Even today, hit-men can kill their unsuspecting targets with ease on the restive roads of Karachi. A sudden spike in the incidents of bloodletting after prolonged periods of lull still remains in the realm of possibility here. Gun-toting petty criminals continue to deprive citizens of their mobile phones, cash and valuables every day. And if luck runs out during a mugging attempt, the price could be your dear life. Meet any Karachiite and you are sure to hear at least a couple of real-life, hair-raising stories of street crime if not more. Either the storyteller will have a personal ordeal to narrate or that of a near and dear one. And people belonging to every social class – from the affluent to that of the low income groups – have such stories to share which paint a scary picture of Karachi where no road and neighbourhood appear out of bound for criminals.
Yes, since mid-80s Karachi has been known more for the harrowing tales of extortion, street crime, bloody gang wars, target killings, kidnapping for ransom and political, ethnic, religious and sectarian violence rather than as a business, commercial and investment capital of Pakistan. But this mayhem, violence and bloodletting – which basically was the outcome of political expediency and weakness and lack of will of the relevant institutions – never did move in a straight line. Like the present time, there were always some dips and even brief periods of relative peace before a sudden spike in violence. With the passage of time, intensity and brutality of violence increased and some new complexity or contradiction added to an already complex situation.
The successive governments promised crackdowns and initiated half-hearted corrective measures, bringing brief respites. The law enforcers sometimes got rid of one generation of criminals and terrorists, but they were replaced by a new generation of brutes as the then governments failed to eliminate their breeding grounds for good.
The parasitical element responsible for lawlessness and violence not just expanded their stifling hold on the city but got embedded in its very fabric. Politics and crime started to overlap. Political support and patronage emboldened mafias and drastically curtailed the effectiveness and efficiency of the Law Enforcement Agencies, especially the police. The vast racket of land grabbing and extortion meant massive money and every political dispensation ensured its share in the booty according to its size and clout.
No wonder for the past couple of decades now, Karachi falls in the category of world’s most dangerous mega cities. Foreign businesspeople and investors rather strike deals with their Pakistani counterparts in Dubai or some other regional safe haven than to expose themselves to criminals and terrorists operating here.
A vast number of Pakistanis too consider Karachi a risky place – an urban jungle where rules are meant to be broken and human life remains cheap and of no importance.
Has the ongoing paramilitary-led operation – that started in September 2013 – made Karachi a safer place compared to the past? And if the answer is a “yes” then perhaps a more pertinent question could be: is this improvement in law and order sustainable?
The answer to the first question is easy, but the second one is a bit tricky. Yes, in recent months many people have started to see a ray of hope about the city and its future. This indeed is a big achievement given the hopelessness which prevailed before the start of the operation. And this optimism doesn’t seem misplaced – at least for now. There has been a drop of more than 40 per cent in the number of target killings since paramilitary rangers-led operation started against criminals and terrorists. The number of murders and incidents of terrorism have also gone down significantly. Many business people, traders, industrialists, shopkeepers and professionals now breathe easy as the criminal-cum-political mafias no longer have a free-hand to extort money from them. The challenge of street crime – which mostly goes unreported – is very much there, but some semblance of normality returned to the city with the fall in the number of killings and action against organized crime and terror mafias. The resilient citizens of Karachi have been seen marking the recent religious and national occasions and festivities with greater zeal and fervour and in a much relaxed atmosphere – be it Eid, the Independence or the Defence Day. The fear of sudden strikes and organized violence no longer appear as the main concern when people go out for daily work or recreation. The Rangers-led operation, supported by the police, resulted in the arrest and killings of scores of hardened criminals and terrorists – many belonging to the mainstream political parties and others to the banned terrorist groups and crime mafias. The recent focus of the Law Enforcement Agencies on patrons and facilitators of the crime and terror networks added more pressure on the politically-connected bad guys, who appear on the back-foot for the first time in many years. However, a vast majority of those arrested have managed to walk free on bail due to the weak prosecution and flaws in our judicial system. Yet, the overall positive impact of the crackdown on the lives of Karachiites cannot be ignored.
Sindh’s two main political parties will be living in self-denial if they do not admit that this operation enjoys an overwhelming support among ordinary Pakistanis, including a vast number of Karachiites. The public opinion, by-and-large, remain in favour of tough measures against the law breakers despite complaints about the alleged extra-judicial killings and missing people. The allegations that rangers seem to be stepping out of their mandate by targeting the corrupt has caused little public uproar as only leaders of the affected parties raised hue-and-cry over the issue – a posture, which hardly won politicians any public sympathy.
