OVER A COFFEE: Karachi: waiting for a Napier? —Dr Haider Shah
One good principle that we can learn from Napier is that administration of justice should not be dictated by local customs alone. Those customs that obstruct the rule of law must be dispensed with by the writ of the state
Pakistan is reeling under pressures of insecurity and militancy of all possible sorts. In the north-west religious extremism is keeping the security apparatus busy while the south is engulfed by the flames of ethnicity-based civil war. Balochistan is beset with local insurgency and in Punjab the dengue mosquito, a formidable foe, has turned the tables on a tough administrator. Though all of these issues owe their intensity to decades of neglect and maladministration, Karachi — the commercial capital of the country — tops the list. No wonder the Supreme Court was compelled to take notice after the provincial and federal governments exhibited their trademark ineptness in allowing a situation to become malignant. Reconciliation is a good managerial approach but certainly not a panacea for all public management ills. The omnipotent ‘mufahimat’ (reconciliation) brush may have many magical qualities but it certainly is not the ideal tool for making lawlessness disappear.
The situation in Karachi brings to my mind the name of Charles Napier, the commander in chief of the British Indian Army in East India Company days. Reading and citing historical accounts is fraught with danger as patriotic sensitivities can easily be offended. Napier being the conqueror of Sindh and having defeated the local tribal Amirs may be viewed differently by different readers. I do not want to engage in discussions on whether Sindh was justifiably annexed or not by the then East India Company. The outspoken conqueror himself had very bluntly said, “We have no right to seize Sindh, yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, humane, and useful piece of rascality it will be.” I am remembering Napier because he also found Sindh in an administrative mess and dealt with the problems with a firm resolution. By reading history dispassionately we can learn a lot from the hated British masters even though our patriotism may require us to view them differently as they occupied our lands in the 19th century.
When in the early 1840s Lord Ellenborough felt the necessity of “introducing to a brigand infested land, the firm but just administration of the East India Company”, General Charles Napier was assigned the task. The 60-year-old Napoleonic Wars hero was known for his firm and result oriented outlook and blunt remarks. Outnumbered by eight to one, Napier routed the Amirs and paved the way for the annexation of Sindh. After his appointment as Governor of Bombay Residency, he took no time in implementing his principle of “showing a country great kindness after a good thrashing”. Establishing law and order was the first and foremost duty of his administration and in that he showed such ferocity and honesty that the common locals, used to the master-slave relationship of their tribal chieftains, came to look upon Napier as a redeemer.
One good principle that we can learn from Napier is that administration of justice should not be dictated by local customs alone. Those customs that obstruct the rule of law must be dispensed with by the writ of the state. For instance, on one occasion Napier was approached with a request for clemency on behalf of a tribal chief who had murdered a member of his harem simply because he was angry with her. “Well, I am angry with him and I mean to hang him,” was Napier’s brief reply. Similarly, when some Hindu priests complained about the prohibition of Sati by the British authorities, he retorted, “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.” In the realm of social justice and rule of law there is no room for a reconciliation policy. It was true then and it is true today. Much younger John Jacob, the successor to Napier, continued the administrative reforms of Napier in Sindh. He not only established efficient policing of border villages but also embarked upon an enlightened programme of irrigation and cultivation. In 1848 he boasted with some justification that “peace, plenty, and security everywhere prevail in a district where formerly all was terror and disorder”.
Today Sindh is ruled not by the hated East India Company’s directors but presumably by its own sons. Terror and disorder, however, reign supreme while peace and plenty remain an elusive dream. The suo motu proceedings of the Supreme Court may not remedy the alarming situation but they have at least achieved one important objective. Many skeletons stored in the official cupboards have come out for open display and many senior security officers have opened their hearts before the honourable court. A few weeks ago an Urdu daily columnist, Javed Chaudry, had written a piece about Karachi turning into Beirut. Using the disclosures made by a serving police inspector he painted a horrible picture of the law and order situation. Now it is an open secret that police stations are controlled by gangs associated with various political parties. The government has not only failed miserably in Karachi but appears complicit in the agonising murder of the commercial capital of Pakistan.
The government must know that stuffing state-run enterprises with cronies and party loyalists is not the be-all and end-all of governance. Providing security to the citizens is its fundamental responsibility. We should not wait for a Napier to get it done. The civilian government should prove that it is up to the task. Naseerullah Baber once proved that if a civilian government is determined it can deliver where uniformed administrators failed. It needs to be done again; firmly, resolutely and on a regular basis.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com