A stout young man, apparently in his early 20s, sporting a beard, entered Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park on the evening of Sunday (March 27) through a broken part of its wall. The eyewitnesses say he was a suicide bomber as he was carrying a bag and behaved in a suspicious manner.
Within a few minutes, a huge explosion occurred and the play area for children turned into a death zone. The place was littered with human limbs and dead bodies. The survivors were mostly those who were badly injured and crying for help.
Much later, it was confirmed that at least 72 people had been killed and more than 240 injured in this highly condemnable act of terrorism. According to a rough estimate, 8500 people — mostly young children and women — were present in the park when the bomb went up.
It was Easter, so a lot of Christians were also there, picnicking.
The incident has left many questions in its wake: Why the broken boundary wall of the park had not been repaired? Was there any terror alert given to the park administration? If yes, why the security lapses were not covered? Is deploying heavy security at public parks the only solution? Whether security is the responsibility of Parks & Horticulture Authority (PHA), Lahore or the Punjab Police? What kind of measures must be taken to ensure the safety of the people in the public parks?
Mian Shakeel Ahmed, Director General, PHA, Lahore refuses to buy the fact that the suicide bomber entered through the broken wall. In fact, “he entered through one of the gates. It is not possible for the security guards to conduct a detailed body search of each and every individual. The park had more than 8,000 visitors that fateful day.”
Ahmed insists that increasing security checks is counter-productive as these are likely to intimidate the common visitor who is there to get some relief and peace of mind. “Even so, the PHA has decided to enhance security arrangements in major public parks of Lahore.”
According to the DG PHA, 10 out of the 850 public parks maintained by the Authority shall be provided with walk-through gates, metal detectors, and security guards. The guards shall be hired from private security agencies.
As for fencing or raising the boundary walls around the parks, Mian Shakeel Ahmed says, “It’s not a good idea. The parks should attract the passersby with their intimate, fear-free environment; the boundary walls can kill the purpose. These have the semblance of a fortress.”
Ahmed also speaks of PHA’s small budgets. “Given our limited resources, we can only mend the boundary wall of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park for now. While razer wires shall be fixed on the fence of the Racecourse Park, National Bank Park, Ladies’ Park (Gujjarpura), and Jallo Park etc.”
When quizzed about the rumour that the metal detectors provided to the security guards were non-functional, DG PHA says: “That’s a farce. All metal detectors are functional, and the security guards use them effectively. The visitors have mobile phone and keys etc in their pockets. So, it is not possible for the guards to frisk the visitors up and down.”
Ahmed also shares that as many as 85 security guards have been deployed in Racecourse Park itself; they work in different shifts. The Lawrence Garden has also been armed with 40 guards.
Nabeela Ghazanfar, the spokesperson for the office of Inspector General of Police (IGP) Punjab, says “The Punjab police shall ensure security at every public place. We are already in a state of war [against terrorism]. The department is working out the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for ensuring security of public parks. These will soon be shared with the media.”
Abdullah Malik, a Lahore-based social activist who heads the Civil Society Network Pakistan, laments the fact that the “vision-less leadership of Pakistan has failed to provide security to its people.
“The terrorists keep changing their targets,” he adds. “They have attacked the mosques, churches, bazaars and educational institutions. The government has had to increase security at these places. Now they have to do the needful at the public parks. Tomorrow this might be some other soft target. Will the government go on increasing security at all public spaces?”
Malik stresses on the need for building a counter narrative against terrorism and religious extremism. “The political leaders should change their policy [towards religious groups]. The PML-N has always supported such elements for the sake of vote. It is time we decided whether the rulers and government mean to save their votebank or the nation.
“The incident of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park was not only the failure of PHA and Punjab Police but also that of the political leadership.”
So, what is the quick fix? Is it to deploy the police haphazardly every time a blast occurs somewhere? Haidar Ashraf, Deputy Inspector General, Police, Lahore, says it is not possible to deploy police at every public park. “Yet, we intend to revisit the security issues in Lahore. We shall point out if the infrastructure is lacking in the parks. If there are gadgetry problems, we shall talk to the DG PHA.”
Ashraf also says the police is already occupied for the protection of schools, mosques and other places. Regular deployment of police at all of the 850 public parks is a difficult proposition.
“No doubt there were six policemen on the spot when the bomb exploded inside the [Gulshan-e-Iqbal] Park, they could not possibly avert the blast. It’s hard to stop the suicide bomber.”
DIG Police does not agree with the notion that it is not PHA’s responsibility to arrange security. “They will have to make effective arrangements for their own security, though police will be there to help.”
Meanwhile, the parks remain open and continue to attract people. Right now, the numbers might be smaller, though. The people say they don’t have many avenues for entertainment.
“Everything is getting out of the reach of the common man,” says a university student who is here for a jog. “Now they want to deprive us of the fresh air and the opportunity to interact with nature?”