A few years ago, when the dying embers of a military regime had been extinguished, I happened to be driving with a friend down the main thoroughfare of Clifton in Karachi. Suddenly, a huge black four-wheeler with tinted glasses and no number plates drove alongside my car and forced me off the road. My friend looked up and steepling his fingers said “Allah be praised … democracy has come to Pakistan”. During the following two months, I spotted a whole convoy of such cruisers in different parts of the city. Many were preceded or followed by private security personnel, some even by police mobiles, their sirens bleating from the bowels of their vehicles. The guards wielded AK 47 assault rifles and other lethal weapons and looked grim and menacing. They never smiled and when they did it was with a sort of manic ferocity, as if they had just been fed raw meat. We all were living in the reductionist sap of violent change and transition. Now isn’t it rather ironic that in a peoples’ democracy like ours where candidates are supposed to be elected by popular vote they feel it necessary to be guarded like Colombian drug barons? Who are they afraid of? Mullah Omar, the Citizen Kane of terrorism? Rival gangs? The warlords of Lyari?
These days things seem to have gotten completely out of hand. A retired 66-year old friend of mine on his way to play golf, was badly roughed up for ten minutes by two smartly dressed men in civvies driving a four-wheeler, which carried a police number plate. The beating was followed by a volley of invectives in which the duo displayed a remarkable facility for improvisation. My friend’s crime was that he had raised a questioning palm to protest the fact that the squad car had crossed a red traffic light and was heading towards him on the wrong side of the road. It turned out that the gallant defenders of the law thought my friend had made an indecent and provocative gesture. The matter was reported to police headquarters along with the number of the vehicle. The officials listened politely — but so far no action has been taken.
Numerous stories about the insolence and arrogance of private armed guards have surfaced and can be laced together into a single observation. We are living in a semi-police state where the armed bullies move about with impunity and nobody, neither the governor, the chief minister or speaker is pushed. You can’t complain because there is nobody to complain to. Recently, I couldn’t get to my bank located in a narrow, one-way street because traffic had been blocked by two four-wheelers. A man, probably the boss, emerged from the first cruiser and entered a shop. Four mean looking bodyguards then leaped out of the second four-wheeler and surrounded the entrance to the shop, brandishing their weapons. Both drivers refused to move their vehicles. I couldn’t reverse because two cars were parked behind mine.
The guards might be doing an admirable job for their patrons. But they are causing a great deal of inconvenience to members of the public and are squeezing out a nugget of loathing ever time they make an appearance on the roads. Now I am not advocating military rule. Far from it. Rule by men in uniform can have its own unpleasant side. However, there is a perception that the law-enforcement agencies are not behaving independently but as a branch of the ruling party. This is dangerous and does not bode well for the future of democracy and the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 5th, 2012.