That tricky thing called mob

January 26, 2020

Mob violence over the years has raised questions about the capacity of the police force to deal with it

Mob violence has become increasingly common in Pakistan over the years. It does not make any difference whether the crowd is big or small, as long as it is willing to perpetrate violence, it will cause damage. Sometimes, the law enforcement agencies seem helpless in controlling the mob. Recently, the Punjab Police failed to control a gathering of lawyers who attacked the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC) in Lahore and beat up doctors, nurses and patients. The police tried to disperse the crowd but the angry mob could not be controlled in a satisfactory manner despite the presence of the Anti-Riot Force (ARF).

This was not a unique occurence. Last year, a Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) protest turned violent and brought the country‘s main cities to a standstill over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the conviction of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been jailed since 2008 over allegations of blasphemy. The government had to impose a travel ban on Aasia Bibi before the protesters dispersed. In November 2017, the TLP had called another protest after the PML-N government tried to amend electoral laws and altered the wording of an oath required of electoral candidates. The protest ended following intervention by the Pakistan Army. The same year a mob lynched Mashal Khan, a student at University of Mardan. In March 2015, a mob lynched two people it accused of being involved in an attack on churches in Youhannabad.

On several occasions recently mobs have violated the law, and burnt and vandalised public property, resulting in the death of people in ambulances that were not allowed to pass. How do police control mobs? What procedure is adopted when mob violence is spontaneous, when it is planned?

The recent PIC incident became a question mark on the performance of police. Zulfiqar Hameed, the capital city police officer (CCPO), later admitted to the failure of the police to stop the protesting lawyers. Dr Masood Saleem, Punjab Police’s deputy inspector general (DIG) in charge of crime, told The News on Sunday that though there were intelligence reports that lawyers could attack the PIC, the gravity of the situation was not fully realised.

The Anti-Riot Force was established to control mobs in Lahore. On the day of the PIC incident, the ARF was pushed back by lawyers. After that police used force to disperse the protesters.

“Police and public order are state subjects. It is the responsibility of the government to maintain law and order in the country,” says Dr Saleem. According to him, the officers supervise, engage with the mob and negotiate with their leaders to resolve their issues. He says the force is deployed after observing the nature and mood of the mob. “Mob control is a tricky game. Police officials try to exhaust the mob to gain time so that the situation remains under control,” he explains. If the mob is planned and organised, say by a religious party, he says, a strong deployment of force is ensured to control them and avoid harm to public property. Police use force if the mob becomes violent, he adds. First of all they use tear gas and then lathi charge to disperse the crowds, explains Dr Saleem adding that they try to refrain from causing serious injuries or casualties. If the mob consists of teachers, students, doctors etc they are easily handled most of the times, he adds.

“Mob control is a challenging task for the police and law enforcement personnel. Police officials negotiate with the protesters to disperse them so that the writ of the state can be maintained,” says DIG Mohammad Ali Babakhel of KP police. He says that Articles 15, 16, and 17 of the constitution guarantee freedoms of movement, assembly and association. If the protesters are peaceful, police will not stop them, he says adding that they will be restrained and dispersed under Sections 128 and 129 of the Criminal Procedure Code if they become violent.

He says it is easy to deal with spontaneous mobs but not planned protests. Planned protests require more patience. “A planned protest is a test of our nerves. Mob control demands training of policemen on a regular basis as mob control and disorder management are specialised fields.” For this purpose, he says, Police School of Public Disorder and Riot Management has been established in Mardan where police officials learn mob psychology, negotiation skills, stress management, mob handling and crowd controlling techniques and hold mock exercises. He further adds that the ratio of women police must be increased from one percent to ten percent so that women police can handle women protesters in such mobs. He also says psychologists and researchers should be hired in police in every province of the country.

Political interference in police affairs worsens the situation when the mob comes from religo-political parties. Khurram Shabbir Butt, inspector and law officer at IGP’s office, denies that the police are not people-friendly. He says that policemen are being trained to deal with the people. In the past, he recalls, magistrates used to hold talks with mobs and matters would get resolved. “Now the police have the power to negotiate with the mob,” he says. “We need to engage in community policing to handle the situation at the grassroots level,” says Butt.

The writer is a reporter for The News. He can be reached at [email protected]

Mob violence and Pakistani police