Last Saturday I stopped to get myself a pack of cigarettes from a tobacco vendor at a busy shopping area in Clifton. As I returned to my car, which was parked only a few metres away, I saw two young men ripping off the side view mirrors of a brand new vehicle parked right in front of me.
At least a dozen or so people must have watched the men as they broke off the mirrors, put them in a plastic bag and calmly walked away as if it was nobody’s business. And all of us there made sure that it wasn’t. At least, it certainly wasn’t our business.
It is believed that almost every second Karachiite (in the past decade or so) has been a victim of one kind of a crime or the other.
And funnily enough, those who correctly point this out also add that those Karachiites who have never been on the receiving end of crime are probably the ones committing the crimes.
Things in this respect have truly reached epidemic levels. Kidnappings, ‘target killings’, car snatchings, muggings, dacoities, bank heists, extortion, et al.
Karachi has become a big fertile field where anyone wanting to make a quick dirty buck seldom hesitates and most of the time gets away with it.
Much has already been written and talked about on the issue; about how major political parties in this city with militant wings have actually become hostages to the power of these wings — which have gradually mutated into becoming well-organised gangs of extortionists, kidnappers, dacoits and muggers.
Outside these militant wings of the large non-religious parties, are some other players who have entered the arena to make hay while the city’s benevolent sun shines.
Vicious sectarian and religious extremist outfits have also set up shop here.
And each one of them have begun to mirror the criminal activities of their non-religious counterparts — robbing banks, mugging pedestrians, kidnapping for ransom and knocking off competition with the help of hired assassins.
And that’s not all. To make matters worse (and even more complicated) is the recent exposition of the fact that certain security agencies too have been going around behaving exactly like the criminals they are supposed to apprehend. A lot has been said about how Karachi, Pakistan’s economic hub, and the country’s largest, multi-cultural and most accommodating city, can be saved from the clutches of this pandemic wave of crime.
Let’s not go into the details of the matter. That’s for the provincial and federal governments to do and for experts to contemplate. But let me assure you that ridding Karachi of this disease is very much possible.
All it requires is that the law be implemented without any hesitation or curbs. Let me explain this through a trivial example.
It is believed that a nation’s state of mind can be judged by the nature of traffic on its roads. And the traffic on Karachi’s roads is perhaps the craziest to be found in the country. There is scant respect for traffic laws as perfectly normal men and women continue to push the limits in their cars, motorbikes, buses, trucks and rickshaws as if they were in some kind of a dystopian death race.
Apart from those driving, men and women — sometimes accompanied with children — regularly skip overhead pedestrian bridges. It seems that they would much rather squeeze their bodies through fences and literally fall over on main roads than follow traffic rules. For some odd reason the motorists, after looking at these mad hapless chancers, step on the gas (speeding towards them) even more passionately.
The bikers are the worst. It is as if they go into some kind of a demonic trance the moment they get on their bikes. Forget about the young daredevils, one can also see men with wives and kids on the bike ride it like there was no tomorrow. And sometimes there isn’t.
They will continuously try to whiz past your car from the left, and one feels that, if it was possible, they would even attempt to slide underneath it and spring out from the front of the car.
Just like the criminal mafias, Karachi’s drivers and riders too are getting away with all kinds of madness. But now let me tell you how, at least one aspect of this kind of madness, was once actually brought under control.
In 1998 I was once pulled over at a traffic signal by a cop. I was surprised because I was completely stationary at the red light. When I asked him why he had pulled me over, he told me that my car had slightly crossed the white line behind which cars were supposed to come to a halt at the signal.
I found this absurd. A traffic cop in Karachi was fining me for such a petty traffic violation? I protested and even waved my mighty press card, but he refused to relent.
I later found out that Karachi’s traffic police had decided to exhibit zero tolerance for those who even slightly crossed that white line.
Then lo and behold! In a city where even those motorists and bikers who actually stopped at traffic signals would continue to remain in motion by continuously crossing the white line, stopped doing that.
The unrelenting bookings of the rich and the not so rich, the commoner and the influential, by the traffic cops had actually managed to instill respect for at least this one aspect of the traffic law.
And for years, even after the cops had stopped booking people for the white line offence, motorists and bikers would not dare cross that line.
Of course, today things have gone back to square one. But this little experiment by this chaotic city’s traffic police can teach a lot: i.e. the law, if implemented without hesitation and with the same zero tolerance attitude as exhibited by the traffic cops in 1998, can actually instil respect for it even across the most major dimensions of criminality in this city.