It was after dark on Eid Day. The Greater Iqbal Park was jam-packed with people who had come here to spend some good time with their families and friends. They had remained indoors during the day because it was too hot outside. Once the sun set, the mercury dropped and prompted these people to go out and make enjoy themselves.
As time passed, more and more people entered the park but hardly anyone was willing to leave. Within no time, the park was full to the capacity, with people of all ages, and it became next to impossible for one to find way to get out of that place. There were children and women in large numbers as well. It was feared that any untoward incident such as a brawl or any false alarm about security could create panic and result in a deadly stampede.
Taking notice of the situation, the officials of police as well as district administration reached the spot and diverted the traffic. The visitors approaching the entrance (to the park) were denied entry and requested to leave. But what was happening inside the park was totally different from what people had experienced in the past: Young policemen, wrapped from head to toe in what looked like some special gear, what with helmets and all, were asking the people to leave in a systematic way without creating panic. The policemen formed a human wall, providing a safe passage to those exiting the premises. It was also ensured that nobody would jump the queue or push the others.
None of the policemen came across as arrogant or rough. For a moment, it seemed this was a police force from some other country.
Within a short time, the park had been vacated and closed till the next day.
These armed men were members of the Anti Riot Police Unit (ARPU) of Punjab Police, trained especially with the express purpose to manage unruly crowds, mobs, and protesters without causing them any physical harm. In fact, they are meant to provide security to the people.
It is also expected that the force shall be able to avert incidents such as the killing of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek’s (PAT) workers in Model Town in June 2014, and the 2015 Youhanabad lynching that resulted in huge losses of public property, through proper deployment of the unit and tactful handling of the situation at hand. The ARPU personnel are supposed to be on high alert all the time and have no additional duty to perform.
The ARPU is based on a Turkish model and set up with the support of Turkish Police. Select police officers of the Punjab Police trained in Istanbul and, on returning, served as trainers of the unit staff.
Presently, the sanctioned strength of the unit is 1,400 out of which 1,200 are men and the rest women. The kit, protective gear and other paraphernalia provided to them is specially developed to manage charged crowds and is being used extensively in many developed countries.
The question here is whether this unit will serve the stated purpose or just add to the long list of specialised forces of Punjab Police that are formed from time to time, many of which haven’t yielded the desired results. Is it just a product of love between Lahore and Istanbul or the need of the time?
Muhammad Naveed, Superintendant of Police (SP), Anti Riot Police, says the unit has been launched as a pilot project in Lahore and is “more than needed.”
He says around 3,000 protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, roadblocks etc took place in Lahore between January 2016 to January 2017 which shows how frequent these are and how pressing is the need to handle these tactfully.
Naveed adds it is the first dedicated anti-riot unit of its kind in the country and set up with Turkish police force because it has one of world’s best anti-riot police forces. It was mainly their anti-riot police that foiled the attempted coup in Turkey, he adds. A major role of the unit, he says, will be to disperse crowds and make them stay within the allowed limits.
A history of protests
The history of protests in the country is as long as that of the country itself, and the individuals and groups opting for these have had their long list of reservations, especially against police.
Salman Abid, a political analyst, activist and development sector specialist, believes holding demonstrations and protests to get heard is a fundamental right of the citizens and they cannot be deprived of it. But the problem, he says, is that over the years peaceful protests have failed to yield results and for this reason different groups intentionally turn violent, disobey municipal laws, block roads and destroy state and public property.
Their objective, Abid says, is to be noticed and find space in the mass media. “It is a fact that most of the issues were resolved when such means were adopted. This prompted interest groups to go all out and agitate.”
He gives the example of the Young Doctors’ Association (YDA) whose members have repeatedly blocked the city roads at multiple locations and brought the traffic to a virtual standstill.
Abid further says that many a time, it is just because of the police behaviour that the peaceful protests turned violent and led to the loss of life and property. “The people taking to the roads are already frustrated and any use of force can invoke a violent response.”
He supports the idea of raising a specialised police force with the mandate to manage crowds and mobs and not to crush them as has happened in the past. “It’s time we realised that in the presence of cell phones with high-resolution cameras, it is no more possible for the police to violate human rights and then cover up such acts.
“Let’s hope the ARPU succeeds in improving the image of police.”
The sole task at hand
As per the information shared by the Punjab Police, the ARPU shall have no other task than protest/crowd management to perform and its staff will not have to work for long hours. They will have a day’s rest after being on duty for two days and training for one day. Besides, they will have specially constructed accommodation and air-conditioned vehicles to transport them. The perceived thought behind this strategy is to keep them mentally calm so that they do not vent out their frustration on protesters.
SP Naveed tells TNS that the ARPU shall also relieve pressure from the staff of different police stations in the city. “The situation, until recently, was such that the strength of different police stations would be called in emergencies or for crowd management that would affect their working in their respective areas,” he says.
“As the police station staff performs multiple functions such as patrolling, crime busting, arresting criminals, investigations and taking accused to the courts, its ability to manage mobs cannot be compared to force raised especially for this purpose.”