The brutal killing of a seven-year-old child in Pakistan’s central city of Kasur sparked angry protests last week. The aftermath of Zainab Ameen’s murder raised questions on the failure of the government in the Punjab province to undertake bold reforms to create a modern police force.
During the protests, the use of live ammunition by policemen that led to the deaths of two demonstrators triggered compelling questions over Pakistan’s ability to tackle dissent in an orderly manner.
Welcome to yet another sorry tale under the rule of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which not only governs the country but also the populous Punjab province where Kasur is located. The province is led by Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister and young brother of PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, who had served as Pakistan’s prime minister until last July before he was dismissed by the Supreme Court, following a trial over his family’s overseas wealth.
The younger Sharif, who has emerged as the PML-N’s candidate to become prime minister if the elder Sharif fails to claim that slot after elections this summer, has frequently laid claim to being a reformist leader in the province for the past decade.
Video footage of Shahbaz shows him hopping off helicopters during visits to trouble spots ranging from sites of natural calamities to homes of crisis-stricken families. Yet, such clearly orchestrated events to build up his credentials have failed to mask a darker side of Pakistan’s reality.
Zainab is the latest in the growing list of children who were raped and killed in some parts of Pakistan, notably Punjab. And yet, there is no convincing answer on why this trend has continued unabated in recent years.
The neglect of growing crime stems from a failure to reform law enforcement structure and its practices. That the policemen, who were deployed to control protesters, chose to use live ammunition only suggests a lack of training.
Law enforcement at the lowest tier cannot work without revamping the entire legal system. Scores of stories have made the rounds for years in graphically providing evidence of how common people in Pakistan have suffered at the hands of the system.
To arrest this trend, the top tiers of the government and the political system must work in tandem to overcome the shortcomings in the security framework. The absence of a system to deal with dissent on the streets and other areas shows a long-term failure in frequently reviewing policies to improve security across individual neighbourhoods. This is essential in a country with a large and rapidly-growing population base.
Sections of the media have spoken out in the past week highlighting the deficiencies. With the passage of time, Zainab too is likely to become another statistic in the list of victims.
If things are to change in future, reforms are essential in two inter-related areas.
The parliament in Islamabad and the secretariats in the country’s four provinces must immediately take up long-awaited reforms to beef up security. For too long, Pakistanis have witnessed unpalatable realities such as policemen in large cities frequently stopping motorcycles and public transport vehicles in the name of routine checks. Accounts of innocent individuals have become targets of extortion are all too common.
Another aspect that requires attention is the lifestyle of Pakistan’s rich, famous and mighty. It needs to be radically changed. The country’s VIPs, particularly elected politicians, have turned police personnel into their personal minions rather than public servants. It is therefore hardly surprising to witness large number of policemen routinely tasked to guard political leaders, while neighbourhoods such as the one in Kasur are left neglected.
The sight of Nawaz and other members of his family receiving elaborate protocol and government-provided security cover, is common and it conveys the message that the state ruled by the PML-N cares only for the rich and famous, and not the ordinary Pakistanis.
The riots in Kasur may serve as a precursor to coming events in Pakistan. As the public gets tired of being at the receiving end of an uncaring government amid growing security challenges, resentment will increase. A public backlash could be in store for Pakistan, if the disconnect between rulers and the ruled is left unaddressed.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.