Urban warriors

January 19, 2014

Urban warriors

Dear All,

It’s been interesting to see that it took the killing of a high profile, anti-terrorist cop to jolt the general public into the realisation that policemen are not just humans, but often brave humans who lay their lives on the line -- every minute of every day.

For the Taliban, the assassination of CID SP Aslam Khan was a major hit: he was a thorn in their side not just because he worked effectively in counter-terrorism but because of his defiance and his very public refusal to be intimidated by them.

Those who feared that his being so high profile would hasten his death were right, but what perhaps nobody foresaw was that his killing would touch such a nerve with the media and general public, and lead to such an outpouring of sympathy and public grief. And this happened because by openly challenging the terrorists Aslam Khan became a symbol of resistance to terrorism and crime, a flagbearer for the writ of the state.

I watched this month’s media coverage with interest not just because it was a gripping story but because I have seen police life from up close and I personally know what a tough and thankless job it is. First, there is the fact that unlike in the army you are not "sent to war", you are fighting a war, all day, every day. Since cops are meant to challenge those who break the law, and these are mostly rather nasty, ruthless people, an effective cop makes a lot of enemies, threatens many vested interests and generally is much resented.

You do not deal with ‘nice’ people and your job is not to be Mr Nice Guy or win popularity polls. Policing a city like Karachi is perhaps a great adventure for many of the young officers who work there: urban life is reduced to the most basic and brutal struggles of human existence. It’s a gun-slinging, relentless cycle of crime fighting and survival. And you need to fight on several fronts: it’s not just the criminals you have to deal with, it is also the pressure from your own superior officers, politician bosses and intelligence agencies that is an ongoing battle as they tell you to turn a blind eye to selected crimes or instruct you to fabricate cases.

So what motivates these urban warriors? Is it all just a power trip with the excitement of an adrenaline-fuelled game of cops and robbers? I asked a young ASP this question many years ago and he replied that although all of the above were a consideration there was also the fact that you felt that your work could make a real difference to lives and communities.

What of all the crookedness and venality in the force? Well, an interesting perspective is it that it is not fancy manners or financial corruption that divides good cops from bad: it is whether you are anti-crime or not anti-crime i.e. whether you fight the criminals or whether you are complicit with them.

So for all the stories of corruption, torture and bribery you hear about the police, consider all the stories you do not hear. The accounts of the raids, encounters, arrests and rescues. Think of the men who storm in to release a hostage, or who just try to maintain law and order in the face of pointless protest (like the Karachi policeman who was killed during the protest against a YouTube film), or the men who cannot celebrate Eid with their families because they are on duty guarding those who are at the prayer congregation. Or those who are taunted by arrested criminals who warn them "the court will let us off, but we know where you live and where your children go to school".

So should we protect those who try to protect us, or should we cosy up to their killers?

This is the basic question we need to ask ourselves in a terrible conflict that seems to have now become suicidal on both sides. And we should also take a moment to pay silent tribute to all those policemen who have been targeted and killed in Sindh and KP and Balochistan.

And if movies help you make sense of real life then I suggest you watch the Batman flick, The Dark Knight Rises: in that film the anarchy that follows the terrorists’ targeting of the police force is terrifying because it is so close to the reality of modern day Pakistan….

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

Urban warriors