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After the SC verdict

October 12, 2011

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AS expected the Supreme Court decision on the killings and disorder in Karachi has had a mixed reception. While most commentators have welcomed the court's directives, some have expressed disappointment that all those found responsible for heinous acts of commission and omission have not been strung up the electricity poles.

The former group includes many professional hailers of authoritative proclamations and quite a few who are happy that their political rivals have been nailed. Undeniable is the fact that what many thought was the problem in Karachi has been confirmed by the highest judicial authority. The debate will now be conducted with reference to judicially verified facts and not on the basis of the various interested parties' perceptions. This is no doubt a major gain.

Those who expected more concrete rulings perhaps do not realise that the Supreme Court must function within the parameters fixed by the law and procedure. It was not hearing a petition/appeal relating to a specific occurrence the parties to which had been duly arraigned. In the instant case, the court was acting more or less as a commission of inquiry, and its findings, in the nature of directives, should not be fruitless.

That these findings are already having a sobering effect not only on the federal and provincial governments, that are easy prey, but also on other gladiators cannot be ignored. However, the court's major recommendations demand not only longer-term initiatives but also a firm effort to look beyond the symptoms and attack the disease at the root. hartal

Take the advice to political parties to purge themselves of criminal elements. It is easy for political parties to release lists of members deprived of offices or expelled and say that criminals have been thrown out, though their fall from grace may have been due to less noble causes. The problem arises when party cadres carry out criminal acts under orders from their bosses, such as creating disorder, burning vehicles to enforce , thrashing rivals, or collecting protection money.

Such matters demand a two-track strategy. The administration needs to rediscover its capacity to deal with crime according to the law, regardless of the identity or sociopolitical clout of the offender. At the same time, the political parties have to be persuaded to follow the elementary code of ethics.

More important than the weeding out of criminal elements is the need to get the political parties' militant wings disbanded. Democratic opinion is unlikely to support the idea of political parties being banned subject to the Supreme Court's approval because this procedure has been abused in the past. But there can be no objection to obliging political parties to dissolve their wings/cells that are used for intimidating citizens or subjecting them to violence.

There is perhaps need to reinterpret Article 256 of the constitution, even to broaden its scope. The article says: “Private armies forbidden. No private organisation capable of functioning as a military organisation shall be formed, and any such organisation shall be illegal.”

The military organisations operating in the tribal areas, including those that are not fighting the army or are friendly to it, are obviously covered. But there is need to strengthen the laws to bring under the prohibitory provision formations that do not wear uniforms, do not carry arms all the time and do not have military-like hierarchies, but which can be used as armed bands for the furtherance of political aims through use of violence or threats of its use. bhatta

Much has been said about land grabbers and extortionists. No leniency should be shown to lawbreakers in either of these categories. But it is necessary to address the factors that cause the rise of land grabbers and collectors. It is absolutely essential to create smooth, efficient and inexpensive mechanisms for meeting the legitimate demands of the people, especially the poorer sections, such as a piece of land for living, access to utilities, reasonable guarantees of security, et al.

A large number of people need protectors and patrons because they cannot otherwise buy an airline ticket or cannot bypass the queue outside banks for paying bills, or cannot get a fine for a traffic violation waived. Something has to be done to eradicate the culture of dependence on intermediaries where none should be needed.

Nobody can possibly take exception to the direction that the police in Karachi (indeed throughout Pakistan) should be depoliticised. This does not mean only that recruitment to the police force and posting/transfer/promotion should not be done on political considerations. Difficult though this task is, it can be achieved by non-partisan superiors in service and elective offices both.

However, the fact is that even politically neutral police officers lose their way in a social milieu dominated by people who wield huge influence either because of their social status (landlords, industrial barons) or their political clout (ministers, MNAs, MPAs). These people cannot be defied by most state employees. Eventually, the police and executive officers will be truly depoliticised only when the long-delayed social reform takes place.

Likewise, the people wholeheartedly support the call for deweaponisation. All political parties also concur but there is considerable evidence of hypocrisy in their statements because most parties want only their rivals to be disarmed. Besides, deweaponisation is often understood as surrendering and confiscation of illegal weapons only.

There is a direct nexus between an increase in licensed arms and a proliferation of illicit weapons. Whenever an influential person gets a licence for a prohibited bore weapon, the outlaws in the area try to buy rockets. No deweaponisation campaign will succeed unless restrictions are placed on the grant of arms licences.

Then the question will arise of how to satisfy people who acquire arms to defend themselves because the police cannot protect them. Thus deweaponisation efforts will succeed in proportion to a visible improvement in the law-enforcement agencies' capacity to protect the people's life and liberty. It will also be necessary to revive the old rule under which law-enforcement personnel can use only weapons and ammunition officially issued to them and they cannot use personal weapons (many of which these days could be illegal).

Finally, the Supreme Court hearings on Karachi have once again vindicated the system of suo motu proceedings, though no such vindication was necessary. One shudders to imagine what life might have been if the judiciary did not use its suo motu powers to rein in the wild ones in authority or to chastise the wayward.

At the same time, the case has underlined the axiom that such powers are most effective and beneficial if sparingly used. Perhaps in this case the people felt the outcome fell short of their expectations that had been pitched high in a climate of media hype that always does more harm than good. The honourable judges cannot be unaware of the adverse effects people's perceptions can have on the standing of essential institutions. In this regard, too, the case may have produced a welcome result.