The missing state

August 7, 2016

Why we should be upset at the police

The missing state

The weakness of the state of Pakistan comes home to us every time we seek any aid from its institutions. This weakness of the state and the broken character of the polity is evident not just in lack of enforcement of laws but also in discourse.

Spare a thought for the parents of dozens of children in Lahore who have been kidnapped in recent months. Kidnapping is an immense torture for the victims as well as their families. Not knowing the status of well-being of a loved one -- especially your own children -- is paralysing and heartbreaking. What makes it worse is the ineffectiveness of the state in preventing or investigating such instances.

Of course we should all be upset at the police. But we should be equally upset at the civil-military imbalance and the political interference in police matters that hamper the idea of an effective police force. My own father is a retired police officer so I am under no delusions about the lack of training for those investigating complex crimes -- kidnapping being only one of them. I also have a fair idea of the brokenness of the state since I have seen it after being personally affected.

A few months ago, the premises I live in were burgled. The burglar took mostly electronic items. Every theory that the police came up with turned out to be flawed. The readiness to admit defeat, or belief in grandma theories (‘chori ghar ka banda hee karata hai’), was staggering. The culprit was eventually caught though -- since he was stupid enough to forget that using a stolen iPad or laptop while signing into someone’s Dropbox account will lead to detection of an IP address. But it was a separate fight to explain to the cops what an IP address is and why it might be a good idea to contact PTCL. And of course the fact that my dad is a retired cop played its part in keeping the cops on their toes. People who do not benefit from such privileges can only pray for the police to miraculously find meaning in their jobs.

A latest instance of this occurred early last week along the canal in Lahore. Members of my extended family were in a car that was damaged in a high speed pile-up. I received a call about the accident and promptly drove to the site at around 1 am. It took 45 minutes for the police to arrive -- after repeated calls to 15, the emergency line. One operator insisted on asking me which was the relevant thana. I told him the best I could guess, but also asked him if he expects everyone involved in an accident to know such things. He was not amused. This reminded me of an incident on the motorway -- where after I called the Motorway Police to inform them that a car had flipped over in a high speed accident, I was asked ‘what is the colour, make and number plate of the car?’. My reply was, ‘Actually you should be looking for a car turned upside down, with people trapped inside, so it should not be hard to find’.

Back to the canal. When the police arrived, it was obvious that they did not want to register a complaint. They urged everyone to settle -- of course creating an incentive for the driver at fault to get off by paying a small bribe. Then the cop-in-charge who, while screaming at his phone that ‘I am not coming home tonight!’, decided to teach me insurance law -- insisting that the poor driver will have to pay the insurance claim.

Government of Punjab, its CM and those who sing praises of roads/bridges will never be dependent on the mercy of police or doctors in government hospitals. So they care only about roads that get you from one place to another -- but if something happens to you during the journey then, well, you are on your own.

During the 45 minutes while people blamed each other for what had happened, at least 5 police vehicles drove past. None of them stopped. Imagine if someone had been shot and the police was needed at the site. You could see all the good work of Punjab and its CM in all its glory -- no one gives a damn till you wave a fist of power or influence in their faces. Of course, we got automated text messages informing us that we had just called 15 -- like a recurring nightmare. To give credit to the police, out of 5 vehicles that drove past without stopping, one did slow down. When I explained to him what happened he said, ‘actually we are just going back after getting petrol. I am sure someone will come for your help.’

This is not just my story. This is the story of millions in this country who (for no fault of their own) have to look towards state institutions, from time to time, for help -- to keep up promises that have been made. Government of Punjab, its CM and those who sing praises of roads/bridges will never be dependent on the mercy of police or doctors in government hospitals. So they care only about roads that get you from one place to another -- but if something happens to you during the journey then, well, you are on your own. Building a good hospital or instituting long term reforms that train police well are not glamorous so they have no place in the imagination. Real reforms can wait.

You and I can wait too. But millions in this country cannot. Their quality of life, during the parts of the day when they are not dealing with police or bad doctors, is not getting any better either. Their pain while waiting for kidnapped loved ones will not recede. So here is what the problem is: this state gets away by treating us as invisible. Most of the time we, the educated middle class and above, are irrelevant to the state. And the state is irrelevant to us too. So we do not think about our visibility. Our little cocoons guarantee us a comfortable enough existence: private schools, hospitals, decent jobs, insurance et al. But the moment we look towards the state we realise that we are invisible.

In police stations, in government hospitals, waiting at traffic signals while the powerful drive by. It is not a good feeling. I seethe with anger each time I am treated as invisible by a state institution. Now imagine that there are millions who live their entire lives remaining invisible. Maybe I should just thank my lucky stars for accidents of birth. I am sure the Government of Punjab has an automated text messaging service to remind me how fortunate I am.

The missing state