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Karachi at war

The Review (Pakistan Today; 02 January 2010)

(For the brilliant layout, check out the epaper, pages 24 and 25)

Karachi at war

(Also, boxes: Financing the violence and The politics of blackmail)


Pakistan’s largest city is a canvas of paradoxical elements that continue to exist in ironic harmony, intervowen in social, political and religious turmoil

Karachi is a city constantly at war; a battle rages between its ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ sides. Using the ‘popular’ notions of masculinity and feminity (and at the risk of delving in reverse-sexism), one would include in Karachi’s feminine side people going about the everyday business of making ends meet; the city’s ‘good Samaritan’ spirit; everything that makes residents of Karachi love it despite all the madness. The ‘masculinity’ of the metropolis would then include gang-wars, street-crime, bloody political battles, targeted killings etc.

Unrest in the city is when the latter declares war and lays siege to the former. Karachi’s feminine, however, always manages to bounce back. Regardless of how much pain is inflicted on the city, it returns to normal within days, if not hours. Even 12 May 2007 did not succeed in breaking its spirit. One wonders, though, how long this resilience will last. Will there be a day when, exhausted by the violence, the people of the city finally give up and let the madness take over unabated?

Take, for instance, constant cycles of targeted killings that have plagued the largest metropolis of the country. Beginning December 2008, the cycle of violence has returned every couple of months, as land and drug wars are politicised and patronised by powers desperate to oust any perceived dents in their supposed vote-bases.

Economics in Karachi are divided along ethnic lines, with the service sector and white-collar jobs being traditionally patronised by the ‘Urdu-speaking’ community; and land ownership and the estate business being taken over by Pakhtuns. When the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) took over the reigns of the city government, it took issue with what the leadership referred to as ‘illegal encroachments’ upon government lands, thus bringing them at loggerheads with land-owning Pakhtuns. Among the latter was a small-time land-dealer, Shahi Syed, who eventually rose to the local leadership of the Awami National Party (ANP), which vowed to protect the interests of its vote base. Things worsened when the first wave of people displaced by the ‘war against terror’ in the tribal areas made their way to relatives in Karachi, making the MQM fear for its political standing in the city. The biggest concern of the leadership was whether this influx of Puhsto speakers would skewer voter statistics in favour of the ANP.

Latent animosities from the clashes of the 1980s eventually came to the fore in December 2008, when elements within the MQM declared war against Pakhtoon ‘business-owners’ – people who ran small dhaabas, pushcart vendors, rickshaw and cab drivers. The latter were killed indiscriminately, regardless of their political affiliations. The MQM had, however, made a miscalculation. It had probably expected these ‘helpless’ victims to retreat silently, which they did not, and thus erupted a cycle of counter-violence. This time around, the targets were MQM activists and supporters, causing the party to go on a public relations rampage, accusing the ANP of harbouring ‘fundamentalist’ elements. A cry against the alleged ‘Talibanisation’ of Karachi was raised – and sustained; and under the blanket banner of the ‘war against fundamentalism’, more Pakhtun were targeted.

Instead of standing by the government’s attempts at deweaponising the city, meanwhile, futile though those efforts would be in a city the size of Karachi, the MQM urged citizens to arm themselves, supposedly to fight the ‘Taliban’ who, according to the party, now threatened to overrun the city. Battles escalated, and as things stand now, cycles of targeted killings are repeated every couple of weeks, instead of months.

In the meantime, when political players take over what is traditionally considered the domain of criminal elements, battles from the street spill over in the corridors of powers – in the cabinet, as one saw Monday night; and the assemblies. Home ministers, tasked with protecting the citizenry without considering caste, creed, colour, religion or ethnicity, pass public statements that could effectively be construed as calls for the genocide of particular ethnicities.

While one could try to understand Sindh Home Minister Zulfiqar Mirza’s statement as being the result of exasperation at the failure of the political process in the city and the attempts of Interior Minister Rehman Malik at pacifying warring factions, it cannot be denied that given the height of political tension in the metropolis, his assertions were, to put it mildly, extremely irresponsible. For one, objectively speaking, the MQM no longer represents the interests of the Urdu-speaking community – the party merely fights for its own political survival within every set-up. Secondly, given the meagre actual voter turn-out in Karachi during the 2008 elections, many in the Urdu-speaking community no longer support the MQM either. If they did, party activists would not have been forced to either drag people out at gunpoint or stuff ballot-boxes late into the night, both of which were done during the last national elections. Just as the MQM’s persecution of the Pakhtuns is condemnable, so are genocidal statements by those who are expected to protect citizens.

