By Shaheen Sehbai.A highly mysterious and explosive situation is emerging as video footages of the looting and burning of Karachi’s commercial centres have revealed fatal flaws in the administrative structures and no political or bureaucratic high-up is ready to take responsibility.
What has been confirmed by all is that the Rangers and the police were simple bystanders watching the looters with folded hands as highly trained, white-gloved energetic young men, very confidently and methodically burnt one building after another, turning goods and property worth billions into ashes and unleashing dozens of conspiracy theories and scores of political problems between stakeholders in Karachi.
It is interesting to observe the sequence of events. Within an hour of the Ashura blast, which tragically was quickly forgotten, the battle for prime real estate of Karachi began in earnest. The MQM was furious and blamed the Sindh government leaders for mysteriously disappearing from Karachi when needed. The PPP leaders retorted in kind and accused the MQM of failing to check the fires. Where was the executive machinery to stop the loot and plunder was explained by neither side while fiercely indulging in the blame game.
To confirm this serious allegation, Noorani telephoned both the chief secretary and the home secretary and their responses, on the record, were not only interesting but intriguing.
CS Fazal-ur-Rahman was asked whether he had sought permission from the chief minister and the home minister to open fire on the looters, his response was: “No, no, it was not like this. Actually, at some later stage, I did tell them (CM and HM) to be tough though I did not necessarily say to open fire. But if someone is destroying public property, authority should be given to tackle the situation. But nobody stopped us from using force.”
Q: “Nobody stopped you but you did not use force, as you should have under the law.”
CS: “In the past, there were magistrates to issue on-the-spot orders to fire. The police do not have that habit (to open fire without orders). I suppose there would have been a lack of coordination but the (looting) was so scattered and it was not that people were visible in sight. They came and then fled.”
Q: “I have it on good authority that you did seek permission to open fire but what you were told in reply, I don’t know.”
CS: Yes, I had asked them to use force. There was nothing more, not an issue of permission.
Q: Did you then ask the home secretary (to use force)?
CS: Yes, I had asked the home secretary to use fire.
Noorani then called the Home Secretary, Sindh, Arif Ahmed Khan. He was also asked the same question whether he sought permission from the CM and home minister to open fire.
His response: “There is nothing of this sort. You are totally talking about an irrelevant thing.”
When asked why they did not open fire to control the situation, in an agitated tone the home secretary said: “I am not supposed to be present on such occasions but the Inspector General of Police was there. They controlled the situation without firing a shot. It was a much wider thing than what you are advising. If one person had been killed by police firing, you people
would have got a news story to write but that would have been bad.
Then you think there was not much loss, he was asked. “There was a great loss but if one bullet had been fired, the loss would have been 10 times more,” the home secretary asserted.
While these two senior law and order officials of Sindh gave their points of view, one asking the home secretary to open fire, and the other saying that if one bullet was fired, there would have been a 10-fold loss, the Federal Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, added his bit on Friday when he addressed the business community at the FPCCI headquarters in Karachi.
Malik told them: “The police and the Rangers do not know how to fire their guns. They have no training and the business community must contribute to a fund to provide training to these forces.”
These conflicting statements have not been able to convince the Karachi city leaders, especially the MQM, which is now very agitated and perturbed on being blamed for not putting out the fires while the PPP leadership is getting away with a massive security lapse and display of incompetence.
The Karachi city leadership also fears that the burning down of many invaluable buildings in the commercial heart of Karachi is now being exploited by the politicians of all hue to grab the lands under the garb of building huge plazas after demolition of the burnt structures.
This fear was almost confirmed by Interior Minister Rehman Malik when he told the business community that plazas could be built and the shopkeepers, who lost their businesses, would be given the first right to get shops.
There was also some suggestion that pre-fabricated markets could be set up for the affected shopkeepers to begin their trading activity but the city leaders and the victims have rejected this proposal as they think once they accept anything, it would become the final settlement and their precious real estate would then be grabbed by influential politicians to build plazas and sell shops at exorbitant prices, which they would never be able to afford.
The whole controversy about the aftermath of the looting and burning has also seriously dented the talks between PPP and the MQM on the fate of the local bodies, especially the status of the Nazims of Karachi and Hyderabad.
A special meeting of the MQM and the PPP is to discuss this critical issue on January 2 in the shadows of President Zardari’s prolonged stay in the city but the Ashura blast and the arson that followed has polluted the political atmosphere between the two coalition partners.
Tension was visible when Interior Minister Rehman Malik and MQM Minister Farooq Sattar held a joint news conference and both stated their positions with little common ground visible.
Analysts say the only and the best solution of the Karachi situation would be a judicial probe, headed by a senior High Court or Supreme Court judge, so that the entire evidence is taken in, analysed objectively and responsibility is fixed. If this is not done, relations between the PPP and the MQM may hit rock bottom faster than many expect.
— Mohammed Ahmed Noorani in Islamabad contributed to this report.