May Issue 2015
To De-weaponise or Not?
In the days following the brutal attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar last year, national and international newspapers published reports on teachers and students taking lessons in the use of weapons. One article included a picture of a young school girl from Karachi holding a rifle and taking aim. Another quoted the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) education minister as saying that, “all those teachers who want to carry firearms to schools will be provided with permits.” Readers were utterly flabbergasted.
Teachers and students in the KP and Multan may be availing these lessons, but the Special Security Unit at the Karachi Police maintains that the classes they have been conducting for teachers, students, journalists and various other professionals since December 11, 2014 simply provide “self-defence” training. They explain that the lessons only include first-aid training and survival skills in case of kidnap or a terrorist attack, and that they have never taught anyone how to shoot a gun, stressing that this is impossible to learn in just one day. Nevertheless, the SSU says that their classes are becoming increasing popular, and this is indicative of our national mindset.
Pakistan has been plagued by crime and militancy in the last two decades. Only last year, 2,125 people died in targeted attacks, according to the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). Combined with a lack of trust in the police — the politicised nature of which was highlighted perfectly by the recent news that a policeman in Karachi had links to a political party and aided hitmen in targeted killings while in service — ordinary citizens are increasingly talking about the need to take security in their own hands. According to The Guardian UK, 18 million people in Pakistan owned guns in 2007. De-weaponisation may sound like a straightforward solution to this problem, but it is not as simple as that.
An online poll conducted by Newsline in 2011, soliciting readers’ opinions on the best way to tackle violence in Karachi, revealed interesting attitudes. The most common suggestions were for police reform and for citizens to arm themselves. And one person even said that in light of the poor security situation, de-weaponisation would be “the stupidest thing to do.” Former chief of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), Jameel Yusuf believes that given the state’s inability to provide citizens with security, we should avail our right to self-defence. “De-weaponisation means that innocent citizens will no longer have any weapons, while criminals will have a free hand. They won’t give up their guns. Today if there is any fear of retaliation from armed guards, where will that go if we have de-weaponisation?” he asks. “This will result in even more crime. People will not feel safe.”
According to Yusuf, de-weaponisation campaigns in Pakistan have failed to achieve anything substantial so far because they either target the owners of legal weapons — whereas the arms being used for crime and militancy are owned illegally — or weapons that are obsolete. In 2001, a government campaign that rendered the issuance, sale and carrying of weapons illegal, led to a total of 124,000 arms being surrendered nation-wide. But Yusuf says that all these arms were obsolete. In 2013, the Supreme Court launched another de-weaponisation drive. But Yusuf calls this initiative, “the biggest farce, the biggest joke.” It was conducted through half-page newspaper advertisements asking people to surrender their weapons without any monetary incentive. The campaign cost Rs 20-25 million rupees, whereas merely 16 illegal weapons were collected. This means that for every weapon surrendered, more than one million rupees was spent. “A total failure,” Yusuf says.
In 2013, the Sindh Arms Act was passed after the above-mentioned campaign in the same year yielded pitiful results. But Yusuf says that this too did not target the real problem. The legislation was meant to be tougher on illegal arms owners, and therefore stipulates a period of 14 years imprisonment as opposed to the previous seven years, for the acquisition of illegal arms. However, the legislation also permits an officer to seize a weapon even if the owner possesses a valid license for it, merely if the officer deems it necessary.
Pakistan’s de-weaponisation campaign has been undermined because of a lack of political will on the part of the government, which is, in turn, fuelled by the fact that the majority of gun- owners are bureaucrats and the political elite.
According to Naeem Sadiq, a social activist who strongly supports de-weaponisation, weapons in Pakistan are an instrument of power and control. People are reluctant to give them up not because they fear for their security, but because they wish to use arms to enforce their wishes and exert control over others. “In Pakistan, owning a gun means power,” he says. He mentions an incident that took place earlier this year when he was visiting the Punjab. “The brother of an MPA who had been arrested blocked the main road with 200 armed goons. The national highway was blocked for hours and hours only because this group had more weapons than the police.”
Security analyst Imtiaz Gul agrees that the landed aristocracy and leading politicians “always peddle lame arguments to support their craving for money, power and weapons,” and believes that de-weaponisation will not do much in addressing this problem. “Many in the ruling elite have a nexus with organised crime, and this is what primarily obstructs the de-weaponisation campaign. The criminals and terrorists will never surrender their weapons,” he says, even though he agrees that de-weaponisation is not impossible, and the right way forward.
Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan gave us just a glimpse of the magnitude of this problem in his speech to the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Interior on March 16. He revealed that in its previous tenure, the government issued 70,000 gun licenses — not just for any weapons but, specifically, prohibited bore. “It’s absolute madness,” says Sadiq. “Imagine; you position people in parliament for the sake of peace, and the first thing they do is acquire prohibited bore weapons for themselves. I can tell you of one deputy commissioner of Karachi who sold 5,000 gun licenses and pocketed all the money,” he says. Gul asks whether our politicians and bureaucrats will ever hand over their weapons? “This is a major challenge that any government will face,” he says.
According to Sadiq, the police is controlled by the ruling politicians. “Right now, the chief minister of a province can make any changes he likes in the position of any police officer. Compare this to the UK where the prime minister cannot say a rude word to a constable, forget changing his assignment or suspending him,” he says.
In the absence of a successful de-weaponisation campaign, the first step should be strict arms control. “There is nothing wrong with the idea of keeping a weapon at home. Many people in Pakistan carry guns for personal safety and for hunting,” says Gul. What should bother us is the use of these weapons in illegal activities. He believes that “gun ownership needs to be managed by a stringent set of laws. And banning anything is not necessarily the answer.” It is a “retrogressive” policy, because people will ultimately find a way around the ban. Take the example of YouTube. The video-sharing website has been banned in Pakistan since September 2012 but people now use proxies and other innovative websites to access the same content. Jameel Yusuf likens banning the use of weapons in a time of immense crime to the government’s recent ban on tankers to tackle the problem of acute water shortage. The answer lies in “the enforcement of law and in the certainty of punishment,” according to Gul. Even in India, the biggest democracy in the world, there are open illegal weapons markets. “So it’s not about the freedom to acquire weapons, it’s about what course the law takes if law enforcement agencies get their hands on illegal weapons.”
In Yusuf’s opinion, the rule of law would include creating a transparent system for issuing gun licenses, which is totally non-existent right now; leveraging a heavy fine and/or term of imprisonment for illegal gun possession; and preparing an electronic database with details of all arms owners to ensure traceability and, therefore, accountability. However Sadiq believes “this is a terrible suggestion.” This would essentially “create a transparent system for committing crime.” According to him, a gun does not guarantee security, and SSP Chaudhry Aslam Khan and Benazir Bhutto’s tragic fate amply testify to this fact.
But regardless of whether Pakistan needs de-weaponisation right now or not, one thing both sides agree upon is the imprudence of closing down all ordnance factories in the country. Not only would this give rise to massive unemployment in those areas — and perhaps as a consequence even crime — but Pakistan would miss out on capitalising on the international demand for handmade weapons. “The people in Bara and Wah are very good at making these weapons. They falter only in the metallurgy. If this process can be mastered, these handmade weapons abroad will fetch seven to 10 times the price at which they are currently being sold within Pakistan,” says Yusuf.
Although mistrust in the police might be used by some as an excuse to carry arms, the fear is very real for the doctors’ community in Pakistan. Fifty-seven doctors were killed between 2010 and January 2015 in Karachi alone, according to the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA). And at a meeting between various PMA representatives and the then DG Rangers, Major-General Rizwan Akhtar, in March last year the PMA was promised the facilitation of arms licenses for doctors who wanted them. However, the President of the PMA’s Karachi chapter, Dr Qazi Wasiq reveals that now that the licenses are being made available to the doctors, barely any have shown interest. “During a strike the doctors get very riled up, there is a lot of talk about getting gun licenses and arming oneself. But in reality the doctors don’t want to use guns. They feel they should have life-saving, not life-taking, instruments in their hands.” One group of about six or seven doctors attended a Rangers training session, but Wasiq says that was the only one. “People say a lot of things in desperation,” he explains.
Another reason why doctors have not actually availed this opportunity is because arming oneself is not as easy as it sounds. Getting a license is just the first step. Next the pricey weapon and ammunition have to be purchased, and then there are maintenance charges and the cost of regular training sessions. All this is enough to discourage ordinary citizens from actually arming themselves.
So there appears to be an impasse: The police have not been able to stem the tide of rising gun-related violence, de-weaponisation does not appear to target the actual perpetrators of crime and terrorism, but taking up arms is not a practical solution. And yet strict arms control and certainty of punishment seem distant dreams in Pakistan.
The use of SIMs in carrying out illegal activities posed a similar problem, if of a lesser magnitude, Sadiq says. He explains that the battle for nation-wide registration has been waged for a decade by various groups. “For 10 long years we said that if SIMs are not registered they will be misused to assist in militant activities. The government did not listen. Then on the night of December 16 last year, they announced that all SIMs from around the country would be registered within 28 days. Pakistan will continue to bleed until it commits to de-weaponisation. As a citizen, I look forward to that day.” Yusuf says that the blood of 132 innocent children is on our hands, for failing to take timely action.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.
Hiba Mahamadi was an Editorial Assistant at Newsline