Everyone is usually inextricably linked to the place where they were born. But Karachi is a unique city that draws in not only native born residents but even those who migrated here from other parts of the country. The city gets woven into the very strands of their DNA and, for better or for the worse, they stick loyally to the sprawling city.
But Karachi also has a dark underbelly of crime and violence that has taken its toll on the city’s fortunes. The city, once the capital of Pakistan, is now the country’s financial and business hub. But every now and then, violence erupts in the city, pitting ethnic, sectarian and political groups against each other.
Karachi is certainly not free of crime and violence even today, despite a four-year-long operation, initiated in 2013 and spearheaded by the Rangers. No multi-ethnic, densely populated mega-city in the world can be entirely free of crime.
Nevertheless, the Karachi of today is a far cry from what the city was as recently as four years ago. Killings, often prompted by sectarian and ethnic differences, made the headlines every other day. Things came to a head from 2008 to 2010, when members of political parties – ranging from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement to the Awami National Party – and Lyari’s gangs, the land mafia, the drug dealers and more were continuously at loggerheads.
Disputes would often end in the exchange of fatal gunfire. Extortion was at an all-time high as a result of which traders were either delaying investment or relocating abroad. Street crime was, and to some extent continues to be, a pernicious malaise plaguing the very socio-cultural fabric of Karachi.
Things began to change in 2013 when, three months after the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government came to power, the Rangers were given the lead for rounding up terrorists and curbing criminal activity in Karachi. They were given special powers under the Anti-Terrorism Act and the Protection of Pakistan Act which allowed them to arrest, detain and investigate terrorists for a period of three to six months.
To date, the Rangers have reportedly arrested more than 100,000 criminals, many of whom belong to Karachi’s mafia networks. The operation has been widely hailed as being successful, largely because it has been almost entirely apolitical.
Although the operation has brought relative peace to the city, it has also been heavily criticised on several fronts. There has been considerable debate between the provincial and federal government over the sweeping powers given to the Rangers.
Street crime continues to be endemic and the city’s residents live in fear of being mugged, or worse – shot dead – should they resist a mugging attempt. Allegations have also been made of staged encounters and torture of suspected militants taken into custody.
To explore the impact of the Karachi Operation, Narratives spoke to three prominent Karachi residents, hailing from different segments of the city’s business community. We asked them to assess the success of the operation and suggest what steps should be taken to sustain its benefits in coming years.
Jameel Yusuf, Founder Chief of the Citizens Police Liaison Committee and a leading businessman
There has been a massive improvement in Karachi’s law and order situation after the Rangers-led operation. The Rangers have done an excellent job of bringing down the crime and terrorism levels in the city.
There are still small issues, but these can be addressed by the police forces at the DIG and SSP levels. Before the operation, Karachi was grappling with three major kinds of crimes; extortion, kidnappings and murders. All that has stopped almost completely. Nonetheless, very low levels of crime still exist.
The biggest need of the hour is to address the crimes happening at the sectarian level. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) needs to prioritise this.
The National Action Plan to counter terrorism can only be implemented if NACTA works in coordination with provincial counter-terrorism authorities to purge the big cities of terrorism. We need to examine the changes in crime levels over the past decade in Karachi and institutionalise the learning process.
Between 2006 and 2012, thousands of people were dying annually in Karachi but now the murders have been brought down to almost nil.
There are two major reasons why the operation has been significantly successful. Firstly, the entire responsibility for the execution of the Karachi operation was given to the Rangers, which is an independent body that doesn’t have any political affiliation.
This means that the citizens and political parties cannot influence decision-making regarding the capture and treatment of terrorists and criminals.
We need to examine the changes in crime levels over the past decade… Between 2006 and 2012, thousands of people were dying annually in Karachi but now the murders have been brought down to almost nil
Secondly, the Rangers were allowed by the Sindh Assembly to detain terrorists for three to six months. This is a very important clause because a captured criminal or terrorist isn’t likely to spill secrets if he knows that he will be released soon. It is only the despair of being in confinement for the foreseeable future that persuades them to speak.
This clause needs to be made permanent. Developed nations such as the United States and Britain have been successful in countering terrorism only because they have institutionalised such clauses. How do you think Guantanamo Bay works? Prisoners are detained indefinitely for their crimes.
There is also a need to expedite the trial and sentencing process. Night courts, which were set up in Britain to deal with the issue of street crimes, succeeded in rounding up offenders and dispensing justice within two to three weeks.
We need to study how crime is dealt with internationally and implement the learning in our counter-terrorism departments at the federal and provincial level. Essentially, the lessons learnt and achievements made to counter terrorism in Karachi need to be institutionalised for sustainability.
Shamim Ahmad Firpo, President of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI)
Karachi, the financial and commercial hub of the country, contributes more than 65 percent in revenue to the national exchequer and has seen many ups and downs in the law and order situation.
The city had been gripped by political, ethnic and sectarian violence, leading to strikes which have hampered business. The situation has improved considerably after the Karachi Operation undertaken by law enforcement agencies (LEAs) from September 2013.
