THE maddening operation in the Lyari area of Karachi has once again exposed the law-enforcement personnel’s incapacity to deal with an armed and organised challenge without grievously harming the innocent population in and around the theatre of conflict.
In any such situation, the first question that always comes to mind relates to the factors contributing to a clash between criminal outfits and the forces of law and order. In the case of Lyari, the role of certain political elements in creating, training and protecting militia-like bands has often been mentioned in public debates.
Even if this knowledge was not easily available any investigating authority would have concluded that the so-called Lyari gangs could not have built up their arsenals of heavy weaponry without the connivance of the state apparatus, if not its collusion. Nor could they have acquired the means of raising, training and maintaining a force capable of murder and extortion and subverting peace in other ways.
It is not for the first time that Pakistani authorities have been forced to go all out in their campaign to stamp out the monsters of their own creation. A heavy cost has already been paid for their failure to remember the lesson known to the whole world that any authority that creates a private army to serve its interests through the unlawful use of violence has ultimately to wipe it out. This has happened even when resort to violence is inspired by a noble cause, such as national liberation.
But Karachi has been home to quite a few unlawful militias raised by several contenders for dominant status in the metropolis — mostly by political parties, ethnic communities and religious organisations. There have been crackdowns on armed groups, some brief and others spread over considerably long periods, and the general impression is that each of these operations ran aground before realising its final objective.
Have appropriate lessons been learnt from the latest anti-crime drive? For quite some time, the authorities have claimed that the present operation is aimed at ridding Karachi of all criminal gangs regardless of their political or ethnic affiliations. Can this assertion be upheld in an independent probe?
An important issue in debate is the timing of the operation in Lyari. When did the authorities realise the threat from the Lyari desperadoes? Could the operation there have been more successful or would its purpose have been achieved over a shorter period and with smaller cost if it had been launched earlier? After all, Lyari had been, or should have been, on the official radar since the killing of Rahman Dakait (dacoit).
The way the Lyari operation has been conducted has been criticised on more counts than one. Doubts have been raised on the soundness of intelligence reports on the basis of which the plan of action has been drawn — assuming that the raids on gangs have followed a definite plan.
It has been alleged that those conducting the drive against armed gangs have not hesitated from using private militants against their rivals in criminal undertakings. If these allegations are correct the tactic cannot be too strongly condemned. Such dangerous aberrations have been witnessed during the conflict with terrorists in the northern parts of the country, and the horrible consequences witnessed there should have deterred anyone from using the recipe for civil war in the country’s largest city.
Above all, the need to avoid causing unnecessary suffering to the population of Lyari does not seem to have received due attention. A large number of people were caught in the crossfire as both sides resorted to indiscriminate firing.
Many more were put to hardship by the non-availability of water and foodstuff. The sick could not receive medical care. Quite a sizeable section of the population was forced to migrate to safer places.
It is true that anti-social elements can add to the suffering of the people in their neighbourhood and even manoeuvre anti-police demonstrations with a view to creating public sympathy for themselves. Yet the deficiencies in the law-enforcement agencies’ standard manual are no secret. They lack training in the controlled use of firepower and are generally unfamiliar with the methods of establishing order through reliance on non-lethal force.
They tend to panick in the face of resistance and forget whatever instruction in the principle of proportionality in countering violence with violence they might have received.
In any case, the people have a right to be reassured that all necessary precautions were taken to guarantee that the innocent residents of the locality were not exposed to any risk. The authorities must be made to answer a few elementary questions.
Was the Lyari population warned of the possibility of running battles in their streets? Was any attempt made to mobilise the law-abiding people in support of the operation that could disrupt their normal life? Were the people living in the targeted pockets given the option to move to safe places? Were any relief squads organised to extend succour to the unintended victims of the state agents’ activities?
These questions need to be answered, possibly by a high-powered commission of inquiry that may be asked to probe all the operations against the terrorists, target-killers and extortionists carried out in Karachi over the past many years. It is necessary to ascertain what steps have been devised to prevent the state functionaries from indulging in target-killing, extortion or other excesses. Are they offered training and refresher courses in the use of force, especially firearms, while pursuing their quarries? Is any policy of compensating the innocent victims of operations against criminals for loss of life and property in place?
Unless a thorough probe can satisfy the public on these points the distrust between the state and the citizens will widen, respect for the law will decline further and peace and tranquillity could be disturbed by those very hands that are supposed to maintain them.