Policing Dilemma: Reform or control?

Retired IG Police Balochistan, and former Federal Secretary Narcotics gives us a historical perspective to understand the evolution of Pakistan’s police, from the Mughal era to date. He offers a critique of the proposed changes to the police by the government and shares recommendations on how to remove the ‘thana’ culture.


Patronage and kinship form the basic elements of the Pakistani political system — if water, chemically speaking is H2O then Pakistani politics are P2K.

Anatol Lieven

Police services in Pakistan are perceived to be corrupt, inefficient, politicized, insensitive, partisan, and oppressive instruments of the state. In fact, they symbolize a weak and fragile state where the law of the ruler takes precedence over the rule of law. Successive political and military governments are responsible for this malaise.

Historical Background

It is worthwhile to look at the historical perspective to understand the present predicament, and then suggest the way forward. Mughal rule in the Indian subcontinent was based mainly on the principles of benign dictatorship, where kings subjugated communities through war or threats of violence and ruled through edicts or farmaans.

While the rulers lived in forts and fortresses guarded by their military, the citizens living in towns were protected by the “Kotwal,” who was similar to a modern-day police commissioner or sheriff responsible for maintenance of law and order. An archaic form of community policing was the order of the day, with community leaders collectively enforcing punishments for crimes committed within their spheres of responsibility.

In cases of severe breaches of peace or heinous crimes, the Qazi (judge) would resort to a summary trial. People could also seek justice directly from the King through petitions or appearing outside his court. By and large, the justice system was egalitarian, but the King did not tolerate revolt or conspiracy. It was also a period of gallows and guillotine. In other words, the king’s party ruled the subcontinent.

The main focus of governance was the collection of revenue and the maintenance of order, which came at the expense of justice. This expediency resulted in the concentration of revenue, police, and judicial functions in one agent of the crown, known at various stages of colonial rule as a district officer, deputy commissioner, and district magistrate.

For many years, the British East India Company (established in 1602) pursued mercantile interests and trade in the vast but unexplored resources held by the Mughals in the Indian subcontinent. With the weakening of the Mughal rule in the 19th century, the British Empire, at its glory, saw an opportunity for India to be a jewel in its crown and thus the concept of the Raj as an agent of the colonial power took primacy.

In 1857, the last symbolic hold of the Mughal king was abolished, and the Empire directly started to rule India as its colony. In the time from the direct rule until the independence of both India and Pakistan, less than a century later, various significant developments shaped the course of future policing in the subcontinent.

While modern policing owes its origin to the London Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, where the separation of powers between the executive and independent judiciary was established; the aims of the Raj forced the British Empire to adopt a different style of administration on the Indian subcontinent. The main focus of governance was the collection of revenue and the maintenance of order, which came at the expense of justice.

This expediency resulted in the concentration of revenue, police, and judicial functions in one agent of the crown, known at various stages of colonial rule as a district officer, deputy commissioner, and district magistrate. The responsibilities of these representatives were to collect revenue from the subjects, dole out favors to loyal subjects, and use the coercive powers of the police to suppress the natives.

Read more: Police Torture: Reasons and Remedial Measures

The district magistrate and the district superintendent police were two key district functionaries, usually English officers, protecting the interests of the Raj. This administrative design was sustainable because the British established a loyal class of feudal landowners who provided men and material to the British administrators.

The revenue collecting officials and local police system were so oppressive and corrupt that the British rulers were forced to form a commission in 1855, commonly known as the Torture Commission, to generate reforms in the administration of justice in India. Through the recommendations of the commission and the ensuing debate in the British parliament, the rulers realized that the arbitrary nature of local administration needed to be curbed through a system of the rule of law and separation of powers.

Accordingly, in 1856, Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay were declared metropolitan towns where operationally autonomous police commissioners reported to an independent judiciary. However, this push for reforms suffered a severe and far-reaching setback in 1857, when the natives dared to rise against their colonial masters with the insurgency.

The Sepoy Mutiny was ruthlessly curbed, and the Indian subcontinent came under direct British colonial rule for the next 90 years. After Sepoy Mutiny, the Empire’s primary objective for the subcontinent was to suppress mutiny, and to that end, it introduced the Irish Constabulary model of policing.

