Say ‘no’ to arms

14 Mar 2012

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THE interior minister has promised the outgoing members of the Senate quite a few parting gifts. While it is difficult to hold that his fit of generosity meets the test of good sense, it is his offer to allow the ex-senators licences for prohibited bore firearms that will cause widespread alarm.

The desire of parliamentarians to go on enjoying VIP status even after retirement is known. Some years ago, the list of post-retirement privileges demanded for the speaker of the National Assembly and the Senate chairman became so long that many of their supporters got embarrassed. The facilities demanded included the right to free lodging at government rest houses, a substantial telephone allowance and, of course, licences to keep guns. The move was overtaken by events.

Over the past many years, parliamentarians have hardly been able to persuade the people to increase or upgrade the rewards for them. Even those who vigorously defend parliamentarians for the sake of saving the democratic edifice would like their perks to be indexed to performance. If that is the public mood towards sitting members, the views on benefits allowed to retired parliamentarians can be imagined.

It is obvious that the privileges allowed to retired parliamentarians cannot be denied to sitting members of legislatures, and these will strengthen the tendency to view elective offices as a means of self-aggrandisement. As it is we seem to be moving farther and farther away from the tradition seen in the early days of democratic governance, according to which the honour of representing large bodies of fellow beings was sufficient recompense for legislators and pursuit of material gains was considered a corrupt practice.

However, at the moment a more important issue is the idea of allowing retired senators licences for prohibited bore firearms.

The move is ill-considered and fraught with frightening implications. Already the country is paying heavily for the glut of arms and any expansion of private arsenals is bound to increase the scale of violence and disorder. For years, the call to deweaponise society has been issued from nearly all state and civil society platforms. The present move betrays unforgivable contempt for a national consensus.

The first danger is that a generous grant of arms licences to retired parliamentarians will start a stampede for similar concessions. One suspects that a large body of elected representatives already enjoys the facility of keeping arms at home and in vehicles. But anyone who considers himself underprivileged in this area might like to end his deprivation at the earliest.

Those entering elected assemblies in the days to come may, first of all, queue before the arms-licensing counters.

Why should anyone want to have weapons of prohibited bore or any firearms at all? If there still are people who want to decorate their drawing rooms with guns and swords, instead of carpets, paintings or other artefacts, they should know that rusted and irreparable muskets and swords ideally serve this purpose, besides bolstering the owners’ claims of distinguished ancestry.

A great majority of the privileged will say they need arms for their security. In other words, they have no confidence in the state’s capacity to provide security. If parliamentarians feel this way, why shouldn’t other politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and any aspirants for joining the elite try to follow suit?

The arms-licensing authorities will come under pressure from all kinds of adventurers. They will include leaders of religious factions and youth forces such as the type one came across some years ago in Peshawar and Mansehra, who threatened, blackmailed and cajoled the authorities into giving them as many licences for Kalashnikovs as allowed to anyone else.

An arms race within the civilian population will result in a huge proliferation of dangerous weapons. Nobody should forget that arms, like wealth, change the psychological make-up of men. An armed person loses his capacity for peaceful argument and peaceful modes of celebration. He develops a habit of firing guns on the slightest pretext. Giving civilians arms is the easiest and most effective means to promote the cult of violence.

That any increase in the number of licensed arms in society leads to an influx of illicit weapons is known. Thieves, robbers and gangs of kidnappers and traffickers — to say nothing of extortionists and murderers operating under pious labels — must equip themselves with weapons deadlier than those possessed by their quarry.

This irreversible logic has already been seen as a result of the policy of upgrading weapons allowed to the police and all others who are described, quite undeservedly it seems, as law-enforcement agencies. When police and paramilitary forces began to be equipped with AK-47 assault rifles, their adversaries went in for deadlier weapons, including rocket launchers. Most of the offences by armed civilian functionaries that are reported year after year are due to the policy of putting guns into the hands of immature youth.

It is possible to argue that the state started moving away from non-violent ways of maintaining law and order when the rules of arms usage by the police were changed. There was a time when police officers could use only firearms that were issued by the police station or post. Each gun was registered and policemen had to render full account of each bullet used.

For many years now, the firearms at police armouries have been meant for display only. They are not even oiled and polished the way prescribed for army jawans or jailers. The result is that when the Taliban rose in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, policemen found their guns rusted and unserviceable. In Punjab, the use of private arms, often unlicensed, by the heroes of faked encounters is a scandal of the first order.

What Pakistan needs is a strict arms control regime — zero tolerance for the use of illicit and unauthorised arms by the police and paramilitary forces, a complete ban on the grant of licences for prohibited arms for any class of the civilian population and the strictest possible policy of granting licences for small arms.

One does not know how far the Supreme Court directive for the registration of all licensed arms with Nadra will go, but the idea is certainly worth trying. A good case can be made for making renewal of arms licences after every three years or so subject to review by a board of senior and peace-loving experts.

Civil society should also pay due attention to the brutalising effect of the proliferation of arms. It should not hesitate to put the authorities in the dock for having abandoned deweaponisation after a few half-hearted and desultory attempts. A campaign to achieve an arms-free society should receive as much support as the need to eradicate physical diseases, for the cult of violence is a much deadlier disease of the mind than any cancerous malignancy.

Prohibited bores for dignitaries? Certainly not, sir. Even bores that are not prohibited are not acceptable.