The police of Karachi are used to chasing terrorists they can’t catch. This threat doesn’t even wear a suicide jacket. And so, perhaps for the first time in their careers, they find themselves doing a strange new kind of law enforcement. There is no law, for one, and every single person in the city is a criminal. The crime is one of omission, by not doing something: not staying at home.
The first two cases of coronavirus in Pakistan were reported February 26. One of them was a resident of Karachi who had recently returned home from Iran. A few weeks later, by March 23, the Sindh government had imposed a lockdown in the province, closing down all educational institutions, markets, shopping malls, restaurants and public places.
The police were ordered to implement the order and restrict people to their homes to contain the spread of the virus.
But restricting people to their homes is proving to be an uphill task because a large number of people are not taking the virus seriously, police officers in the city told SAMAA Digital. At pickets, they slow down cars and implore people to wear masks and stay at home. But after the warning can do little else but let people pass.
While most of the main arteries of the city are empty, Nazimabad, one of Karachi’s most populated towns, proves the message has not sunk in. At around 5:30pm, its streets are full of motorcycles and cars. At the corner of the street, four policemen watch the vehicles go by from their position on plastic chairs. A lonely constable, in his 50s, shouts at the boys on bikes.
What did he think about how his job had changed? “We are third class people,” he snapped. “Go talk to our superiors because I don’t want to lose my job.”
Other policemen said that their working hours have increased with the lockdown. “We used to work for eight hours but now we have over 10 hours,” said Sharjeel, a young constable in Gulshan-e-Iqbal. He was loathe to arrest anyone roaming the streets and said the other policemen felt the same. “Some people don’t have food at home and we understand that, but there are others who leave the house for fun.”
According to daily Sindh police reports, at least 1,278 people have been detained in Karachi alone since March 23. Police officials say, however, that they don’t arrest every citizen they find violating the lockdown restrictions. “We don’t arrest all of them,” a senior police official told SAMAA Digital. “We tell them to go back to their homes after issuing them a warning.”
And just like everyone else, these frontline workers are also a part of society and just as worried they could catch coronavirus. “The sepoys are also afraid of the virus,” the police official said. “Why do you think they wear masks? Because they know that they are interacting with the people and it could put their own lives in danger.”
On March 27, an inspector in Karachi’s South district was diagnosed with COVID-19 at Indus Hospital. The welfare branch of the Sindh police is taking care of him and his family, a spokesperson for the inspector general said.
For some old coppers, the lockdown has brought up fresh memories. Asif Razzak, a former superintendent of police who recently retired in Karachi, said that he has served for over three decades but has never seen such a situation. “Curfews used to be imposed in Karachi for one or two days in different areas in the 1990s during the operations, but it wasn’t like the current lockdown,” he said. “This lockdown is too long.”
Policing was already a difficult job in Karachi, a city of roughly 22 million, but the lockdown has made it more difficult, he said. “People get angry when you tell them what they are doing is wrong…even when they are doing something illegal,” he added.
He wished people would treat the policemen with respect because they are the ones exposing themselves to the virus. “This (coronavirus) is new and the police know nothing about it, but they are still doing their job.”
There have been reports of use of excessive force in some parts of the city with videos being shared on social media. People filmed policemen and Rangers beating men with sticks. The Rangers evoke a slightly different level of compliance in Karachi folks.
“We have a hold here,” said Waqas, a Rangers jawan, who hails from Gilgit. “Agar nahi maantay to hum danday se maartay hain.” If they don’t listen to us we beat them with sticks. Waqas has been deployed in Liaquatabad. He said his first duty was to protect people from coronavirus. Most of his 18-hour shift is, however, spent just telling people to wear masks.
On April 3, a large number of people attacked the police in Liaquatabad when the policemen reached Ghousia Mosque to stop a prayer leader from leading congregational prayers.
Two policemen were injured after people hit them with sticks and stones, Liaquat Hayat, the area’s station house officer, told SAMAA Digital.
The Sindh government had banned congregational prayers two weeks ago but the decision made clerics unhappy. “We went to the mosque and tried to persuade the people that mass gatherings could put their lives in danger but some of them responded with violence,” Hayat said. “We even let them offer prayers because we thought the law and order situation would be disturbed if we tried to stop them.”
He clarified, however, that the people who attacked the police were not neighbourhood residents but “criminals” who wanted to disturb the law and order situation in the area. He was referring to a religious party in the area.
Seven men, including the prayer leader, were arrested in connection with the attack on police.
People of the area actually saved us by letting us into their homes, Hayat said. “They respect us because the police isn’t just standing on the roads but helping people with medical emergencies and providing poor people food.”