The Unholy Licence – Naeem Sadiq

Consider the recent public notice by the federal government declaring that all gun licences issued before January 31, 2011 would stand cancelled if not renewed through Nadra by December 31, 2015.

There are two unstated assumptions built into this declaration. First, that the licences issued after 2011 are ‘kosher’; and second, that a licence is considered genuine simply because it is computerised, ‘smart’ and issued by Nadra. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Pakistan is fighting a complex and challenging war against terror. How it deals with the menace of approximately 12 million illegal weapons and some eight million fake gun licences will determine the outcome of this war. The actions taken so far (largely in the form of speeches, conferences and newspaper declarations) have been hugely disappointing.

To get some idea of the extent of spurious gun licences, one needs to recall the announcement by late Shuja Khanzada, the brilliant ex-home minister of Punjab. He had told the Punjab Assembly that 50 percent of 1.8 million arms licences issued in the province were bogus and untraceable.

A few months later, the Sindh government came to a similar conclusion. Its 595,146 arms licences (out of 1.1 million) were declared dubious as their holders failed to come forward to undergo the licence-verification process.

How did the government respond to the discovery of these mind-boggling licensing frauds? Here was a brilliant opportunity to build afresh a rational and robust licensing system.

One expected the government to revamp the entire licensing process and initiate a fresh debate on issues like: ‘why should a person be given a gun licence at all if the state is responsible for the protection of life and property of all citizens? Have the licences enhanced or reduced the level of violence? What led to such a massive breakdown of our licensing system and what should be the criteria (if at all), for issuing a licence?’. It was also a perfect opportunity to strike down all prohibited bore gun licences, regardless of when and who they were issued to.

Regretfully no such soul-searching was considered necessary. Instead, we saw a wave of repetitive newspaper advertisements warning citizens that their gun licences would stand cancelled unless renewed by a particular date.

A dozen such deadlines have already expired without the federal or the provincial governments batting an eyelid. There were no official notifications for cancellation of invalid licences nor was a demand made for the return of weapons obtained on the basis of such licences. All that was done was to push forward the deadlines, perhaps as a mark of respect for criminals and militants.

In a highly discretionary and ill-managed system, any licence, regardless of its computerisation and ‘smartness’, would remain suspect. Take for example the incident of 2013, when two senior Nadra officers were arrested for issuing 300 arms licences using fake licence booklets.

In yet another incident in April 2015, three Nadra employees were arrested in Islamabad for their alleged involvement in forging arms licences. More recently, the media reported the arrest in Multan of an arms dealer for selling weapons on fake licences obtained with the connivance of the Multan Arms Licensing Department.

Ninety such fake licences were found in his possession, while hundreds had already been sold out. Hence the government’s understanding of the ‘good and the bad’ licences based on pre and post 2011 era is hugely misplaced.

An important facet of the gun licensing process that is rarely questioned and often overlooked is the fact that the majority of licences were issued without ensuring compliance with the laid-down prerequisites.

In order to qualify for a gun licence, an individual must possess a Nadra-verified national identity card, must be a taxpayer, have no criminal record, be security cleared by police and must have no mental illness. Surely a Nadra-issued ‘smart’ gun licence is just as bogus, if not linked to and not backed up by evidence of meeting these requirements.

Pakistan would do well to revisit Article 25 of the constitution, which states that all citizens are equal and are entitled to equal protection of law. Distribution of arms licences, almost exclusively to the elite section of society, has added a new dimension to the class divide.

Should the state not erase these dividing lines, provide equal protection to all citizens and actively work towards a weapon-free society?