It was during the first week of this month that Prakash Kumar, 34, a resident of Hub, Balochistan, was arrested by the police on allegations of committing blasphemy on social media. In no time, a large crowd comprising local businessmen, clerics, local politicians, residents of the area reached the police station and demanded that the accused be handed to them. They were in a hurry to award punishment to the accused.
The local police tried to calm them and convince them to drop their undue demand but with every passing moment their desperation was rising. What followed was unwarranted; the mob opened fire and attacked the police station. Several policemen and local government officials were beaten and during the clash a 10-year-old lost his life. The crowd could be dispersed only when paramilitary troops arrived but by then the damage had been done.
This is just one of the many cases where police has been helpless against charged crowds out to harm anything coming in their way. On occasions people have even burnt down police stations and walked away with the accused. Many believe such occurrences have increased over the last few years and one major reason they point out is the presence of a vibrant media. If the police opts for hard tactics during the while handling the mob they are painted as oppressors regardless of the nuisance the crowd is creating.
Similarly, there have been incidents where people have lynched others for different reasons, especially on charges of blasphemy, and the police have failed to save them. One can also recall how alleged mobile snatchers were burnt alive by people in Karachi while a police mobile was enroute to the crime scene. In this context, it becomes imperative to find out what makes policemen at local level, the first responders, ineffective and unable to control mobs. Is it a capacity issue or a matter of ignorance about how to tackle mob psychology?
DIG Masood Saleem, Commandant, Frontier Reserve Police (FRP), KP, agrees that the handling of charged mobs is a very technical issue and police officers dealing with them must have specialised skills. He says these skills are important as the use of brute force and denial of the opportunity to the mob to register its grievances may aggravate the situation.
He tells The News on Sunday (TNS) that considering these issues, the KP Police has set up the “School of Public Disorder and Riot Management” in Mardan. The purpose of this initiative, he says, is to equip the police force with the knowledge and skills required to assess the gravity of a situation and devise ways to diffuse it without anyone being harmed. “The protestors making demands have to be dispersed in a way that they feel vindicated and this is where human psychology comes in,” he adds. This is why many a time police plays the role of a negotiator and brings state representatives face-to-face with protestors.
The school in Mardan teaches the trainees subjects such as mob psychology, handling of vulnerable groups, negotiation skills, stress management and so on. In terms of field training, they are taught modern arrest techniques that need minimal use of force, use of anti-riot equipment, mob dispersal methods and first aid and evacuation procedures.
Sarmad Saeed Khan, a former Additional Inspector General (Addl. IG) of police who has served in different provinces, believes trainings and modern equipment are not enough to control violent mobs. “What is needed is the building of people’s trust in police and the country’s criminal justice system. The people take law in their hands because they think the culprits will go unpunished.”
Secondly, he says, the mobs are encouraged by the fact that hardly anybody involved in acts of collective violence is punished. The perception, he says, is that the bigger the number of people involved the safer they are from the law. There has been a proposal to use coloured water guns to identify violent protestors but he thinks it is useless in a situation where video and still images cannot help convict such people.
Khan adds that every situation is different and police cannot be present everywhere all the time. On some occasions people were lynched or burnt within minutes while on others it took days, but the police could not pre-empt and avert such gory incidents.
Khan says, “Police stations are not at all equipped to handle charged crowds.” Citing an example: “The Factory Area Police Station in Lahore has the biggest territorial jurisdiction in the city but has only 44 constables and three vehicles at its disposal. The population living in the jurisdiction of this police station is close to half a million. The worst is that the police station is set up in a private building under a makeshift arrangement and one of the vehicles is always on a VIP duty. How can they reach a place in time where people are out for mischief,” he questions.
DIG Saleem disagrees with Khan and says specialised training and equipment have brought a positive change. He asserts that over the years police has averted countless violent clashes but only its rare failures find space in the media. There is a long list of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) devised for this purpose and District Police Officers (DPOs) are ensuring that these are followed in their respective districts, he adds.
A police official who has served in Sindh shares on the condition of anonymity that sometimes protestors are allowed to damage public and private property. The purpose, he says, is to provide them an opportunity to vent out their anger. This can be in a case where the protesting group has lost dear ones in an act of terror, he adds.
Interestingly, Punjab has once again got help from Turkey. Babar Ali, DSP Research & Reform, Punjab tells TNS that Istanbul police has trained their staffers who will further train staff of Punjab Constabulary (PC) and those freshly inducted in anti-riot police. There will be Anti Riot Police Units (ARPUs) in all big cities of the province to tackle violent protestors and their staff will have no other duty to perform.
Ali says the equipment provided to this force includes vehicles equipped with surveillance cameras, improvised shields, unbreakable helmets, batons, paintball rifles, water cannons, gas filters etc. Besides, there will be smart vehicles that will be able to enter narrow alleys to catch miscreants. He shares that stun guns will not be used as these have been banned globally. There will be specially designed tubes to throw tear gas only at targets instead of shells that pollute the entire crime scene.
Sarmad Saeed Khan doubts that all this equipment will help. He shares that during his tenure foreign experts came to test sound guns that help disperse crowds because of the deafening noise the guns create. However, there was no impact on the crowd as Pakistanis are exposed to deafening noise all the time.