The colonial power adopted this military model of policing as an expedient but temporary step; however, it soon developed into the preferred system of governance by the rulers both before and after independence in 1947. The police, since 1861, remained an instrument of the government to be used as a militaristic arm of the ruling elite.

The police were always perceived as a force ruling over the population rather than a service providing for the community. Military ranks, discipline, drills, and SOPs defined the policing ethos even after independence.

Evolution of police post-1947

Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was a firm believer in the rule of law, democracy, impartial and apolitical administration, civilian control over military matters, and the separation of powers in the administration of justice.

As such, one of the first decisions he took as leader of the new state was to approve the metropolitan system of policing in Karachi, modeled after the system implemented by the British in Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay in 1856 and in Hyderabad Deccan in 1939. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s 9/11 happened too soon, as Jinnah died on September 11, 1948. The bureaucracy, all-powerful in the initial period after independence, did not implement Jinnah’s plan to police Karachi in a professional and apolitical manner.

Subsequent political leadership continued to fail in instituting the founding father’s dream of Pakistan as a liberal, enlightened, democratic nation. The martial law of General Ayub Khan in 1958 set the stage for the law of the rulers rather than the rule of law in Pakistan. The model of bureaucratic control over the police by the district magistrate, as laid out in the Police Act of 1861, continued to be the governance model of administration of justice in the 1950s and 1960s.

Unfortunately, politics took primacy over public concerns, and Musharraf — along with his supporting political parties — drastically altered the face of the Police Order in 2004, effectively stripping the law of all its progressive reforms. The new order changed the composition ratio of public safety commissions in favor of the ruling party.

The fall of the military dictators General Ayub in 1968 and General Yahya in 1971 was followed by the dismemberment of East Pakistan and the advent of the democratic civilian rule of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto created the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in 1974 on the US FBI model but committed the grave mistake of establishing the Federal Security Force (FSF) on the pattern of the Indian Central Reserve Police.

Bhutto used this civil armed force, led by officers of the Police Service of Pakistan, as an instrument for political victimization and vendetta. Ultimately, this force and the political murder of the father of a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) dissident led to the downfall of Bhutto, ushering in the third martial law of General Zia ul-Haq in 1977.

The 1980s can aptly be described as the decade of decadence in the history of Pakistan. It was during this period that the mullah-military alliance was forged in the body politic of the country. In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the Khomeini-led Iranian revolution in the same year, the country witnessed a surge in state patronage to militants, a rise in sectarian violence, and unprecedented bloodshed.

The police played second fiddle to the military, whose leader provided patronage to sectarian outfits and militant mujahideen fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. The endgame in Afghanistan and the fall of the Soviet Empire was followed by the demise of the military ruler in Pakistan in 1988.

Read more: PTM killing Police Officer: Rights movement Replacing TTP?

The decade of the 1990s can be characterized as political ping pong between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who were elected as prime ministers twice for incomplete terms. This period, unfortunately, institutionalized political interference in police to a far greater extent than at any other time in the history of Pakistan.

For the first time in the nation’s history, one found a large number of Officers on Special Duty (OSD) in the bureaucracy and police services on account of political victimization. These officers were divested of jobs and made to sit at home while receiving salaries. Survival in office became the name of the game resulting in sycophancy and culture of pandering to the illegal demands of politicians.

A march of women through Bombay, shows them taunting police at Maidan Esplanade during the time when there was a call to boycott British goods. The disturbance here led to several women being injured.

However, during this period, ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif took an initiative that proved that honest and professional policing was not an altogether elusive dream. In an experiment worth emulation, Sharif created new motorway police, tasked with the enforcement of traffic laws on the new state of the art motorway built between Lahore and Islamabad.

UK police trained the existing police afresh, new police officials were recruited on merit, motorway police were paid three times more than the provincial police, and their service conditions and facilities were at par with the police in Western countries.

Above all, the police were given complete autonomy to enforce traffic discipline on a 400-kilometer motorway. These combined measures produced an honest and operationally autonomous police service that immediately earned public acclaim.

