On 2nd March 2013, a botched up kidnapping attempt took place at an upbeat shopping mall in Karachi. The crime was committed by the son of an influential person with a licensed weapon using a vehicle with a fake government number plate. It does not require counter-terrorism experts to determine the key ingredients that come together to create a typical Pakistani crime scene – weapons, vehicles and influential people. Individually and often collectively they define the lawless and violent reality of today’s Pakistan. Though late in the day, there now appears a growing realization that living with the barbarity of 15 persons killed every day and 50 on weekends need not be a permanent feature of our existence. But crime is a lucrative business, which can neither be wished away nor be expected to disappear voluntarily. The solution lies in seeing an end to the three crucial components that create, facilitate or promote crime and violence in Pakistan. These are (a) weapons – licensed or otherwise, (b) vehicles – smuggled, unregistered or carrying fake number plates and (c) the pampered, violent and lawless ruling elite.
Let us begin by understanding the role of vehicles as a medium for conducting and promoting violence. On Friday the 23rd November 2012, the FBR Chairman revealed mind-boggling figures of 2.3 million non-duty paid smuggled vehicles on the roads of Pakistan – of which about 450,000 luxury vehicles had been registered on forged documents. This amounts to a direct financial violence (evasion of duties and taxes) of some 900 billion rupees. Smuggling and fraud on such a scale can simply not happen without active collusion and patronage of many (ir)responsible state institutions. Decent and law-abiding citizens do not use smuggled vehicles nor register them on forged documents. Thus it is safe to assume that the majority of these vehicles are now owned by criminals (mostly people with influence and power) and are used for criminal activities.
A recent study carried out in Karachi with a sample of 430 vehicles carrying green number plates (meant exclusively for government use) revealed that 70% vehicles had fake or illegal number plates. The survey was based on a population of 3468 vehicles (GS and GSA number plates only) purchased by the Sindh government in the last 6 years. 28% vehicles were found carrying fake GS or GSA number plates – not included in the database held by the Excise and Taxation Department. Another 26% vehicles posed as government vehicles by illegally displaying their registration numbers on green background plates. 9% vehicles carried fancy number plates while 7% carried no number plates at all. There are thus thousands of unregistered vehicles with spurious, fake or missing number plates that move around unchecked on the streets of Karachi. Vehicles of this category are the ones most often employed in crime and kidnapping, for they leave behind no clues of their origin or ownership and the police is too incompetent and scared to check them.
With an estimated 8 million licensed and 12 million unlicensed guns in the hands of people not known for their reverence for law, there can be little reason for peace and tranquility to show up voluntarily. For years the government itself pioneered the spread of violence and militancy – issuing 69000 prohibited bore licenses to some 300 parliamentarians in the last five years. The Federal government issued 1.2 million gun licenses, while the Sindh government made a matching contribution of distributing 0.4 million licenses in the last five years. Have all these weapons made citizens’ life any safer? Surely there is enough data to suggest otherwise.
Guns are designed to perform just one function. To expect them to behave differently is not reasonable. A society without guns will gradually learn to solve its conflicts with words instead of bullets. It would therefore be best to begin by striking down the Arms Ordinance – a law exclusively aimed to promote violence and facilitate a particular class to acquire exclusive rights to kill. Vulnerable to gross misuse, the Arms Ordinance is a convoluted and violence-friendly instrument that lets even people like Malik Ishaq, the Founder of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to obtain 11 prohibited bore licenses. This madness can be ended only when no citizen, regardless of his rank or status, rich or poor, religious or secular is allowed to possess, carry or display any weapon of any bore – licensed or otherwise. Providing security is the responsibility of the state, and it must not be sublet to private armies or individuals.
Pakistan can rapidly transform itself into a peaceful and progressive society if it can focus on breaking two important links in this chain of violence. (a) Across-the-board deweaponisation and (b) creating an effective system to control, register, trace and check every vehicle. Needless to say that this will not happen without a massive and sustained peoples’ movement.