March Issue 2014
Interview: Omar Shahid Hamid
What motivated you to join the police?
Institutions are generally weak in Pakistan, which is a bad thing, but the potential good in it is that in the absence of institutions, individuals tend to matter. I felt that the police was one particular department, where if you choose to do things to help people, the impact of your work is easily quantifiable.
Your father, former KESC chief Malik Shahid Hamid, was murdered in a targeted killing. Was anyone caught in connection with his death?
The main person who was involved in his murder was a man called Saulat Mirza, a militant belonging to the MQM. He was, in fact, arrested by Chaudhry Aslam, who I subsequently got to know before I joined the service, and as luck would have it, we ended up working together several times and were good friends.
You worked closely with Chaudhry Aslam, who had a somewhat controversial reputation. Was that uncomfortable to navigate at times?
It was never difficult to navigate personally, because in my judgement, I always believed that Aslam was an excellent police officer. At times, a good police officer will have to bend the rules, and do things that may be perceived as controversial, but at the end of the day, he was someone with a lot of courage. He was able to take on the challenges or enmities of groups or individuals, who no one else, even in the police, was willing to take on.
In The Prisoner you portray a nuanced version of the police. Did your perception change from what it was before you joined the service after seeing it from the inside?
My first interaction with the police was when my father was murdered. And it happened at a time when the MQM was in government, and because the MQM was in government no police officer, many of whom had been my father’s friends for years, was able or willing to push the investigation of the case because of the political pressure involved in it.
So for the first year, my impression was very negative. I felt that [the police] were just a pawn of the political parties. But then a year after my father’s death, the Hakim Said murder happened, the government changed and I was amazed at how the same police that I had been deriding as being dysfunctional, started to produce miracles when the shackles had been taken off them. So even before coming into the service, my perception shifted.
They are obviously an organisation that has a lot of problems, where there are a lot of internal issues, but many of them are extremely diligent in the face of seemingly impossible odds. The more I’ve worked in the police, the more established that vision has become.
And that’s what I tried to say in the book. If I presented the police as these heroic figures and nothing else, that would be unrealistic And the same is true the other way around. I always say that any police is a reflection of society.
I don’t try to put any kind of purdahs, on what the police are. The Prisoner talks about corruption and about the very systematised corruption, but if you look at the average constable in the times that we face, it’s a lousy job, with horrible hours. Frankly I wouldn’t do it. He does. He keeps showing up for work every day. That takes a lot of courage for me.
You’ve spent 13 years in the police. What are some of the things that you learned from your experience?
One of the biggest things that I learned on a personal level was the value of investigation. When I joined, and in most cases when ASPs join now, our perception of the job is that its fundamentally law and order and security duty. That is, no doubt, an important part of the job. But the most important part is investigation, because that is the one component that is unique to the police.
Investigation comes from understanding the law and understanding what the police academy refers to as ‘police practical work.’ It’s not just the law, but how the law is practically applied in the courts and the criminal justice system, while also understanding how to get to the key criminals or how to discover compelling evidence for those who have been caught.
It’s something that I’ve really learned, much because I’ve had an off-the-beaten-path type of career in which I did a lot of assignments which other people may not have done, such as CID or being posted in Lyari. It’s places like these where you learn the value of investigation.
Another aspect of the police, which I believe is also ignored, is welfare. It’s extremely important because of the barrage of the kind of terrorism we face. You have officers being killed or injured every day so it’s important to establish and improve existing systems. If you’re sending someone out every morning telling him you might have to take a bullet or a bomb for the community, the best way to motivate him is for him to have a firm belief that if anything happens to him, his family will be taken care of.
If it was in your hands, what systemic changes would you make to the institution of the police?
I think the situation that we face is a unique one. None of us were trained to face this level of threat. One of the problems that we face is the influx of armed groups, whether it’s political parties, or criminal gangs or religious militants, who are basically taking on the state, and they are becoming increasingly brazen because the state has weakened. It’s a process that has occurred over the past 30 years, and the vacuum that is left is being filled by these groups.
Our system is still to a good extent based on what was a colonial system, which worked on a simple principle: That the police had to be the biggest badmaash of the area. Because that is how you control an area and that is how you establish the writ of the state. This is not a popular concept in modern theories of policing, but the fact is this is the situation we have.
You have to revert to that old idea because you have to restore order, or retake the place that the state has lost first, and once you regain control, you have to hold them accountable.
Coming back to The Prisoner, how did you get into writing it and what was your writing process?
It was something I was tinkering with as a cathartic exercise. Almost three years ago I went on leave from the police. Because I was in CID and I’d been doing a lot of work, there was a certain level of threat so it was a good time to take some time off and sit down and work on [my writing].
I’ve become a little more organised in the way that I think and start writing about stuff. I recently finished a second manuscript, in which I was able to figure out a story and decide how I want it to move.
Is the new novel a departure from The Prisoner, or will it carry on in the same vein?
It’s a little different. It’s still a thriller, it still has the police, but not the same characters, and the police is not the focus as it was in The Prisoner.
This interview was originally published in Newsline’s March 2014 issue.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.