These gains are certainly worth celebrating. But here let’s repeat the difficult second question: how to sustain and build upon this achievement? As far as the Rangers are concerned, they are enjoying a wave of wide public approval for most of their actions. They also have complete backing and support of the top military leadership to continue the operation and expand its ambit to the facilitators and patrons of terrorists and criminals. The federal government is also supportive of the crackdown, while the two main provincial parties – the PPP and the MQM – have not rejected this operation in an outright manner despite reservations. All these are positive signs.
However, it is necessary to address any objections raised by the political parties so that justice being done can be seen. In no way this should mean yielding to unjust political pressure or letting the perpetrators of heinous crimes off the hook. Such controversial past practices should not be repeated. The federal government should move swiftly to form an “apolitical” monitoring committee – comprising mainly retired judges and distinguished civilian personalities with proven public service record – to hear any grievances by an affected party. The terms of reference for such committee or committees should be decided in consultation with all stakeholders, including the security agencies, to ensure fairness and justice. Our military and civilian leaders should be clear in their minds that any rangers, or for that matter even military-led operation remains only a crisis management solution. The men in uniform can only win back the political and administrative space lost by the civilian institutions to various non-state actors. Once the violent non-state actors are pushed away from the scene, it’s the job of civilian leadership to take measures to establish the rule of law and maintain writ of the state.
In Karachi’s context it means that the mainstream political parties must critically review their performance and clean their stables. There should be no room for militants and criminals within the ranks of any political or religious groups. The nexus between crime and politics must be broken. This also means a firm ‘no’ to all sorts of extortion and land grabbing mafias as well as crackdown on the corrupt and white collar criminals. Are the political parties ruling Karachi for many years ready to break ties with the criminal and the corrupt? Given the public awareness and pressure regarding the issue and the determined push from state institutions, the leadership of these two parties can be coaxed to reform and improve in its own enlightened self-interest.
Secondly, the civilian leadership should avail the window of rangers-led crackdown to introduce the much-delayed reforms in the police. This means granting operational and institutional autonomy and independence to the police. All sort of political interference in the affairs of the Sindh Police must stop. Transfers and postings should be made on merit and for a fixed period by its institutional leadership rather than by politicians. At the same time independent monitoring committees need to be set-up to redress any complaints and grievances against police officials. Without an independent, efficient and honest police force, the task of establishing the rule of law would remain a pipedream. Unfortunately, police reforms that also include its modernization, capacity-building and human resource development are not even on the agenda of our lawmakers. Judicial reforms are also as important as the police reforms. This means not just increasing the number of courts at every level for speedy trials but making judiciary responsive and efficient by doing away with cumbersome procedures. This calls for proper legislation and enactment of law that compels judges not to postpone the hearing of cases for more than five working days. At the same time, be it the defence lawyers or the prosecution, they should not be allowed to drag cases for indefinite period. Rather, cases must be disposed off within a specific time limit. Computerization of the court records can go a long way to ensure justice on a timely and organized manner. The judicial reforms should also aim that the poor and the low-income group people can get affordable justice and if necessary even free legal support.
Jail reforms should be made in tandem with the police and judicial reforms. Here the target should be that our prisons are transformed into education, vocational training and reformation centres rather than over-crowded dens from where a convict walks back into the society as a more hardened criminal rather than being its useful member.
The government also needs to invest more on education and ensure that there are no unregulated institutions – be it in the elite private sector or the seminaries. The government must push for uniform curriculum across the country to promote national cohesion and unity. Some of these reforms are not just Karachi specific, but are needed for the entire country.
In Karachi’s particular context, both the federal and provincial governments need to invest on its socio-economic uplift and modernization of infrastructure that includes providing this mega city of nearly 20 million people a dependable mass transit system. Many of Karachi’s problems, including ethnic tensions, are the result of the unregulated, rickety and highly inefficient public transport system. Investment on Karachi’s infrastructure and modernization is needed not just to bring peace, stability and restore the rule of law, but to allow the city to realize its massive economic potential, which can serve as a vanguard to turnaround the country’s economy.
None of Karachi’s problems are unmanageable. The city just needs ownership from the political players who need to show some vision, a little common sense, dedication, honesty and commitment to the masses. Is it too much to ask from our elected representatives?
The writer is an eminent journalist who regularly contributes for print and electronic media. [email protected] Twitter: @AmirZia1
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