Judicial probe to heal wounds

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IT IS intriguing why the government has not responded promptly to the public demand for a judicial enquiry into the carnage in Karachi on May 12. Given the scale of the killings, the mayhem and the paralysis or collapse — whichever way one may view it — of the law and order machinery in the city, this would seem to be the most logical thing to do.

The government should have taken measures on its own initiative to investigate impartially the events of that fateful day. A probe is important to identify those who failed in discharging their duty. This is essential if they are to pay a price for this failure that has cost Karachi 48 lives – and much more in terms of peace, stability and ethnic harmony. On such occasions, when there have been security lapses – advertent or inadvertent – the first impulse of the administration is to set up an enquiry body to look into the matter.

If it is a truly independent probe, the investigation helps to pin responsibility and as a result some heads have to roll. This also has a cathartic effect because the process of deposing before the enquiry officer and giving evidence helps people ventilate their grievances and hurt.

In this particular case, if the enquiry is to produce the desired impact and carry credibility, it must be headed by a high court judge and must be seen to be fair and free. The importance of this cannot be over-emphasised because in the trading of charges and allegations one of the parties, namely the MQM, is a key member of the administration.

In fact, this could be the reason for the government’s not acceding to the demand for holding an enquiry. It would be aware of the grave implications of the events of May 12 and the repercussions of a probe that could potentially hold the administration responsible. The MQM’s top-ranking leaders have rushed to London for consultation with their chief, Mr Altaf Hussain, who has been based in London since 1992.

In such crises, it has been conventional for governments to attempt to deflect the heat away from themselves by instituting a commission of enquiry. It has been observed that by the time this body completes its mandated work and prepares a report, the crisis has usually subsided. With the pressure having decreased, governments have even conveniently shelved the reports of the commission of enquiry.

In the case of Karachi, this method was adopted way back in 1985 when the city was engulfed in the flames of violence in the wake of Bushra Zaidi’s death. Bushra was a student of Sir Syed Girls’ College and was hit and killed by a rashly driven minibus in Nazimabad.

The immediate public reaction was to attack the administration and the transporters. The breakdown of law and order rapidly assumed the shape of ethnic riots – the transport sector in Karachi was, and is even today, controlled by the Pathans.

The government’s reaction then was to set up a high sounding commission of enquiry into Karachi’s affairs. We know that nothing came out of this exercise and the findings were not even made public. But the tensions were defused for some time.

Seen against this backdrop, one can only guess why the administration does not appear to be in a hurry to probe what happened on May 12. So reluctant has it been to re-visit the happenings of that black Saturday that the police even refused to register an FIR, which was subsequently registered only on the Sindh High Court’s injunction.

It is plain that these events cannot be viewed in the narrow perspective of local politics. They are directly linked to national politics. Random statements made by various leaders from different parts of the country confirm that on account of Karachi being viewed erroneously as the MQM’s exclusive preserve the party was encouraged by its coalition partners as well as President Musharraf to preempt the rally of the Chief Justice in Karachi as a demonstration of the government’s strength on the ground. This was not attempted in other places.

When things went seriously wrong, contrary to their expectations, many of them are now using the MQM as a whipping boy to heap a lot of odium on it. This has created bad blood among the ruling parties. An in-depth probe could bring all this to the fore and unravel the coalition, which they cannot afford at this stage when the opposition parties have gained immense mileage from the lawyers’ movement for the independence of the judiciary.

Another factor that deters a probe is the seemingly ubiquitous presence of the independent television channels. The electronic media proved to be a dynamic actor as the events unfolded on May 12. It projected all that was happening instantly on the mini-screen to be seen all over the country. As a result it has not been easy for the administration, the police and the ruling party to conceal their own role in what was taking place before the eyes of the viewers who remained glued to their TV sets throughout the day.

As a result, the administration has been thrown on the defensive and is trapped in the unenviable position of constantly explaining its moves and blaming the opposition, generally without much credibility. Images are more powerful than words. Since so much has been witnessed by the public, what the bevy of ministers, advisers and the ruling party leaders now say on television does not carry much conviction.

If matters are not to get any worse, a judicial enquiry should be instituted in an attempt to bare the truth. The blame game will not help unless the allegations are substantiated. An enquiry by a judge who is strong and independent would help to heal the wounds that have been inflicted on this city of 12 million.