New Year blues

January 06, 2012

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LET me start this column with a NIMBY protest. This stands for Not In My Backyard, and is frequently used in Britain to describe a whinge against something that affects the complainant personally.

I have been using a borrowed car to move around Karachi these last few days, and on the first morning of the New Year, the driver pointed out a deep pockmark on the roof, and showed me the spent bullet that had caused it. Apparently, this was one of the thousands of rounds of live ammunition fired into the air at midnight and beyond. Three innocent people were killed and scores injured as a result of this extended fusillade.

Before this paroxysm of machismo began, I watched the spectacular firework displays in Sydney and Hong Kong that heralded 2012. To the best of my knowledge, nobody was killed or injured in the celebrations there.

In addition to the manic firing, one had to contend with improvised roadblocks thrown up to discourage gangs of young motorcyclists from creating mayhem. I had to take a long detour to get to my destination. Perhaps road signs and the precise location of these empty containers would have helped motorists plan their trips.

The whole scene made it seem that Karachi was being invaded, and defenders had barricaded the city. I don't know of any other major city that is beleaguered every New Year's Eve. Why can't people just celebrate normally?

The reason, of course, is that Pakistan's normal days are long gone. An entire generation has grown up thinking that the daily mayhem around them is acceptable behaviour. Accustomed to unending scenes of violence, young Pakistanis take it in their stride, not questioning why their country has become such a dangerous place.

There was a time when New Year's Eve was celebrated in homes, clubs and hotels, much as everywhere else in the world. But during Gen Zia's dark days, young thugs from religious parties began going around to hotels, trashing everything in sight and terrifying guests. If memory serves, none of these criminals were prosecuted.

Encouraged by the state's supine attitude towards their brazen bullying, these hooligans have targeted private parties as well. Now, no clubs or hotels dare organise public celebrations; indeed, many close their doors entirely. Over the years, young men have taken to zooming around dangerously on motorbikes on Dec 31, while those with arms spray bullets into the night sky to express their joy.

Aerial firing, of course, began in the tribal areas, and is now an integral part of all sorts of celebrations in our cities. This reaches a crescendo at Basant, the famous kite festival. While this ancient event to mark the coming of spring has been officially banned, the mayhem continues unabated in Lahore with steel wire and glass-coated string exacting an annual toll. The spent bullets, of course, keep raining down.

The question remains why we can't celebrate in a civil manner that does not endanger other people. One reason is that the state has become utterly incapable of enforcing the law. Poor policing, feeble political will and a pathetic legal system have combined to produce a vacuum in law enforcement.

Today, criminals operate with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they won't be arrested. Even if they are, chances are that they won't be convicted. Hundreds of hardened criminals and terrorists are walking around on bail, ready and able to rob and kill again.

Judges are too afraid to convict terrorists, just as witnesses are reluctant to appear against them in court. All too often, the prosecution case is weak. Understandably, the police are demoralised to see killers they have risked their lives to arrest walking free after farcical court proceedings.

More often than not, cases drag on for months and years because judges accept the lamest excuses from lawyers and their clients to postpone hearings. The accused, their lawyers and the witnesses are forced to appear repeatedly. Literally dozens of cases are scheduled daily in our lower courts, even though few are heard. Much of this chaotic lethargy is due to inefficiency and corruption.

So who is supposed to bring sanity to this dysfunctional legal system? As the head of Pakistan's judiciary, the chief justice of the Supreme Court is responsible for the efficient working of all of the country's courts. Sadly, the Supreme Court appears too preoccupied with political cases to pay much attention to the state of the lower judiciary.

A few years ago, the Asian Development Bank gave a substantial loan to computerise and improve our courts. I wonder what became of the money as its impact has not translated into a better legal system.

But the alarming weakening of the state's writ has other reasons as well. A major one is the rapidly expanding tribe of political, bureaucratic and military elites who constitute our VIP list. These worthies consider themselves above the law, and treat lower minions of the state with contempt. Should a cop have the temerity to stop one of them for a traffic offence, he is soon put in his place.

This swaggering behaviour is now emulated in a land where feudals have become the role models. Businessmen throw their weight around to show how important they are.

Given these attitudes among the high and the mighty, it is easy to see why those lower down the ladder don't see the point of observing rules and regulations, and paying heed to the law of the land. When an uneducated bus driver sees a car with a flag break a red light, he doesn't see why he should wait for the green signal.

When I was a kid in Karachi, my bike had a light as cops would stop cyclists without one after dark. How many today have even seen a bicycle light, although traffic regulations still demand one? It is these small, daily breaches of the law that creates the environment of lawlessness into which Pakistan has descended.

So until there is a sea change in attitudes at the top, one should not expect respect for the law to be restored anytime soon.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

irfan.husain@gmail.com