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Forsaken by the State

The article highlights the importance of protecting private property, and deplores the criminal negligence of the Pakistani state in providing protection to the private property and businesses which were the target of loot and arson that took place in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. The article advises those who suffered losses to file damages suits against responsible government functionaries and ransackers instead of demanding for compensation from the government which in turn will be addressed by levying more taxes.

by Dr. Khalil Ahmad

Where there is no property there is no injustice.
-John Locke

Regardless of the controversy whether we human beings are by nature good or bad, what is crucially required to keep our society intact is that we must be treated as free agents. This washes away all those excuses the science of psychology and its Freuds and no-Freuds have heaped on and which provide an eternal alibi for the criminals to prove their innocence under the guise of this or that mental state or illness, or this or that instinctual impulse which, it is pleaded, eventually forces them into acting that crime: that they were not just themselves at the time of crime (I would like, in such cases, that self of theirs to be punished at least!).

Thus, it is of immense significance, and both tradition and moral and social values, and law too, have it that everyone who commits an offence must be tried and punished accordingly. It behooves to be presumed that it is a certain person and it is he and only he who committed the crime. Otherwise, we will have only crimes, and no criminals, a state of affairs we cannot afford if we believe in justice and its dispensation as the sine qua non for the continuation of a society.

The true relevance of this requirement demonstrates well when we are faced with a concrete danger to our life and property. It must be noted here that property is not a separate entity from one’s self though physically it is; rather it is an extension of one’s self and his life. ‘Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself,’ Locke observed. He held that ‘the reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property.’ Without property we, who are not all mystics, are just in the midst of a forced hermitage, a state of social and existential nothingness. Probably it is why we protect our property at the risk of our life; and, certainly it is why we take lives of others to grab their property. Also, it was why in the 18th century England stealing was punishable by death.

It is in this context that the focus of British classical liberals such as Locke (1632-1704) and Hume (1711-1776) on the protective function of government can be best understood. Locke maintains that ‘government has no other end, but the preservation of property.’ Hume believed that ‘the convention for the distinction of property, and for the stability of possession, is of all circumstances the most necessary to the establishment of human society, and that after the agreement for the fixing and observing of this rule, there remains little or nothing to be done towards settling a perfect harmony and concord.’

Thus, any authority that takes on the task of governing a people, for it the foremost thing is to extend protection of life and property to every individual under its jurisdiction so that he should live in peace and happiness. If it fails to deliver that, it loses the confidence and trust of its people. Converse to all this, the state in Pakistan, as a rule, has been quite unmindful of this foremost responsibility. In the heat of moments, such as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it just sleeps. Actually, whatever government is it, a civilian or military or any other, they have a theory to make excuse of: Let people vent their anger. They think this diverts people’s attention from the real issues and real culprits.

After the cold-blooded murder of Benazir Bhutto, the loot and arson that took place has shaken the confidence of all the citizenry. No doubt, her assassination must be condemned in unequivocal terms, and on the face of it is itself the strongest evidence of the state’s criminal negligence in protecting the lives of the people and their leaders. But of course it should not be taken as an excuse for the uncalled for lawlessness to prevail. No incident of any magnitude licenses anyone to incur damage to the life and property of his fellow citizens.

However, the fact is that as the news of her assassination spread, unruly mobs took to the streets and markets and let loose a reign of terror as if no administrative authority existed in the country. From big cities to small towns, routine life and businesses suffered a standstill for days. As many as 58 people were killed amidst the worst lawlessness. The state’s conspicuous absence from the scene further created a sense of fear and insecurity among the people. Though the initial estimates of loss and damage have started pouring in, the real damage that has shattered the society’s trust in the ability of the state to protect the citizenry is immeasurable.

Here are some horrible recounts of the loot and arson private and public property underwent:

  • The ensuing night of December 27 witnessed the horrible act of burning of a hospital in Karachi.
  • Inside a garment factory which was set on fire by the rioters in Karachi seven workers including a woman lost their lives.
  • 16 Edhi ambulances were set on fire.
  • Dozens of trucks which were torched in Korangi Industrial area included two trucks loaded with wheat.
  • About 36 factories, 3 restaurants, eights petrol pumps, 55 shops were torched in Karachi.
  • More than 900 private vehicles were torched in Sindh.
  • About 15 spinning mills in Kotri and 6 in North Karachi industrial area were destroyed or set on fire and more than a dozen factories in different industrial areas of Karachi alone were looted.
  • Both domestic and foreign trade came to a halt, and traders suffered a loss of Rs.10 billion.
  • Hundreds of cargo trailer-trucks loaded with milk, ghee, chemicals, fertilizers, pulses, wheat, machinery, fiber boards, fruits and vegetables were looted and burnt. The Karachi Goods Carriers Association estimates the accumulated losses at 193.5 millions rupees.
  • According to Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry 5 days of riots caused a corporate loss of Rs.80 billion, and the loss to GDP is to the tune of Rs.8.706 billion.
  • A total of 699 branches of various banks were looted, damaged, and burnt. The State Bank’s estimates of losses reach about Rs.1.2 billion.
  • Trains carrying passengers were stoned, attacked and burnt. In two cases, after forcing the passengers to disembark the carriages were burnt. In total, 6 trains, 78 train bogies, 26 locomotives, and 25 railway stations were set on fire. As much as 16 bridges, 18 level crossings, a number of railways cranes and motor trolleys were set ablaze. At six places, the rail track was uprooted and fish plates were removed; railways communication system also suffered damage. The loss is estimated to be more than Rs.12 billion.
  • The tax authorities estimate the Revenue losses amounting to Rs.35 billion.

This was not the first such incident when the people of Pakistan were forsaken by the state. Only a few months back in May 2007 Karachi was subjected to a most brazen show of lawlessness under the criminal silence of provincial and federal governments. The fact of the matter is that whenever there is such a public outrage, the theory: ‘let the people vent their anger’ comes into force and government’s administrative authority disappears altogether. As to the December 27 chaos, there are concerns that in some cases the looting particularly of banks was organized and was done by organized groups.

All this is outrageous. However, what is more outrageous is that government has set up a commission that will assess the extent of the damage done to private and public property. Whereas what is required is the setting up of a commission that should include representatives of all sections of society, and it should be tasked in the first instance with the determination of the fact why and how the law enforcing agencies and their bosses from top to bottom absented when the reign of terror was let loose across the country, and of course to ensure that there is law in the country those found guilty of negligence be awarded due punishments.

As to the demand of compensation being made by the manufacturers, traders, transporters, and small businessmen who suffered incalculable losses, they should realize that in fact it will backfire. Seeking compensation from government will no doubt result in levying of more taxes, and entrenching of the rentiers’ regime. Ultimately it will hurt their own businesses by reducing, already shrinking purchasing power of common man. The lawful course is to file damages suits in the courts against both law enforcing agencies and ransackers. That will set a precedent for the future also.

But as is expected the courts may not be able to provide them with justice, and in that event the government will be stripped of all the semblance of its protective function and a government for the people. Thus it will lose all moral, legal, and constitutional authority to tax the citizens. That will be the end of such regimes which have made Pakistan such a place for people to live where if there be choice they will migrate to other lands where their person and property is safe.


This article appeared in The News International on January 13, 2008.