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A weapon-free Karachi?

According to media reports 2,500-3,000 people fell victim to violence in Karachi in 2012.Ironically, the same year in September UN member states adopted a treaty pledging to rid the world of the scourge brought upon it by the illicit manufacture, transfer and circulation of small arms and light weapons, and their excessive accumulation in many parts of the world.

They also committed to mobilising the necessary political will and resources to implement this programme. By not working for the deweaponisation of Karachi, Pakistan is moving in the opposite direction. Have we resigned ourselves to living on the edge with bullets flying around us?

The scale of violence is stunning. But what is more astounding is that the killings continue to take place in brazen disregard of the concern expressed by the Supreme Court which had taken suo motu notice of the crisis in Sept-Oct 2011. Declaring the violence to be “not ethnic alone” but “a turf war between different groups having economic, socio-politico interests to strengthen their position/aggrandisement, based on the phenomenon of tit-for-tat with political, moral and financial support or endorsement of the political parties”, the court had specified some measures to end the violence in the city.

The October 2011 order had “directed that a committee be constituted by the provincial government … to supervise and ensure that law enforcement agencies take action indiscriminately, across the board against the perpetrators involved in causing disturbances in Karachi. The chief justice (of Sindh) shall convene the meeting at least once in a month to review the implementation of this judgment and copy of the proceedings shall be transmitted to the registrar of this court.”

We are told that these reports were filed, but the intensity of the killings just grew and grew. In continuation of the 2011 hearings, last October the chief justice constituted an expanded bench with five honourable judges to hear the Karachi unrest case. Their interim order, issued on November 3, was very explicit and clearly identified people responsible for the violence.

Strangely, the interim order has moved no one. Statements by judges have fallen on deaf ears, as when one of them observed “no one among the senior officers of the police seems to have shown concern”.

We know that political parties which have armed wings are all involved in the violence that has engulfed the city. Since the interim order was issued ten weeks ago, 633 people have been killed in the city. The parties in the ruling coalition bear a greater responsibility since it is the administration’s duty to provide security to the citizens.
Take the case of the 35 under-trial and convicted prisoners who were unlawfully released on parole. They are said to be hardened criminals and must have used their freedom to kill several more people. We do not know yet if they have been picked up again as directed by the court.

Other criminal elements are taking advantage of the breakdown of law and order to promote their own nefarious interests. They may be the land mafia, the tanker mafia, the drug smugglers or petty street criminals who want to make hay while the sun shines. Those suffering are the common people whose only interest lies in law and order.

In this ghastly scenario, can one hope for any form of deweaponisation of Karachi which is the basic need of the hour? The SC had observed in October 2011 that “Karachi is full of arms and ammunition of prohibited and non-prohibited bores including licensed and illicit, therefore, Karachi has to be cleansed from all kinds of weapons by adhering to the laws available on the subject”. It had suggested that new laws be enacted if the need is felt. It had also sought an end to “unnecessary display (of arms) at ceremonies or elsewhere for aerial firing”.

Although it has been argued that generally, unlicensed arms are used to commit crime, it doesn’t justify the huge presence of licensed arms in the city. The SC was informed in 2011 that the Sindh Home Department had issued 180,956 licenses of non-prohibited bore and 46,114 licenses of prohibited bore in five years. The interior ministry in Islamabad had issued 1,202,470 licenses of non-prohibited bore.

The interim order asks for the computerisation of all arms licenses within three months and the cancellation of all non-computerised licenses. This is just the first — even though tenuous — step towards the deweaponisation of the city. Hence it must be taken seriously. Computerisation will reveal the identity of persons holding several arms licenses.

It is now very clear that without a deweaponisation exercise there is absolutely no way of ending the violence in the metropolis. There are many peace activists who would want to push for ending the killings in Karachi but they cannot do much when they face criminals armed to the hilt.

The key question is, who will implement the programme? It has to be the police which must be freed of political interference. It is time to revisit the police reforms proposed over the years but never carried out. Only a police force accountable to a non-partisan public safety commission manned by members of the public can undertake the exercise of deweaponisation effectively. The political parties should understand that the people are weary of their shenanigans and if they don’t fall in line, the political consequences will not be good for them.


Zubeida Mustafa, "A weapon-free Karachi?," Dawn. 2013-01-16.