Back to the dark ages
By Afzal A. Shigri
Friday, 14 May, 2010
Published in daily Dawn
THE federal government recently took a range of bold initiatives with a view to addressing the perceived grievances of the people of Balochistan. It all started with the president apologising for the actions of past governments and the denial of rights. Next came the Aghaz-i-Huqooq-i-Balochistan package, the NFC Award and, more recently, the 18th Amendment to the constitution.
These momentous milestones were meant to improve the quality of life of ordinary Baloch people by protecting their due rights and ushering in an era of rule of law and due process. They were also aimed at mainstreaming and upgrading the province’s archaic governance structures. It was hoped that the Balochistan government would take steps to release the common man from the stranglehold of the tribal chiefs or sardars. Instead it has done exactly the opposite by restoring the anachronistic Levies system throughout the province.
Before a serious effort was launched in 2003 to phase out the Levies — at a cost of over Rs10bn to the federal government — the regular police was confined to urban Balochistan, commonly known as ‘A area’. Regions subject to the jurisdiction of the Levies came under the ‘B area’ category which extended to roughly 95 per cent of Balochistan.
Up until the early 1970s, ‘B area’ comprised over 99 per cent of Balochistan and it was the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who took the decision to turn the entire province into an ‘A area’ in a phased manner. With the tribal responsibility for maintaining law and order dispensed with under ZAB’s historic reforms, it was critical to replace the Levies with the police on a priority basis.
Progress on this count was abysmally slow over the next quarter-century. As a result, ‘B area’ became the destination for most vehicles snatched at gunpoint in Karachi and a sanctuary for top criminal gangs operating in Sindh and Punjab. Although the change from ‘B’ to ‘A’ was long overdue anyway, the post-9/11 security scenario in particular demanded that the entire ‘B area’ be brought under the standard system of policing, at par with the norm in Punjab and Sindh. To establish the state’s writ and wrest control of this area from criminals and terrorists, it was imperative that its special status be eliminated. This change was also linked to improving governance for ordinary residents and save them from repressive laws framed by imperial rule.
Hardly two years into this critical conversion, completed in 2008, the PPP government has been tricked into taking the regressive step of reverting to the pre-2003 position in indecent haste without examining the impact of reintroducing a failed system. By doing so, not only has the government taken a big step back towards the dark ages, it has ironically gone against the reform agenda envisioned by the founder of the PPP.
Unless urgent remedial measures are taken, adjoining districts in Sindh and Punjab will again become easy prey for the criminals of ‘B area’. In the context of terrorism, meanwhile, an ungoverned ‘B area’ will serve as an ideal hiding place for terrorists and criminal gangs from all over the country, perpetuating the nexus between criminals and the local patharidar. This could have an adverse impact on the Pakistan government’s efforts in the war against terror. While all agree on the need to eliminate the special status of tribal areas and put them in the mainstream to deny sanctuary to terrorists, we have out-streamed Balochistan.
The Balochistan government’s retrograde move to restore the Levies runs contrary to several judicial pronouncements. It was the Balochistan judiciary that had time and again stressed that since the Levies, a largely illiterate force, did not have the expertise to investigate criminal cases, it was imperative that crime control in ‘B area’ be entrusted to the police. Due to the initiative taken by the police command and the support received from stakeholders, the federal government was finally convinced in 2003 to address this vital issue of governance and introduce a regular policing system in the entire province.
Within five years, the Levies were trained and merged into the regular police. They were de-linked from the tribal sardars. New police buildings were constructed, equipment was purchased, and slowly but surely their grooming as law-enforcers started paying off. Once in police uniform, members of the Levies performed better and were more confident in dealing with local sardars and their minions. They realised that they were servants of the state and did not owe their jobs to any individual and were answerable to the law for all their actions. But this emancipation of the Levies and the people at large unfortunately did not suit some vested interests. As a result we have a colossal tragedy in the making by reverting to ‘the good old’ system of subjecting people to 19th-century policing.
Equally importantly, the action taken by the Balochistan government is also repugnant to Police Order 2002, a federal law that extends to all of Balochistan. No provincial legislation can override it, not even after the powers listed under the concurrent list have been transferred to the provinces.
Giving law and order functions to the revenue bureaucracy has historically remained a highly contentious issue. “The combination of these three functions [revenue, magistracy and police] subjected the ‘unwilling natives’ to the perpetration of untold atrocities. Their cries against this oppressive practice of realising revenue by torture attracted the notice of even the British House of Commons where the matter was debated in 1854.”
The torture commission, set up in 1855 in Madras to look into mounting complaints about the high-handedness of revenue officials, had strongly condemned the concentration of all administrative functions in one hand, and recommended a distinct police organisation completely independent of the revenue administration. This resulted in the establishment of a police force with its own independent command structure. Now, as we speak, a dead and repressive system of law enforcement is being resurrected.
It is strange that the interior ministry has not bothered to take note of this development. While everyone agrees that all tribal areas should be merged into settled districts so that terrorism and militancy can be fought more effectively, the Balochistan government has been allowed to negate this process and pander to the personal interests of a few tribal chiefs. The Balochistan bureaucracy has simply acted in collusion with the sardars, as there has always been a symbiotic relationship between the two.
This is a fit case where public interest could be served by suo motu action by the higher judiciary. A handful of politicians and bureaucrats should not be allowed to play with the fate of millions and hinder modernisation and the rule of law.