Members of LEAs have rendered unprecedented sacrifices for the restoration of peace and tranquility to Karachi and the city is gradually regaining its past glory.
As a result of the operation, an increase in foreign investment, as well as improvement in political, social and economic activities, is distinctly visible in Karachi. Extortion bids, kidnappings and political murders, all appear to have decreased.
However, Karachi still has many miles to go before it can be declared a safe city. Despite the reduction in overall violence, street crime remains endemic – a fact that has been acknowledged at the highest echelons of government.
The Rangers and police claim to have arrested about 100,000 criminals during the three-year-long Karachi operation. Of those, 80 percent were proclaimed offenders, absconders, street thugs, robbers or drug peddlers, while only 20 percent were directly involved in terrorism and serious crimes such as bomb blasts, targeting of law enforcers, professionals and businessmen in political and religiously motivated killings. The conviction rate for arrested suspects is as low as five percent, due to a poor investigative and prosecution process.
There is a dire need to build the capacity of the police force as they will ultimately have to take over maintaining law and order in Karachi
Although normalcy has nearly returned in Karachi, there are strong apprehensions that the moment the decision is taken to put the Karachi operation on the back-burner, the gangs and mafias that once controlled the city will resurface and start reassembling their network.
Therefore, it is necessary that the Karachi Operation should continue till an alternative, fool-proof crime control system replaces it.
The Rangers’ presence in Karachi is inevitable until the police force is depoliticised. There is a dire need to build the capacity of the police force as they will ultimately have to take over maintaining law and order in Karachi. The first and foremost step is to appoint police officers purely on the basis of merit without succumbing to any kind of political pressure.
Secondly, police officers have to be effectively trained, preferably by the armed forces, to promptly and efficiently deal with crimes. Thirdly, the obsolete Police Act of 1861 has to be replaced with a modified version of the act which not only enables police officers to deal with numerous policing issues, but also brings this department at par with its counterparts around the world.
Strict action against police officers involved in crimes, harassment and corruption should be taken.
The police force has to be well equipped with the latest technology, arms and ammunition. There is a dire need to change the age-old thana (police station) and bureaucratic culture. Efforts must be made to make it a public friendly department that encourages people to seek police assistance when required.
Currently, the general public tries its best to stay away from police due to widespread harassment, corruption and the bureaucratic approach of police officers who, instead of facilitating the complainant, try their best to trap him for personal benefit.
Hence, many complainants opt to settle issues on their own outside the police station. This should not be happening in a civilised society. A better society can only be ensured if the decision makers pay special attention to all these issues, otherwise the complainants will continue to suffer because of harassment and corruption.
Haji Haroon Chand, President of All Sindh Sarafa Jewelers Association
Business conditions in the city were terrible before the Karachi Operation. Businessmen had even disconnected their landline numbers, let alone opening their shops, for fear of ransom demands popularly known as ‘bhatta parchiyaan’.
After the Karachi Operation, extortion and money laundering have been brought under control to some extent. However, the operation still has a long way to go before it is able to bring crime, particularly street crime, under control.
Improvements in Karachi’s business conditions are largely superficial and there is a desperate need to extend the mandate of the Rangers and purge crime through the operation.
According to the records of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee, there are as many as 60 places in the sprawling metropolis of Karachi where incidents of street crimes, particularly snatching of mobile phones, have increased alarmingly.
Densely populated neighbourhoods, which have the largest number of shops and small private businesses, are still hotspots for criminals.
There is a real possibility that if the Rangers leave, crime levels in Karachi will revert to the way things were before the Karachi Operation started. People are still opting to either invest abroad or invest in land and property in Pakistan, rather than set up businesses, because they are so uncertain about how the crime situation will unfold. The provincial and district level governments need to work in coordination to reduce the crime rate in the country.
Apart from the immediate factors such as Karachi’s crime rate, there are several national and international factors also impacting business conditions in Karachi. The political condition of our country is a key factor in this case.
There is a real possibility that if the Rangers leave, crime levels in Karachi will revert to the way things were before the Karachi Operation started
The provincial and federal governments have been unable to ensure the uninterrupted supply of basic necessities such as water and power to Karachi residents. Unemployment is high among the youth of the country which is the primary factor forcing them to take up street crime.
Karachi can play an instrumental role in channeling progress and prosperity to all of Pakistan. This can only happen if legislators and law enforcement agencies work together to purge crime in the city, which will then embolden the private sector and also attract foreign investment.
There needs to be consensus among all stakeholders to strengthen local institutions which will play a key role in reducing crime in Karachi in the long run. The federal and provincial governments need to strengthen health and educational institutions as people resort to crime largely because the country’s institutions fail to deliver services which are their basic right.
The Karachi police needs to be given the best training and equipment available, so that they can effectively take on the mantle of responsibility of keeping Karachi crime-free, once the federal government decides to remove the Rangers from the city.