Since the 1980s, ‘police encounters’ have been a notorious phenomenon in South Asia, especially in India and Pakistan. Jyoti Belur, who has researched encounters in Mumbai, defines an ‘encounter’ as a ‘specific type of police contact – a spontaneous, unplanned “shoot-out” between the police and alleged criminals, in which the criminal is usually killed, with few or no police injuries’. Overtime, ‘encounter killings’ have been divided into two categories: ‘genuine’ and ‘fake’. A ‘genuine’ encounter is the spontaneous, unplanned shoot-out described above, in which police officials may also be killed or injured. A ‘fake’ encounter usually refers to a death in police custody that is presented as a shoot-out, in which the suspect is killed but none of the police officials are harmed. This phenomenon entered Pakistani police vocabulary in the 1980s, gaining traction in Karachi as the city grappled with high levels of crime, ethno-political violence, turf wars, riots, and later, terrorism. This article looks at the background and context in which ‘police encounters’ have prevailed in Karachi.
Struggling with ethno-political violence since the late 1980s, Karachi Police have been patronised by multiple governments and utilised in a number of different security operations that have sought to clampdown on criminal violence and disempower certain political parties – chiefly, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). It is generally believed that the pressure exerted upon the police to demonstrate zero tolerance during these operations is one of the primary reasons for a surge in fake police encounters in the 1990s. This same pressure has been exerted upon the police for decreasing criminal and political violence in the 2000s, particularly during the Lyari Operation (2012) that unsuccessfully sought to neutralise the infamous gangs of Lyari and, more recently, in the ongoing Karachi Operation (2013-present) against criminals, militants, and terrorists.
Yet aside from surging crime rates, a range of internal and external factors explain the prevalence of police encounters in Karachi. Organisationally, Karachi Police has suffered due to political patronage, financial weaknesses, corruption, poor training, legal frameworks entrenched in colonial thought and practices, unimplemented reforms, and a general lack of faith in the courts. Externally, civilian insecurity has been mounting due to multiple security threats, particularly within the business community in Karachi, which is the financial capital of Pakistan. This insecurity has generated passive consent for police violence, including extrajudicial killings, as well as a reliance upon policing Karachi through the Sindh Rangers, a paramilitary wing of the Pakistan Army. Called into Karachi in 1989, the Rangers have become entrenched in Karachi’s policing and political landscape. Unsurprisingly, this has created some friction between Karachi Police (a civilian institution) and the Rangers (a paramilitary force). The competition generated from the coexistence of two institutions with overlapping mandates has contributed to Karachi Police’s urgency for delivering results, leading to a greater reliance upon the threat or use of force in a bid to regain lost legitimacy.
Civilian insecurity has been mounting due to multiple security threats, particularly within the business community in Karachi
In September 2013, the government, then under the conservative political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, launched the Karachi Operation, led by the Sindh Rangers, with Karachi Police second-in-command, under the watchful gaze of the Army. The operation came against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s ‘Karachi suo motu case’ of 2011, whereby the apex court had noticed the surging violence in Karachi between 2007 and 2011, and demanded that law enforcement agencies act against organised criminal syndicates patronised by local and provincial political parties, such as the MQM and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). It should be noted that in 2011, the Supreme Court, while recognising the sacrifices of police officials in the operations of the 1990s, reprimanded the police for being politicised and directed both Karachi police and the Rangers to ‘take strong and decisive’ actions against criminal and ethnic violence in the city.
The suo motu case framed the initial backdrop of the Karachi Operation. Against the backdrop of this heavily securitised environment, my research has focussed on what the police does and why, looking in part at the use of force and the reliance upon police encounters. In 2014, the Army had launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb to counter terrorism in the country, and thus in turn, the Karachi Operation became further militarised and central to the Army’s interests in counterterrorism at large. It was further influenced by Pakistan’s first counterterrorism policy framed in December 2014, the National Action Plan (NAP). Collectively, the NAP, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the Rangers-led Karachi Operation, the Supreme Court’s suo motu case, and the politically-patronised criminal and militant groups present in Karachi since 2008, formed the context within which the surge in police encounters over the last decade should be understood.
As per open source data collected by this author, in 2011 - the year of the suo motu case - 401 civilians were killed in police encounters. Between 2011 and 2018, over 3,000 civilians were killed in encounters. This is compared with Mumbai where, between 1993 and 2003, roughly 600 civilians were killed at the height of police encounters. However, there has been a significant decline in police encounter killings in Karachi since January 2018, with only 63 people killed in encounters in 2018, the lowest since 2010. Unfortunately, however, it is beyond the scope of my study and the access available to me to investigate how many of these reported cases were of ‘fake encounters’. In the same vein, much of the data I have collected is through various open sources and does not necessarily represent official data on police encounters. Whilst this data collection method suffers from its limitations, this largely reflects the difficulty of obtaining and verifying data regarding police encounters.
In spite of these figures, my fieldwork reveals that encounter killings are not necessarily a preferred choice for police officers. However, many do justify the practice and believe that, in the face of armed criminals and terrorists, such police tactics are beneficial in the short-term. This belief is strengthened by the fact that since 2013, the homicide rate has been dropping in Karachi (from 2,507 deaths in 2013 to 301 in 2018). Other officials, however, have offered multiple reasons for why they support or partake in encounter killings: (1) for monetary compensations received following each encounter; (2) for postings, transfers, and appointments in which preference is given to officers who have ‘performed well’, often by eliminating suspects in encounters; or (3) for camaraderie with other officials who are equally driven by a motive to neutralise criminals. Many who partake in encounter killings are also driven by vengeance for the deaths of fellow officers in previous security operations, or family members killed in the line of duty. For these officials, vengeance through police encounters is personal – between 2011 and 2018, at least 637 police officials have been killed in Karachi.
Encounter killings are not necessarily a preferred choice for police officers, however, many believe that such police tactics are beneficial in the short-term
Nevertheless, this method of policing has seen popular resistance in Karachi since early 2018. Last January, an aspiring model, Naqeebullah Mehsud, was killed in what is increasingly accepted as a ‘fake encounter’. The case is currently in the courts, but the incident has sparked a social movement (Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement - PTM) led by ethnic Pashtuns. The Pashtuns have suffered the brunt of not only police violence in Karachi, but also religiously-motivated violence inflicted by the Pakistani Taliban, civilian casualties resulting from American drone strikes, and displacement in the northern areas due to military operations that seek to degrade the Pakistani Taliban. It is believed that the PTM and the public outcry generated following the death of Mehsud may have resulted in an unofficial policy within Karachi Police to temporarily suspend reliance upon police encounters. Following Mehsud’s death and the trial of the police officials involved in this encounter, encounter killings declined between February till October 2018.
For now, the public mood remains fickle, and it is too soon to tell whether this method of policing Karachi will return in the event that the city witnesses an increase in crime rates. Likewise, it is also too early to suggest that public opinion against police encounters will remain unchanged should violence spike again.
Zoha Waseem holds a PhD from the School of Security Studies, King’s College London and is currently a Teaching Fellow at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.