By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
On August 23, 2011, the Government of Pakistan decided to launch a ‘surgical operation’ immediately and without discrimination, in all areas of Karachi which had become ‘combat zones’ because of political turf wars, sectarian strife, extremist terrorism, as well as ‘target killings’, extortion, and other patterns of criminal violence. The decision came in response to a relentless succession of killings that escalated after the assassination of a former Member of the National Assembly (MNA) Ahmed Karimdad alias Waja Karimdad of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), on August 17, 2011. Islamabad has now directed the Rangers, Police and other civil Law Enforcement Agencies to ‘restore peace’ in Karachi.
Earlier, on August 21, 2011, Prime Minister (PM) Yousuf Raza Gilani had categorically denied that a military operation was to be launched in Karachi. At least 135 persons have been killed in Karachi between August 17 and August 28.
In the intervening night of August 23-24, contingents of the paramilitary Rangers were deployed in Lyari, Orangi Town, Malir, Saddar and other parts of the city. Karachi accounts for 7,000 of the 11,000 Rangers deployed in the Sindh Province. The paramilitary force will buttress the current strength of the Karachi Police, at 30,000.
According to the Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Inam Memon a total of 160 raids were conducted in different ‘sensitive areas’ of the city, and 75 suspects were arrested on the first day, August 23, and another 90 on August 24. 40 persons were arrested during a night search operation on August 25. On the first day, 79 automatic weapons, along with 606 rounds were recovered, while 18 weapons including Kalashnikovs, TT pistols and 182 rounds were recovered on the second day.
Escalating violence in Karachi has so far claimed 895 lives, including 806 civilians, in a total of 899 fatalities in Sindh (according to South Asia Terrorism Portal data) in 2011 (till August 28). On August 17, 2011, the Federal Minister of the Interior, Rehman Malik, had announced that the Government had decided to offer amnesty to those who voluntarily surrendered illegal arms in a phased campaign to ‘de-weaponise’ the country. Earlier, on August 8, Malik had claimed that Karachi would be ‘de-weaponised’ in phases, and that all arms licences issued by the Ministry of Interior would stand cancelled with effect from September 1. He added that no arms licences, except those issued by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), a Federal Department of the Government of Pakistan which has now been authorised to issue arms license, would be valid. NADRA is to start issuing arms license from September 1.
Malik also stressed that criminals carrying illegal arms would be tried under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, and the Arms Ordinance, 1969. Possession of illegal weapons will be a non-bailable offence with a minimum punishment of seven years, going up to life imprisonment. A reward scheme was also announced for informers, with PKR 20,000 on offer for the recovery of automatic weapons and PKR 50,000 for heavy weapons. Malik also disclosed that a large-scale campaign would be launched for recovery of illegal arms after August 31.
The demand for the ‘de-weaponisation’ of Karachi has been voiced with increasing stridency by different quarters of society as well as political parties. The two main political parties, who have allegedly been party to political target killing in Karachi – the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) – have also endorsed the de-weaponisation demand. On June 22, 2010, the Sindh Chapter of ANP had called for de-weaponisation of Karachi on an ‘urgent basis’ to end target killings and lawlessness. The MQM, which is a coalition partner of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the National Assembly, had submitted a draft ‘Deweaponisation of Pakistan Bill of 2011’, on January 17, 2011. Making a mockery of its own Bill, however, MQM leader Zahid Mehmood, just three days later, declared, “We have obtained hundreds of arms licences for our leaders and workers for self-defence. We got the arms licences. Our enemies have illegal weapons and surely we can have legal ones.” When asked about the contradiction inherent in procuring legal weapons for its members and moving a bill to de-weaponise society, he argued: “We would have no objection in depositing our weapons if all illegal arms are confiscated.” Unsurprisingly, the MQM, on April 6, withdrew the Bill from the Upper House to further negotiate with the Law Ministry and other legal experts, after Law Minister Babar Awan pointed out that the Bill overlapped with many other existing laws.
Neither the menace of illegal arms in Karachi, nor the idea of ‘de-weaponisation’, are new. Indeed, there is a long history of failure, as journalist Munazza Siddiqui notes in an article published in January 2002:
The first drive against illegal arms was launched in the mid-’80s, which targeted Sohrab Goth and Pathan-dominated areas of Karachi. In that operation, as well as in the subsequent ones by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, a sizable quantity of arms and ammunition was recovered which helped subdue anti-social activities. But they fizzled out without yielding any major breakthrough for lack of will. The only success that was achieved was by Naseerullah Babar, when, as Interior Minister during Benazir’s second term (October 19, 1993 – November 5, 1996), he managed to break the weapons’ supply line by using his connections in the NWFP (North West Frontier Province, now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). However, subsequent passiveness on the part of law enforcing agencies, no doubt influenced by political pressure, provided an opportunity to criminal elements to make good their losses. The post-9/11 events forced the Government to halt its de-weaponisation campaign midway, giving the anti-social elements a chance to recoup their losses. With the fall of the Taliban regime [in Afghanistan], Karachi again became a dumping ground of illegal arms.
