January 27th, 2022
By Hamid Riaz
“I was having dinner at Barkat market with some of my friends when all of a sudden I started getting panicked calls and text messages from several of my hostel-mates. ‘Come quickly, the police is raiding our hostel rooms’, was the gist of most of the correspondence. Without a moment’s delay I rushed towards the hostel,” says Arif Kakar, a final year Pashtun student from Punjab University’s International Relations department, while recalling the details of the police raid on Punjab University’s hostels on the night (20th January) of the Anarkali Bazaar attack in Lahore.
The night of the police raid
Upon reaching hostel number one of the Punjab University’s (PU) new campus Arif found at least half a dozen police vans parked outside the main gate. Being the Chairman of PU’s Pashtun Students’ Council, Arif felt it necessary to intervene. “They were looking to search the rooms of students belonging to the Balochistan province. When I asked them the reason, I was told that it was a routine search and that the police were looking for non-students. But if that were true they should have searched each room in the hostel. Not just our rooms,” explains a furious Kakar. After the ordeal, Kakar found out that the only two hostels of the university that the police had chosen to search were where the Pashtun and Baloch students’ bodies are concentrated.
“Who are you? Where are you from? Which books are you interested in reading? Which route to do take to and from Balochistan? Imagine being woken up in the middle of the night, clueless, and being asked these questions. How would that make you feel,” explains Sheraz Bugti, a Baloch student from Punjab University’s Geology department?
Unsatisfied with the police’s explanation the students inside the hostels decided to take matters into their own hands. A large crowd of primarily Pashtun and Baloch students gathered outside the hostel to ‘’resist” the police, sloganeering ensued and the police were made to admit that the search was being conducted. The witnesses to the raid believe that it was because of the protest that no one was arrested.
Outside the secure walls of the campus
The protest might have been enough to save the students inside the university but the Pashtun/Baloch students, traders, and laborers outside the walls of the main campus were not so lucky. So much so that the first two ‘suspects’ arrested by the police were under eighteen students hailing from Turbat studying at the Punjab group of Colleges (Muslim Town campus). The boys were released on the very next day after being ‘cleared’ by the police. But their arrests set the tone for what was to come.
Traders picked up
“Ever since the bomb blast in Lahore took place the police has been picking up our people on one pretext or the other. In addition to this market (the Naulakha market near the railway station) Pashtun and Baloch residents of Lahore were picked up from the Multan Road, Link Road, Gulberg, Kareem Block, and every other major commercial hub of Lahore. Most of the people who were picked up were either wage laborers or were street hawkers and vendors. The police takes them to the police station and releases them after receiving a small bribe,” explains Muslimyar, a trader from Loralai Balochistan, who has been living in Lahore for the last 10 years.
According to Muslimyar the lower rungs of the police ladder almost instantly springs into action immediately after such tragedies, not to gather intelligence but to profiteer. The main pretext behind these detentions is the non-availability of registration cards. “All of us who belong to Balochistan have to register ourselves in the relevant police station if we wish to work and live in Lahore. And the police are very arbiter about these cards. Sometimes they are issued for a year sometimes for 6 months. Sometimes they are handwritten and sometimes they are computerized. Citizens belonging to Lahore have to get no such cards if they wish to work and live in Balochistan. Why do we have to get them made? Why do we need additional documentation when all of us already have National Identity Cards?” asks Muslimyar.
Since these cards are so arbitrary and informal the police officials patrolling the market have an unchecked authority to detain people as they please. And that seems to be the main purpose behind these cards, to “inculcate fear in the minds of the 1000 or so Baloch and Pashtun working in the Naulakha market.”
Human Rights activists believe that in addition to ethnic chauvinism one of the principal reasons behind such ‘operations’ by the police is “incompetence”. “After such tragedies strike results are demanded of the police. But, instead of doing actual police work, they go on a rampage against weaker citizens belonging to minority ethnicities so that they can present bloated lists of suspects to their superiors. Since most of us are far away from our homes it is easier to keep us detained for longer periods because they know our loved ones will not be able to reach us,” explains Muzumail Kakar, a vocal Pashtun rights advocate, and political campaigner.
Even though the wave of police repression against the Baloch and the Pashtun seems to have subsided for now. Fears persist that in the absence of public attention and outcry such high-handed and corrupt responses from the local police will keep on driving wedges between Pakistanis belonging to different provinces.