Authorities Ignored Repeated Warnings Of Security Lapses On M-11 Motorway

The brutal incident of rape and mugging of a woman on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway is reprehensible, not only in terms of the savageness of the act but also because of the outrageous abdication of responsibility by the relevant authorities. The M-11 motorway had repeatedly been declared unsafe for travelling since its opening earlier this year, due to the unavailability of patrolling and emergency services on the highway. Up until the horrifying incident of last week, no action was taken to make travelling on M-11 safe. This was the case despite regular reminders by Gujranwala regional police officer since the motorway’s opening in March.

A news report was published in Dawn on July 14, bearing the title “M-11 deadly for road users in absence of police, law enforcement”. According to the report, “Gujranwala Regional Police Officer (RPO) Riaz Nazeer Gara had proposed the deployment of the Punjab Highway Police on M-11 as a stop-gap arrangement until the formal functioning of motorway police to improve the rapidly deteriorating security and road safety situation on the section.” The report further states that Mr Gara had written a letter to the Punjab police chief seeking to impress upon the inspector general (IG) of national highways and motorway police (NH&MP) Islamabad, to urgently deploy motorway police on M-11. The Punjab police chief also made a similar request to the IG NH&MP to apply all the patrolling mechanism on the said route, like other motorways and highways of the country to address the "rapidly deteriorating security situation" on the Sialkot-Lahore motorway.

The Gujranwala city police officer, some time ago, had also brought into the notice of the RPO the rising incidents of heinous crimes on the 42 km patch of Sialkot-Lahore motorway passing through various villages of Wahndo and Ferozewala police stations of the Gujranwala district. The superintendents of police of Gujranwala Saddar and Civil Lines divisions had reported the security lapses on the motorway such as a lack of any law-enforcement agency patrolling it, unplugged U-turns and ongoing construction at some places. Incidents in which robbers had used barriers belonging to the construction company for criminal activities and in order to stop motorists, were also witnessed on the highway. A similar incident also took place on the Lahore-Islamabad motorway, M2, this Thursday, when robbers laid trees across the highway to ambush some 20 cars, looting them of cash and valuables.

It is also known that the RPO had formally made a request to the Punjab inspector general of police (IGP) to deploy Punjab Highway Police for patrolling the route for the security of road users and also requested him to send a reminder to the NH&MP IG to deploy motorway police on M-11, but to no avail.

Following the tragic incident on M-11, the Motorway Police is known to have said that the area where the incident took place is "not under its control," as the Lahore-Sialkot motorway was completed earlier this year and the NH&MP has not yet been handed over its charge. This is an archetypal example of blame-shifting, as various departments pass the buck to absolve themselves of direct responsibility for the agonizing incident. M-11 was opened to the public a little before the Covid-19 lockdown. During the long period of lockdown, neither the Punjab Police nor NH&MP deemed it necessary to employ forces on the highway that was probably not so much in use during that period. Post-lockdown, the security and emergency services were still not deployed. Gujjarpura is the same area where another dreadful incident took place in July when a teenage girl, accompanied by her employer, was raped while on her way home at night from a clinic where she worked.

It is highly pertinent to ask here why M-11 was opened to the public without basic patrolling and emergency services in place, a negligence that can only occur in Pakistan and for which we have paid a horrendous price. Nowhere in the world do we find precedence of making motorways operative without first ensuring the availability of basic amenities and emergency services, short of which a motorway is as good as a desolate piece of land.

It is also most relevant to ask here why no mention was made and why the Lahore CCPO or any of the other police high-ups did not take the public into confidence regarding the above facts and failures of the various police and law enforcement departments and their subsequent lapse of duty. Many mistakes and omissions have not been admitted. It can clearly be seen that it was not just a case of "delayed police response" on the motorway, but a case of "denied police response," because there were no police services allocated for the highway that passed through some of the most dangerous and "criminal-infested" areas of Punjab, to begin with. So, in the absence of "proactive policing" by the police, the police resorted to "moral policing" of women!

Women are being told to "police" our freedom of movement, freedom of choice and our independence if we want to evade rape. We are being told to "police" our choice to travel alone, more so, at odd hours. We are being told to "police" our desire to deviate from the established or to indulge in the "adventure" of stepping out of our comfort zones. We are also being told to "police" our own "safety" if a calamity befalls us. In short, we are being told to "police" our "desire to do or dare" and keep ourselves "handcuffed" because the hand that violates our honour, won’t be.

For us, the motorway gang rape might be another case of sexual violence, to be forgotten sooner or later. It may soon be lost in the influx of rape cases reported every day or be replaced by another more horrifying incident. But the psychological and mental bruises sustained by the survivor and her children are there to stay, mauling them for life. Haunted by their own trauma of the holdup, the anguish of the struggle to escape and the racket of their muffled cries, while harbouring spine-chilling memories of their mother’s woebegone ordeal, the children may never recuperate. As for the daughter, she might already have learnt to police" all her impulses and desires to live a life on her own terms.

Faryal Shahzad is an entrepreneur and a freelance journalist based in Lahore.