THE government may rightly take pride in its legislative record but its abject failure in controlling lawlessness in the country’s commercial capital may shame and haunt it for long.
There is no denying that the government’s policy of unifying all parliamentary forces in order to remove distortions inserted in the constitution by two military dictators worked wonders. It also deserves plaudits for the National Finance Commission Award which will enhance and support provincial autonomy.
But blaming a steady slide in the law and order situation in Karachi, which is often likened to the country’s jugular, on the legacy of dictators, even if partially true, would hardly on its own have improved the security of life and limb of its many million inhabitants.
And Karachi represents the worst example of what happens when various state institutions work at cross purposes. The Sindh coalition government, the Supreme Court and the agencies entrusted with the nation’s security must all share the blame.
While in the past, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) was blamed, with considerable justification, for most of the violence in the city, a look at the contemporary scene tells one that the story is no longer as straightforward as it was in the past.
Various political parties and players in Karachi have cried wolf so many times that their credibility has been diminished. So, when the MQM talked of ‘Talibanisation’ many saw it as a euphemism for its unease at the influx of Pakhtuns from Swat and South Waziristan displaced by the army action there.
But now reports in the independent media, such as Herald magazine, are documenting instances of the Pakistani Taliban taking over several strategically important city localities. Reports are very clear of the extent of Taliban control, even if not popularity, over these areas.
It is strange that nobody was alarmed when within a matter of months dozens of Awami National Party workers/leaders were killed and the party’s flags removed from entire localities. The political blame game continued but nobody pinpointed the real threat.
All this while the agencies tasked with keeping an eye on the Taliban were busy making sure that the Lyari gangs could be organised into another formidable armed force in the city to counter the predominant armed political player.
Street crime and extortion peaked, targeted killings became the norm, and protest shutdowns became the order of the day though they didn’t achieve anything beyond delivering another lethal blow to economic activity in a city that needs to feed millions of mouths each day.
Speaking anonymously, some Sindh police officials also say that the Supreme Court’s extraordinary interest in appointments in the department from the start of the government’s term has also created a leadership crisis as the bosses aren’t sure how long they’ll last in office.
“This has resulted in a tentative approach and nervousness very quickly travels down to all ranks. Instead of sure-footed handling that such a critical situation warrants, what we have are half-baked, unsure measures,” said one officer.
But he was also clear that despite this rather “unnecessary” handicap all the police personnel were doing their best at the individual level. “You only need look at how many policemen have died in the line of duty in Karachi in recent years to appreciate that.”
For a city the size of Karachi both in terms of its spread and population the strength of the police force is wholly inadequate. Count out from the investigative and law enforcement pool those serving to protect the so-called VIPs in a highly volatile environment and you are left with next to nothing.
The record of the better-equipped and funded paramilitary Rangers is no improvement on that of the much-maligned police force. Every journalist has counted the escort vehicles of elected officials but very few have written about the motorcade of the army major general who serves as the Rangers director general.
The only positive aspect of the Rangers in theory is that being under army command, they aren’t susceptible to political influence, unlike the police force. But like the services’ intelligence agencies it won’t be correct to say they may not have an agenda at all.
The major failing of the elected coalition government, where initially most elected parties were represented, was not to have strengthened the police force and taken firm steps to depoliticise it. Parties that collaborated on major constitutional reform couldn’t do the same in such a critical area.
And this failing will continue to haunt them. In the current term, the two major coalition partners were together in the province as well as the centre but there is no guarantee that the next term will see the same.
If the next elections’ result once again brings them together at the helm at least in Sindh, they will only have themselves to blame if a different set-up at the federal level belonging to other parties sends their administration packing on the grounds of lawlessness in the city.
Given that the coalition, which should have taken the lead, and other key state institutions are either uninterested or clueless when it comes to arresting the bloodshed and mayhem resulting from ethnic and faith-based killings, the future doesn’t look any better.
Neither the PPP nor the MQM have demonstrated the vision to safeguard their own long-term interests. A destabilised Karachi will threaten their political future rather than a third party’s at least for the foreseeable future.
One will have to see if the ‘neutral’ caretaker set-up can address this critical area in its short tenure of eight to 10 weeks. The mandate of the caretaker government will clearly be to ensure the holding of free, fair and credible elections. Perhaps it’ll see stemming the violence as a step towards that goal.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.