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Remembering an untainted officer

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar.

One isn’t aware of any other cop in Pakistan who served as the inspector general of police of three provinces. It is also rare to find a policeman who commanded the Frontier Constabulary as well as the National Police Academy and remained a federal secretary, caretaker provincial minister and inspector general of prisons.

Muhammad Abbas Khan, who died recently at the age of 82 due to Covid-19, held all these positions and achieved a lot more in an illustrious career.

He served as the police chief of his native Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as well as Punjab and Sindh. In fact, he served twice as the IGP of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), known at the time as NWFP, once from November 1985 to June 1988 and then from January 1989 to September 1990.

As the IGP in KP, he built red-brick police posts designed by late architect Wilayat Khan that didn’t require paint, and helped retrieve state land at a distance of 20 kms from each other all over the province to effectively check highway robberies. He also founded the Special Branch of the police that often outperformed other agencies.

No wonder then that a police lines in Lahore was named after him when he was no longer the IGP Punjab. The Abbas Khan Police Lines is a tribute to the distinguished senior cop who earned praise wherever he served. The only other cop after whom a police lines was named in Punjab was Qurban Ali Khan, the first IGP of the province. Also in Punjab, a police control room in Rawalpindi was named after him many years ago, but his family didn’t know about it until recently.

Abbas Khan had served as IGP Punjab for more than three years, which was the longest tenure held by any police chief in Pakistan’s most populous province in the last 30 years. It was during this period that he tried hard to de-politicise the much-politicised Punjab Police and put his thoughts in writing in 1996 by authoring a booklet, ‘Problems of Law & Order & Police Reforms’. It is said this served as the forerunner of the subsequent police reforms in Pakistan, including the new Police Order in 2002.

His recommendations included de-politicising the police, making it accountable to independent police complaints authorities, granting administrative and operational autonomy to police officers and enhancing professionalism and specialization within various police sub-cadres. The input from Japanese experts who were invited by the Pakistan government was incorporated in the recommendations. The experts from Japan had proposed that the concept of ‘police for the people’ should replace the “police for the government” principle being followed in Pakistan.

The list of high positions held by Abbas Khan is long. He remained the commandant of the Frontier Constabulary in Peshawar, including once while holding dual charge as IGP of the province. While commanding the National Police Academy, Sihala in Islamabad for three years, he managed to secure land for building a multi-purpose campus in place of the small makeshift premises.

Abbas Khan also served as Inspector General Prisons. Ironically, he was given this job when he returned to Pakistan after remaining a prisoner of war in India after the 1971 war.

He remained federal secretary for States and Frontier Regions, Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas. Abbas Khan steadfastly backed Omar Khan Afridi, who was the minister of SAFRON, interior and narcotics control in the caretaker government of prime minister Meraj Khalid, when in 1997 he initiated the move to grant universal adult franchise to the politically and legally deprived people of the then Fata. Both were Pakhtuns and had a keen interest in mainstreaming Fata and enabling its population to benefit from the political, legal, economic and other rights enjoyed by the people in the four provinces. There was strong opposition to the move by the maliks, bureaucracy and many others, but Farooq Leghari who was president at the time backed the proposal and got it approved. Until then the principle of one-man, one-vote didn’t apply to Fata as only the maliks had the right to vote.

Abbas Khan retired from service in 1999, but then began a new phase in his life. His long experience in policing made him an automatic choice to serve on committees and commissions. He was made part of the interior ministry’s focal group on police reforms and also the committee on de-weaponization. He was appointed member of the National Public Safety Commission and the Public Accounts Committee of the federal government. He served as provincial minister for forests, environment and transport in the caretaker government in KP tasked to organize the general elections. He was made chairman of the search and scrutiny committee for the KP Ehtesab Commission and chaired the police committee to prepare recommendations in collaboration with the Federal Ombudsman in light of a Supreme Court judgement.

He was among the members of the Abbottabad Commission headed by retired Justice Javed Iqbal to look into the circumstances of the secret US military raid on May 1, 2011 in Abbottabad in which Osama bin Laden was killed, an incident that caused huge embarrassment to Pakistan.

Abbas, a handsome and dashing Pakhtun from Prang village in the Charsadda district, had a law degree and proceeded to the UK to study at his father’s alma mater, Lincoln’s Inn, to become a barrister. Before completing his studies, he qualified the CSS examination and was selected in the Police Service of Pakistan. He belonged to the noted 1963 batch, which produced many cops who went on to hold the highest command positions. He later obtained a Master’s degree from Syracuse University in 1982 in public management.

His family was well-known and related to prominent political and industrialist families of the province. Some of his brothers became prominent in their fields. Abbas Khan was a happy man when his youngest son, Arsallah Khan, became the honorary consul of Russia in Peshawar; he had remarked that it was important to improve relations with Russia.

Human beings are fallible and maintaining an untainted reputation serving in the police is challenging, but Abbas Khan managed to earn the image of an upright officer. When he passed away, tributes poured in from people from all walks of life.

Tariq Khosa, a distinguished retired police officer, counted Abbas Khan along with two other senior cops Sadaat Ali Shah and Z I Rathore as truly inspirational leaders who left an indelible mark on him as their common trait was the courage to refuse irregular and illegal orders by higher authorities. The present IGP Punjab, Inam Ghani, commented at a reference held for Abbas Khan in Lahore that he enhanced the prestige of the police chief of the province due to his vision and became a role model for all the officers of the Police Service of Pakistan.

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