In 2001, the Pakistan Government adopted the United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) and announced the launch of a campaign to counter the rampant ‘Kalashnikov culture’ in the country. A ‘de-weaponisation’ campaign was launched by the then General Pervez Musharraf regime, on June 1, 2001. The Interior Ministry de-licensed weapons for re-registration and announced amnesty for people who surrendered illegal weapons. At the end of the amnesty period, on June 20, 2001, the Surrender of Illicit Arms Act, 1991, was enforced and a ‘crackdown’ commenced the following day. Within two months, about 25,000 illegal weapons were recovered and 9,663 people were arrested.
Similar campaigns followed in 2005 and 2007, but the ban on the possession and display of weapons was never fully implemented, nor did successive Governments take any serious steps to monitor or halt the issuance of arms licences – a process dominated by gross irregularities and corruption. The state and various political parties in Pakistan have always maintained a high degree of ambivalence with regard to arms possession by a number of covertly sponsored extremist formations, and this has created the spaces for a vast underground trade and network of illegal weapons’ possession.
Unsurprisingly, the danger and the consequent violence appear to be spreading. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in a statement on August 5, 2011, noted that the violence in Karachi this year has been the deadliest since 1995, when more than 900 killings were reported in the first half of the year.
According to the Sindh Government report submitted to the Supreme Court on August 26, 2011, 300 people were murdered in incidents of target killings, and 232 cases had been registered in the preceding one month. The report stated that 117 target killers had been arrested and the challans of 179 accused had been submitted in the court. The Sindh Attorney General, however, contended that the judiciary could not resolve the issue, citing the example of one target killer, who was involved over 100 cases of murder, who had been acquitted by the court. Earlier, during the proceedings, Chief Justice (CJ) Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, heading a five-member bench, observed that, in the preceding month, the situation in Karachi had been out of control, with a complete breakdown of the Government’s machinery. Chaudhry noted, “People are being abducted for ransom; beheaded dead bodies of innocents with tied arms and legs, wrapped in sacks, are being recovered in large numbers daily and street crime is rampant.”
Meanwhile, Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah disclosed, on August 9, 2011, that, on an average, 20 illegal arms were recovered daily in Karachi, during the current year and that 4,000 illegal arms had already been seized in 2011. Shah also stated that 191,780 licences had been issued in the Sindh Province, of which 150,000 were issued just between 2001 and 2008. During a debate in the Senate on January 18, 2011, it was revealed that there were no less than an estimated two million weapons in Karachi alone. In a November 30, 2010, report, Interior Minister Rehman Malik acknowledged that over 30,000 arms licenses had been acquired fraudulently through corrupt officials in Karachi – and that individuals often held up to 10 weapons against each such license. On August 1, 2010, Malik had said that “some people in Karachi are keeping around 50 weapons on a single licence”. In addition, thousands of illegal weapons are smuggled into the city each year by a range of non-state actors, including terrorist groups; armed, ethnic, sectarian and political formations; organized crime groups; as well as significant numbers of individuals.
According to one Karachi Police report of March 6, 2011, the number of 9-mm pistols sold in the city stood at 125,000 in 2010 alone. The report also said that 3,000 out of a total of 35,000 people had been targeted by 30 bore or 9-mm pistols in the preceding three years in Karachi. 9-mm pistols are available in market at a price ranging between PKR 12,000 to 35,000 per unit, and a 30 bore pistol costs between from PKR 4,000 and 11,000.
It is not only Karachi that has seen rampant weaponisation in Pakistan. With Pakistan’s sustained covert involvement in the export of insurgency and terrorism across borders, into Afghanistan and India, the state and establishment’s have sought to harness criminal and extremist elements in society to further what are perceived as the country’s ‘strategic interests’, resulting in the widespread and state tolerated proliferation of small arms. With rising domestic terrorism, the state has also sought to pitch armed civilian groups against terrorist formations, resulting in a further growth of weapons’ possession across society. The consequent proliferation of SALW in the country has been overwhelming. Anti-gun campaigners claim that Pakistan has one of the highest per capita rates of gun ownership in the world. Ismat Ullah Khan, Project Officer of Sustainable Peace and Development Organization (SPADO), a non-government organization (NGO) supporting implementation of the UN programme of action on de-weaponisation, disclosed, on June 10, 2011, that the rate of private gun ownership in Pakistan is 11.6 firearms per 100 people and that the total number of illegal arms in Pakistan was estimated at about 20 million.
On April 20, 2011, the Sub-committee of the Senate’s Standing Committee on the Interior had asked the Government to provide details of the 140,000 arms licences issued by it over the preceding three years, and to explain why arms licences were being issued despite a ban since January 1, 2010. Worryingly, it was noted that some 32,000 of the 140,000 arms licences issued between 2007 and 2009 were ‘illegal’, based on forged documents or to unauthorised individuals or on unsanctioned grounds. The Sub-committee was informed that some 9,000 licences had been issued on the Prime Minister’s directions alone, despite the ban.
The much publicised de-weaponisation program in Karachi appears, once again, to be bound to fail, with a manifest lack of will in the Government to apply existing laws uniformly, and to withdraw the umbrella of protection to violent state supported groupings in the country in general. The gun culture has now become entrenched, as a result of Islamabad’s continuous efforts to exploit radicalised elements within society to further strategic and partisan political objectives. Unless the broader enterprise of radicalized violence in Pakistan is abandoned, the possibility of effective de-weaponisation in Karachi and across Pakistan, will remain remote.
Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management