Musharraf’s 2002 Police Order and its aftermath

The advent of the 21st century found Pakistan at a crossroads in the post 9/11 global war against terror. At this point, another military dictator was in the saddle, General Pervez Musharraf. Like his military dictator predecessors, Musharraf began his term on a reform agenda but soon fell victim to the game of political expediency and survival.

One of Musharraf’s initial reform measures was to spearhead a plan for police reform, a process that culminated in the promulgation of the Police Order in 2002. The entire premise of the police reform agenda was to institute a politically neutral, highly accountable, and extremely professional police organization.

Substantively, the Police Order focused on the issues of misuse of authority, arbitrary use of power, political interference in police operations and administration, the lack of service-orientation, corruption, misbehavior, and the ineffective command and control of the police forces.

Structurally, the Order replaced political control of the police with democratic institutional control through the mechanism of public safety commissions at district, provincial, and national levels. This concept was borrowed from the UK where police authorities – both neutral citizens and elected officials – maintained oversight on policing.

The rule of law has often been sacrificed at the altar of the law of the ruler. In this environment of hypocrisy and double standards, the police cannot be expected to be an island of excellence espousing the spirit of the Constitution and enforcing the rule of law.

Musharraf chose to follow the UK model over the Japanese model, where the commissions contained only non-politicals representatives. Independent Police Complaints Authorities were to be created in the capital city and all the provinces to address police accountability. In order to make the police operationally autonomous, the tenures of all the heads of federal and provincial police departments were fixed for three years (on the model of military commanders in the army).

Unfortunately, politics took primacy over public concerns, and Musharraf — along with his supporting political parties — drastically altered the face of the Police Order in 2004, effectively stripping the law of all its progressive reforms. The new order changed the composition ratio of public safety commissions in favor of the ruling party.

The new law also abolished the independent police complaints authorities in the provinces and revoked the three-year fixed tenure for police chiefs. Thus, the amendments buried the very basis of the police reforms to create politically neutral, highly accountable, and fully autonomous police. Therefore, since 2004, police reforms remained an elusive dream in Pakistan, as public interest was sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

Read more: Terror attack in Loralai: 3 suicide bombers killed, 1 policeman martyred

The elections of 2008 were held in the wake two significant events – the black coat revolution for the restoration of the independent judiciary sacked by Gen. Musharraf in March 2007, and assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

The people voted PPP into power, expecting the rule of law and good governance. However, corruption, poor governance, and misuse of authority were endemic during the last four years of its rule, at both the federal and provincial levels. The loss of the rule of law was the biggest casualty of the PPP-led government. The elections in 2013 resulted in the PML-N rule with Nawaz Sharif as the PM for the third time.

The next five years were, unfortunately, so politically turbulent that police reforms remained totally ignored. However, the PTI-led government in KP province introduced police reforms, mostly based on the principles enunciated in the Police Order 2002. The KP Police Act 2017 was an improved version of the 2002 unimplemented police law.

PTI’s promised police reforms

After the 2018 national elections and with PTI for the first time in power in the center and two provinces, Punjab and KP, it was expected that police reforms would be high on the agenda of the government. Despite a 100-day reform agenda, the matter of police reforms took a back seat during the first year of governance.

However, recently, a committee headed by the interior secretary made a presentation on police reforms to Prime Minister Imran Khan without any input from the key stakeholders, including the police. Before taking any final decision, the following issues must be considered by the decision-makers: One, the bureaucratic accountability mechanism proposed is against the directions of the Supreme Court, whereby a Police Reforms Committee constituted by the Law and Justice Commission is implementing a country-wide system of redress of public complaints.

Two, why are public safety commissions proposed to be abolished? Just because they are to be represented by treasury and opposition MNAs/MPAs? Has any input been taken from the legislators in removing parliamentary oversight and replacing it with a bureaucratic dispensation? Three, Independent Police Complaints Authorities, as per Police Order 2002, have not been established anywhere for external accountability of police.

Read more: Punjab, Sindh continue to evade police reform

Why not? Because retired judges may head them. Instead, an external inspectorate is proposed to establish bureaucratic control over the police. Why this retrogressive step? Four, operational and administrative autonomy of IG Police as mandated by police law of 2002 and KP Police Act 2017 is proposed to be diluted, which would further politicize the police.

