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Consensus alone won’t work

Updated August 31, 2013

THE government’s statement on convening a special cabinet meeting soon to evolve a ‘consensus’ on law and order in Karachi hasn’t come a day too early.

This quest for consensus is a positive change in the thinking of the PML-N. The last it ruled its propensity to ride roughshod seemed endless and many attribute the premature end of its tenure as much to its own attitude as to a renegade general’s self-preservation instinct.

But the desire for consensus should not translate into inaction if unanimity isn’t forthcoming. Perfunctory consensus won’t be able to withstand the slightest of strains anyway. Also, before any operation, ‘targeted’ or broad brush, is initiated there is a need for institutional and legislative reform.

In all these areas leadership is needed. Unlike its predecessor, the PML-N government has a sound majority in the National Assembly and doesn’t need the support of unreasonably demanding and often fickle allies to stay in power. It needs to demonstrate this strength.

So far whatever Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has said makes sense (even though one would be grateful if he were to buy into the virtue of brevity). That there is many a slip between the cup and the lip is equally true.

One would like to see urgent steps in the short term. Agreement should be secured to post the best police officers in the country to Karachi, if they aren’t already there and all political parties made to pledge non-interference in their day-to-day working.

To make sure that all parties continue to remain confident of an even-handed enforcement of the law, a body on the lines of the UK’s Police Complaints Commission should be set up and empowered to look at complaints and order remedial measures.

The minister, sources say, has already been advised on the need for such a body and referred to it in his news conference where he announced the convening of the special cabinet meeting next week to be chaired by the prime minister.

These two decisions, if implemented, can lead to a visible improvement in the situation. All of this won’t be easy and will take time to bed down. Nonetheless, it’ll be a start. In any case, there should be no underestimating the challenges. Karachi is a right royal mess. It’ll need unprecedented political will to even think of sorting it out. The minister seems to lay store by the reports of intelligence agencies he is receiving. He should also be aware that there are some people in these agencies who have their own agenda.

For example, look at a prime intelligence agency and what its track record in Karachi shows. Wary of MQM’s dominant firepower, rather than use lawful means to counter it, the agency allegedly started backing gangland figures from another ethnic group of the erstwhile People’s Amn Committee.

The resultant mess alone would account for a fair proportion of killings in the city as both the armed groups vie for dominance and expanding their areas of influence. In what is seen as a zero-sum game, the PPP is also taking sides now to the chagrin of the MQM.

Armed thugs will be armed thugs. The political umbrella enables them to do much more than ‘enforce’ party policy or take on political opponents. Many of them freelance. A life of crime, including extortion and murder, brings them riches beyond their dreams.

This then is among the ‘gifts’ of the agencies to Karachi. One must take with a pinch of salt whatever the agencies say. Some of these agencies have brought Balochistan to the brink of a disaster and have allegedly ‘outsourced’ to similar criminal gangs the task of enforcing the ‘state’s writ’.

The suspected involvement of naval intelligence personnel in a kidnap for ransom incident earlier this week showed proceeds of crime in the lawless metropolis are seen as easy money that is there for the taking. So, even the holiest of the holy enforcement machines is not immune from its lure.

Then there was an ‘extortion’ demand call to a resourceful businessman traced to personnel of an elite crime fighting unit of the Karachi police whose head was among a bunch of officers recently demoted on Supreme Court orders.

The acquittal of those, including a retired army major, charged with the kidnapping of film tycoon Satish Anand, is a case in point for the need to bring changes to the law. This case is just one example. There are dozens of others involving sectarian, ethnic murderers where complainants, witnesses, even judges have been intimidated. The government will also need to familiarise itself with the concept of witness protection, of video-link and behind the screen testimony, and with the need to keep judges’ and the prosecutors’ identity secret.

Not just that, it’ll be well-advised to inform itself from the experience of, for example, the Italian judiciary and balaclava-protected elite crime fighting units which battled well-entrenched mafia figures and succeeded in getting many, many convictions. It won’t be easy but can be done.

Of course the most important journey will have to be undertaken by all parties with a presence in Karachi to realise that violence begets more violence. Nobody will ever monopolise the tools of terror entirely. We are currently witnessing this phenomenon in the metropolis.

Unless these parties, which are quick to charge each other with undemocratic conduct at the drop of a hat, truly embrace democratic ways and means to achieving their legitimate political goals, to securing the rights of their enormous vote banks, any positive change may remain a pipe dream.

And when (as an eternal optimist I won’t say if) all these wishes have been granted and a semblance of peace and order restored, there will still be the existential threat posed by the Taliban and their hate-filled takfiri allies in Karachi as in the rest of the country.

That’s when the real fight for the country’s soul will begin.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.