As things stand now, however, regardless of the tugs and pulls within the corridors of power and in the streets, the ‘feminine’ side of Karachi is yet to give up on its rights and ambitions. The day it does is when the city, and by extension, the economy and politics of the country, will be doomed. As such, it would be advisable for democratic forces to keep personal interests aside for once, and pay heed to the voice of the people while the latter desperately battle inflation and violence and try to stay afloat during times that are proving to be increasingly difficult for them.


Financing the violence

Karachi owes its phenomenal crime rate to extortionists that leave no stone unturned in looting to fund their unbecoming activities

While much has been said about the alleged ‘bhatta-khori’ of various political interests in Karachi, little is done on the ground to alleviate the miseries of those who are forced to bear the brunt of this blood-letting and unwittingly finance the violence which is in turn used against them and their businesses.

It might be easy for Dr Zulfiqar Mirza to issue sweeping condemnations to businesspeople paying extortion money to criminal elements, but he is yet to answer the basic question: how else do they ensure any protection for themselves? When the State-machinery fails to protect small businesses against extortionists, it loses the right to condemn them for helplessly helping finance violence in the city.

Moreover, the practice of extortion in the city is no longer restricted to the MQM, but is used by every political player, including the ANP and even Sindhi nationalist parties, in their areas of influence. Many of these have also moved on into street-crimes, including cellphone snatching – a practice which affects the entire population of the city, not just business-owners large or small. The assertion that knowing the ‘sector in-charge’ of the area in which one’s cellphone, watch and wallet were snatched might ensure their safe return, is not an exaggeration either.

That the money wrought from these practices effectively finances further atrocities against the same people is not debatable. But given the situation, blanket condemnations of the beleaguered people of Karachi for ‘abetting’ these practices are not only laughable; they are also tantamount to blaming the victims for crimes that are perpetrated against them, and are, as such, extremely offensive.

The politics of blackmail

Political bigwigs participate in undignified conduct to the horror of honest, tax-paying citizens

In the aftermath of the 2008 elections, much was said against President Asif Ali Zardari’s decision to include the MQM in the national set-up, given that the party had not secured the required number of seats, and had a history of rocking the political boat at critical junctions.

While President Zardari justified his decision on the basis of his mantra of ‘political reconciliation’, the MQM had jumped at the chance of extracting enough leverage to be able to twist arms when [it] needed. The party’s demands were, at the time, couched in pro-democracy terms, portraying them as the demands of ‘the people’ or, to use the MQM’s favourite term, ‘ehlian-e-Karachi’, as if the city of Karachi and its residents were a monolithic entity. In the pursuit of ‘national reconciliation’ and in an attempt to distance himself from racist, knee-jerk anti-‘Muhajir’ antagonism to the MQM which exists in Punjab, President Zardari allowed the party into the national set-up, ostensibly in order to maintain peace in Karachi, while creating a bulwark of support against the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in case the latter decided to part ways with the ruling party (which it eventually did).

Perhaps he, or his advisors, have wondered in the intervening two-and-a-half years, if their quest for temporary peace was worth the loss of lives and the violence that has ensued over the years; or whether not acceding the MQM’s demands in 2008 would have led to greater bloodshed while jeopardising the nascent democratic set-up. Regardless, the MQM has, in the meantime, learnt to play the media and political issues to its advantages, with threats to leave the provincial and federal coalition in the lurch at the slightest ‘provocation’. The MQM, however, should watch out against painting itself into a corner like the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan’s Fazlur Rahman has, since his minister was fired from the federal cabinet. The MQM’s political survival depends on it being part of ruling coalitions, and little would be served by severing that link – unless the party hopes to play the ‘martyr’ card by burning all bridges and forcing a re-enactment of General Naseerullah Babar’s Operation Clean-up. The latter, in the 1990s, led to the torture and brutal deaths of scores of innocent young men from the Urdu-speaking community. A repeat will do no one any favours and would serve only to strengthen forces that seek to jeopardise the fragile democratic set-up of the country.

The PPP, meanwhile, needs to be wary of alienating other democratic forces in the province, including the ANP, while trying to placate the MQM. Arbitrarily arresting 300 young men from a single mohalla in one night and calling them ‘terrorists’ is laughable, particularly when most of them were poor people trying to do nothing more terrible than make a living. Secondly, the party needs to rein Dr Mirza in, for its sake and everyone else’s. The last thing that honest, tax-paying citizens need to go through at the end of a long hard day of making sure all the bills are paid, is the horror of listening to trusted leaders calling for their genocide.

  1. January 2, 2011 at 22:19

    Excellent. Hope to see more of such topics covered in your future articles.

    • January 2, 2011 at 22:29

      Yup, just began ‘political commentary’. Will try and continue without going around in circles. :-)

  1. January 3, 2011 at 04:16

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