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Weapons and information

June 05, 2013


IT is exactly 12 weeks to the day when Perween Rahman, director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) Research and Training Institute, was gunned down in Orangi when she was returning home from work.

Two months later, another activist of the OPP who ran a school, Abdul Wahid Khan, was killed outside his home. A few days later on May 18, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf leader Zahra Shahid Husain was assassinated by armed men.

These were not the only people who were victims of target killing in Karachi. Approximately 259 other people met a violent death in the city in the same period. We mourn them all. Above all, we mourn our own helplessness to save these precious lives.

Zohra Yusuf, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was spot on when she once commented that in Karachi a person championing a human rights cause, who dies a natural death, is indeed lucky.

Why has Karachi, once described as the Queen of the East, descended into this abyss of savagery? Many reasons — ranging from demographic changes, ethnicity, factional in-fighting, sectarianism and clashes between land and bhatta (extortion) mafias — have been put forward. A very significant one given by none other than the inspector general of the police before the Supreme Court bench looking into the Karachi violence in August 2011 was “the easy access to illicit weapons and misuse of arms licenses”.

It was also disclosed before the court that in the previous five years 180,956 licenses of non-prohibited bore were issued by the Home Department, Sindh, whereas 46,114 licenses of prohibited bore and 1,202,470 licenses of non-prohibited bore were issued by the Ministry of Interior in Islamabad.

But ministry sources cite higher figures. According to them, 69,000 licenses for weapons of prohibited bore were issued to MNAs alone whereas the Sindh government confirmed issuing 400,000 licenses for non-prohibited bore.

Many are dismissive of licensed arms floating about because they claim that criminals use un-licensed weapons as that gives them anonymity. This is unbelievable. The authorities know this too. Had this been the case why should the government want to fuddle information about arms licenses?

That is how I see the reticence of the Interior Ministry and the four provincial home departments of Sindh, Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan in disclosing information about weapons’ licenses. Five of us, all citizens of Karachi, had written to them on Jan 22, 2013, under the Right to Information law. We had requested, I quote from our petition:

“Please provide year-wise record of all types of weapon licenses (prohibited as well as non-prohibited) issued by the … government to all categories of individuals in Pakistan from Jan 1, 2001 to Dec 31, 2012.”

Our move was significant in two ways. First, it was a test of the right to information the citizens of this blighted country are said to have been granted under the Right to Information Ordinance 2002 and later by Article 19-A of our Constitution. Naeem Sadiq, who has been pursuing the matter with untiring persistence, has been telling us how frustrating it is to get information out of the government, notwithstanding citizens’ rights. The 34 applications for information he has sent in elicited no answers.

Secondly, the data generated would help us “research into issues of good governance, public awareness, violence prevention … effects of licenses on violence, and making suggestions for improvement of laws”. I may add here that such data will allow us to make comparative studies on the weaponisation status of the city.

And what did we learn? When we did not hear back for three weeks — the period in which the reply should have been sent under the law — we dispatched letters of complaint to the federal and provincial ombudsmen on March 5.

Balochistan’s ombudsman never responded. The KP ombudsman informed us that the province had no relevant law. Punjab’s ombudsman pushed the Punjab home secretary who wrote to us on May 21, providing information on 24 out of 36 districts. Sindh’s ombudsman said he had written to the home department but not received a response so far. The federal ombudsman received a reply from the interior ministry which he passed on to us saying that the ministry needed two more months.

Then followed another letter to the federal ombudsman pointing out that government departments are not doing their job. Section 4 of the Ordinance states: “Subject to provisions of this Ordinance and in accordance with the rules that may be prescribed, each public body shall ensure that all records covered under clause (i) of section 2 of this Ordinance are properly maintained.” This requires every public body to computerise its records and make them available through a network all over the country to facilitate access to them.

In other words, our democracy has been reduced to a farce. Without information can citizens exercise their rights, such as the right to life and security as in this case? Moreover, should the government have the authority to issue gun licenses at its own discretion if it cannot protect the lives of its citizens?

One may well ask, why has no deweaponisation programme been attempted in Karachi? The simple answer is that this can be undertaken meaningfully only if the government — that includes the administration and the police — is not involved in violence itself and wants to cleanse the city of weapons. Without integrity, impartiality and statesmanship, deweaponisation remains a pipe dream.