Lately, it seems, everyone is comparing the general conduct of the army and the police with reference to the two marches on Islamabad. Of course in this comparison, the army always comes out ahead. These comparisons are inherently absurd and are like comparing oranges with apples.
Both these institutions are still organized along colonial lines, which means that their organizational structures, training, and general conduct is based in our colonial legacy. The army, for example, has not only maintained the same rank structure as created by our erstwhile masters, it has also kept the informal symbolics of the civilian-military relationships also intact. The royal Indian army, of which the Pakistan army is one offshoot, was strictly professional, very well trained, and very well-funded: the Pakistan army has kept those traditions and, I would say, further enhanced them. Furthermore, Pakistan army, when not deployed, is mostly stationed at self-contained and very well maintained cantonments, often separated from the cities, now more than ever, with either a security wall or a security barrier. Within the army itself, the battalions are fully self-contained units: this means that all the needs of a soldier are met, and the officers are trained to make sure that the needs of their soldiers are met. Thus, if there are two soldiers stationed on a check post, you can be sure that their three meals will be provided right on time and so would be their tea and other rations. If they fall ill, or are injured in the line of duty, they will have access to the best healthcare system that a nation can provide. It is no wonder, then, that the Pakistan army is more disciplined, organized, and better led. The officers are not only trained in the specifics of their professions, but also, formally and informally, trained as the leaders of men.
I remember that my first company commander–who later retired as a lieutenant general–taught me not only to check the weapons, and teach classes on tactics and small arms, but also the habits of thinking about my troops’ welfare. As an army officer, one either had to be completely callous or part of a terrible battalion to not learn the basic attributes of a good officer. It is this investment of resources, training, and organizational specificity that makes army such a professional and well honed instrument for the state. Furthermore, there is no direct political meddling in the general affairs of the army. I mean, if my battalion is deployed in aid of the civil power, chances are no one, other than my superior commanders, can tell me how to conduct my business. As a military commander one is protected from the pushes and pulls of political power or even the common vagaries of daily life. These organizational, material, and symbolic markers are crucial to training a professional army, and the Pakistan army, therefore, live sup to its impeccable reputation.
The Pakistan police also inherited its organizational and administrative structure from the British. Our police is still organized under the Thana/ Police Station system and relies quite heavily, and without government sanction, on the methods of policing and interrogation that were in vogue during the colonial times. None of the police organizations, however, is self sufficient and self-contained. Neither their officers, nor their men get the kind o intensive training that is provided for the army. Furthermore, the police interacts directly with the public and its leadership structures is deeply politicized. The police is also very ill-equipped and its soldiers neither get the kind of facilities that their army counterparts enjoy, nor do the police officers are trained to care for the welfare of their troops. (How many times have you driven through Islamabad and seen a policeman trying to get a lift to his job). Chances are, if four policemen are manning a post, they are expected to fend for themselves. There is likely to be no quartermaster’s truck bringing them their daily food and tea?. And before you blame their officers for not doing enough, take a look their budget!
Of course none of this excuses any violence committed by the police against every day citizens, but when the government puts them on the front line in crowd control situations, then a lot of things can go wrong. In Islamabad, compared to police, who have faced the maximum brunt of the popular outrage, often under trying circumstances, the Pakistan army has been mostly behind the scenes. Thus, when they show up to resolve the issues–like they did at PTV station–they can afford to be magnanimous, for the dirty work has already been done by the police. Sadly, in this powerful game of political chess police has paid a heavy symbolic and material price: they have been beaten, abused, stoned, and generally criticized. I am not saying that all their actions were right, but despite their material and symbolic disadvantages, they have done their job: they have, by and large, protected the buildings and areas they were tasked to protect. Given the limitations placed on the amount of force they could use, this is not less than a spectacular performance. However, in order to really create an efficient and professional police force, the police will have to be reorganized and funded in the same way as the army.
The reason I am writing this is because a lot of my former army friends are right now gloating–digitally and otherwise–at the incompetence of our politicians and the army. I have read digital boasts about army being able to control the whole thing in one hour (My reply to that is “what are they waiting for?), and exhortations from others for the army to take over. Naturally, Pakistan army does not need any such comparative narratives: they can claim to be a good force without putting others down, but they do this because they have lately, like all other state institutions, faced criticism and some hostility from their own people. I have no problem with that. I think in a real democracy all institutions must be constantly under public scrutiny, for without that democracy cannot exist. But, on the other hand, try standing in the streets and try to control a bunch of protestors and then come back and boast about how much the army is loved and how effective it can be.
So, overall I think all these comparisons between the performance of the army and police are flawed as they neither take into account the inherent structural and administrative inequalities, nor do they gauge the nature and extent of public involvement of both these institutions.
In the end both police and the army are instruments of the state with completely different missions and modes of functioning, and we should not be too hasty in privileging one over the other.