUVs are almost never in the line-up of those subjected to routine checks. Its abundantly clear that in such routine checks, the police is determined to focus just on those who have little or no financial or political clout.
Meanwhile, a recent investigation into the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud in Karachi, earlier this month, in an encounter with the police, simply serves as an eye-opener on the issue of worsening public safety. Contrary to claims by Karachi Police officials that Mehsud was connected to Taliban militants, his friends and family members have described him as an aspiring young model who loved to dress up. Rao Anwar, a prominent Karachi police officer with alleged links to powerful politicians, is suspected to have ordered the killing. The case has highlighted the stark reality of the impunity surrounding Pakistan’s police force.
Reversing criminality across Pakistan urgently requires decisive action on a number of fronts with the end objective of reforming the way individual neighbourhoods are policed. But key reforms must be preceded by a change in the mindsets of the elite, long obsessed with treating policemen as no more than their personal employees for security duties. Once that change comes about, the way forward will have to be driven by two equally vital changes. On the one hand, its vital that police reforms are put in place to lift the capacity of policing to meet the challenges of the 21st century. This should include action in key areas such as providing Pakistan’s police force with modern-day training and equipping it with advanced weapons to tackle contemporary issues.
On the other hand, independence of the police force will not only have to be ensured, but zealously guarded, too. In a nutshell, Pakistan’s internal security needs can just not be met unless formidable firewalls are created around the police force, keeping it completely insulated from outside influence.
Meanwhile, given the current mood of the public over Zainab’s death, the hanging of the accused, if proven guilty, may help quell some of the anger. However, that alone will not be enough as ordinary Pakistanis remain exposed to criminality across the country. A hanging, even public, may produce powerful images for the cameras, but that cannot be a substitute for reforms that are long overdue.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.