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Take away the guns, please

April 03, 2012

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KARACHI is burning again. Almost 40 people were killed in the last week or so of March. Three strike calls disrupted life in the city and the loss to production is estimated by industrialists and traders to be Rs20bn.

Those believed to be provoking violence are not outlaws operating outside the political system. They are parties that were elected by the people whose life and property they are expected to safeguard.

The only one to show some concern was the chief justice of the Sindh High Court who sought a report from the police and the Rangers. The Supreme Court had directed the government last year to form a committee to supervise and ensure that the law-enforcement agencies take action across the board against the perpetrators of disturbances. Not much has been heard about it.

We do not know what is in store because the parties at loggerheads show no signs of reconciliation and the killers roam brazenly in their strongholds. The belligerent noises from their camps are hardly reassuring. They owe their positions to the votes of the people. But not a single one of them has asked the pertinent question. What do the people want?

They are totally off the mark if they believe that the city shuts down in their support when they give a strike call. They should know better. Can one afford to have one’s vehicle torched by ruffians on a day of closure? Fifty cars and buses were burnt during this fateful week. Remember the little boy who was shot in the chest when he refused to shut his tyre shop as a procession was passing by? The poor soul was too young to have learnt from experience. He was barely 13 years.

Ask the daily wage earner what he wants. He will tell you he wants peace and security so that he can go about his business of earning his livelihood. The factory worker whose job is already in the doldrums wants work to go on normally. It brings stability and security to the economy and to his life.

This is also the wish of small traders, rickshaw drivers and many others who are living a hand-to-mouth existence, Their survival depends on peace. Even for those students appearing for their examinations, a missed day can spell disaster for their academic life. Don’t forget to ask the mothers. They will tell you that they want their sons and breadwinners to return home safely every night.

The parties in control, however, cannot give the people the peace and security they want. Strange. On many occasions it is perceived that their leaders themselves create havoc that is rejected by those who voted them into power. Theirs is a ‘turf war’, so we were told by the Supreme Court (SC) which took suo motu notice of the killings in the city last year when the death toll reached 574 in July-August.

In the current bout of violence, we may still be far from that horrendous figure but before things get out of hand it is time to revisit the Supreme Court’s judgment of last October.

Noting the causes of violence as recent demographic changes, ethnicity, sectarianism and factional infighting, the existence of bhatta, land and drug mafias, the infiltration by criminals of political parties with militant wings and most importantly “easy access to illicit weapons and misuse of arms licences”, the SC suggested deweaponisation and directed the government to devise “a methodology … to deweaponise” by following the existing laws and enacting new ones if need be. In this context the court also noted that in the last five years Sindh’s Home Department and the Federal Ministry for Interior had issued 1,429,540 licences for non-prohibited and prohibited bores. Karachi is awash with arms.

The court also spoke of the need for an “honest commitment on the part of the law-enforcing agencies”. Again it observed that without depoliticising the police, positive results could not be achieved. The court had already been informed that about 40 per cent of the police force was appointed “illegally” on political recommendations and was not qualified or trained for the job.Did the government take any step towards this end? With the perpetrators of violence being in the government could one really hope for any honest measures?

A test of the rulers’ commitment to deweaponisation came in January this year when the interior ministry in Islamabad endorsed a proposal seeking issuance of licences for arms of prohibited and non-prohibited bores on the recommendations of MPs and MPAs. According to one calculation this would allow the issuance of 23,500 licences for all variety of arms every month.

Intriguing. On the one hand the court asks you to deweaponise on the other you ensure that arms proliferate in society. The MQM-sponsored Deweaponisation of Pakistan Bill, 2011 has been gathering dust in the National Assembly. But we already have a law in place — Surrender of Illicit Arms Act, 1991 — and a beginning could be made on this basis. Meanwhile, no new licences should be issued and a new law providing for the surrender of arms, even licensed ones, should be enacted.

The underlying factors that have criminalised Karachi are many and will take a long time to eliminate. But if the proliferation of weapons can be checked, at least the killings can be checked. Lives — be they be of Pakhtuns, Mohajirs, Sindhis or Baloch — are precious and sacred. They must be protected. Restore to Karachi the richness of its diversity it was famous for.

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