Why? Five, the Special Branch is proposed to be taken out of the ambit of IGP and placed under the CM. This would be a catastrophic step, and the politics of vendetta would thrive. Further, it will undermine the authority of the police chief. Six, one executive authority should not exercise oversight over another: Home Department and Deputy Commissioners should not interfere in the role of policing for which police stand accountable before the government and the judiciary

The Way Forward

What is the way forward for Pakistan to have politically neutral, highly accountable, and professionally competent police services? The framers of the police law promulgated in 2002 wanted the police to function according to the Constitution, law, and democratic aspirations of the people.

However, Pakistani rulers, both political and military, have mostly paid lip-service to constitutionalism. The rule of law has often been sacrificed at the altar of the law of the ruler. In this environment of hypocrisy and double standards, the police cannot be expected to be an island of excellence espousing the spirit of the Constitution and enforcing the rule of law.

A woman officer of Motorway Police giving a ticket to a man.

It is an issue of political will. It is for the government, i.e., the prime minister, chief ministers, and their cabinets to lead the way by ensuring that the rule of law reigns supreme.

Democracy, apart from being a system, is a state of mind, an attitude that cannot thrive in a milieu fraught with arbitrary aspirations and nepotism promoting a culture of corruption where merit is the biggest casualty. Institutions will exist in name only if they are devoid of leaders who do not follow the letter and spirit of the law.


How can we change the so-called Thana culture? The following measures will help the police improve service delivery and also earn the goodwill of the public. The first measure relates to the power of arrest. The power of arrest makes the policemen dreaded and feared, but also revered and respected.

Since liberty is the fundamental right of citizens, the police should never arrest a person unless solid proof or evidence exists. Officers should shun pressures and temptations to arrest an innocent person because of pressure or interference by interested parties. By avoiding arbitrary arrests and siding with the aim of justice, the police will send a clear message to society that fair play and justice are more important than revenge and graft.

The second measure relates to the process and manner of investigations. Police officers should professionally and faithfully collect evidence on behalf of both parties and present it before the trial court. They should avoid becoming a judge or executioner, declaring the accused guilty or innocent. It is not the mandate of the police, nor does law permit them to succumb to such public pressures and material temptations.

Read more: Top Police cadre shuffled

The third measure pertains to the police response to distress calls, reports of crimes, and reports of public nuisance. At a basic level, the prompt and professional response in distress situations will win laurels for police. When an individual reports a crime, he or she should not be called into the police station; the police should travel to the incident site and compile complaint forms, sending a copy of the FIR or daily diary report by post or by hand.

Investigating officers should visit and record evidence at the shops, offices, and houses of witnesses rather than summoning the interested parties to their offices and stations. The police must also adopt the practice of recording FIRs on phone calls, emails, and fax messages. By taking these measures and altering the structure of public interaction, the police will drastically transform their public image.

The fourth issue of importance relates to women and children, who comprise a disadvantaged and vulnerable section of our society. No woman or child under 18 years should be arrested without prior approval of a Superintendent or Assistant Superintendent of Police. Female police officers should handle their custody.

Generally speaking, the police should project a humane and soft image for this particular segment of society, given their specific vulnerabilities. The fifth and final issue pertains to police accountability. Internal accountability is far more effective than any external accountability mechanism.

Read more: The Evolution of Civil Services in Pakistan

The police should welcome accountability through the judiciary, media, parliament, and public safety commissions but should also be prepared to set their own house in order – because ultimately, the police are accountable for its operations. The public should see transparency in police administration and operations.

The police leadership should admit mistakes if committed in good faith, and officers should stop their leadership from covering up the misdeeds of their colleagues. There is no harm in admitting mistakes.

In fact, such humility will invoke public respect and sympathy. Therefore, let the truth be their only savior. The people and police services of Pakistan require a New Deal that must ensure that the rule of law governs the peaceful, progressive and prosperous future of our country.

Tariq Khosa is currently the Rule of Law and Criminal Justice Advisor to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Pakistan. He is also a member of the Interpol Executive Committee. Previously, he served as the Inspector General Police of Balochistan in 2007, Director General National Police Bureau in 2008, Director General Federal Investigation Agency in 2009, and Federal Secretary Narcotics Control in 2010-11.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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