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Karachi A Virtual War Zone


19 Aug. 2011

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says Karachi is in the grip of a multisided wave of insecurity driven political, ethnic and sectarian polarisation.

Even by Karachi's own standards, the recent spate of ethnopolitical violence has been brutal and prolonged. For well over a month now, Pakistan's largest city and commercial capital has been on the boil, with 318 people killed in July alone. And, according to a body count done by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 1,138 people were killed in the first six months of this year.

The HRCP's count, by its own admission, is usually conservative but with 1,456 people killed and still counting — nearly 40 people including a former member of the National Assembly have been killed since Wednesday evening — violence has become a constant in Karachi this year. To the extent that people, according to Karachi-based civil society activist Zeenia Shaukat, have learnt to adjust themselves to the threat levels. “When vehicles are set on fire in a certain area, people don't step out of their houses; when shops are forcibly shut, people wait for a while and try to find out if the grocery shops are serving back door. Also, if one reads on a TV ticker that there is tension in a certain part of the city, and if one is planning to go out, one will take another route.” When a city remains in the grip of violence for such long stretches and so frequently, staying indoors is a luxury few can afford.

Especially since the brunt of what is described as “organised warfare” has been felt most in the poorer quarters of the city. Some of the affected have openly said Israeli atrocities on Palestinians are not a patch on what Karachi'ites are going through in this seemingly never-ending turf war among the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Though there was a time when the MQM — representing the Urdu-speaking populace which had migrated to the city and Hyderabad following Partition — was identified with much of the violence, today nobody can quite say who the biggest villain of the piece is, as all are equally culpable.

What is worse is the extent of the ethnic rivalry. Increasingly, there are reports of one community barring people from the other from being treated in hospitals, burying their dead or sending their children to school in its areas. When violence peaks, such is the level of ethnic profiling that an innocent bystander's attire could get him into trouble, with the Urdu-speaker identified by his trousers and the Pashtun by his salwar kameez.

While all major political claimants to the city — which is said to account for 20 per cent of Pakistan's GDP — have their areas of influence, local media reports suggest that the perennial sense of insecurity is leading to ghettoisation which will only deepen the fault lines. Through it all, as per the HRCP's fact-finding mission, the law-enforcing agencies either looked the other way, abandoned their posts, delayed responding to distress calls or just joined hands with the criminals. In fact, there have been reports of the police suggesting violence to victims as a remedy for their misfortune.

There is a history to this, pointed out columnist Shafqat Mahmood in The News. Recalling the clean-up operation launched in Karachi during Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's second tenure, he wrote: “The hundreds of criminals it [the police] had arrested were released from jail through various political deals, some during Nawaz Sharif's second tenure and later through Musharraf's patronage. They came out and methodically killed police officials involved in operations against them and forced others to run away … No one in the police is ready to risk another onslaught on them and is happy to just watch.”

Policing — rather the absence of it — apart, the HRCP team concluded, Karachi is in the grip of a multisided wave of insecurity-driven political, ethnic and sectarian polarisation. “While gangs of land-grabbers and mafias have tried to exploit the breakdown of law and order, they do not appear to be the main directors of the horrible game of death and destruction; that distinction belongs to more powerful political groups and it is they who hold the key to peace.”

Ironically, the three key political players have been bedfellows for the past three years at the provincial level in Sindh and also at the federal level except for the brief spells when the MQM walked out of the coalition. This year, the MQM walked out in a huff twice and is poised to return yet again as it grapples with retaining its stranglehold over Karachi in the face of a growing Pashtun population — triggered by a displacement-induced migration from the strife-torn tribal areas and the Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa (KPK) — and the consequent rise of the ANP in the city. Apart from the political turf war, it is a battle for resources and jobs.

From 51.45 per cent of Karachi's population in 1951 and 54.34 in 1998, Urdu speakers now make up 48.52 per cent of the city. While the Sindhi population halved during the same period from 14.32 per cent in 1951 to 7.22 in 1998, the Pushto-speakers have more than tripled from 3.39 to 11.42 per cent. And, this demographic shift is said to have got further consolidated since 1998 with the usual migration that any city attracts, compounded by the displacement of Pashtuns from the tribal areas and the KPK over the decade since the global war on terror began.

In the February 2008 elections, this demographic change assumed political contours with the ANP winning two Provincial Assembly seats from Karachi. The PPP's greater indulgence of the ANP only added to the MQM's insecurities as its influence — despite efforts to make inroads elsewhere — does not extend beyond Karachi and Hyderabad. This erosion of control over Karachi was felt all the more because of the free run the MQM had in the city through the Musharraf years.

The general consensus among Karachi'ites and elsewhere is that the violence has its roots in crime because of the covert and overt support extended by the state and almost all political parties to mafias and powerful predatory groups that have largely come to determine the highly weaponised city's urban infrastructure development. The weaponisation can be traced back to U.S. transit of arms to the Mujahideen from the port city during the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

All three players treat the city like their personal fiefdom. The recent flip-flop over the system of local governance was rather telling. In a matter of weeks, the PPP changed the regime from a local bodies system to a commissionerate and back to the local bodies in what appeared first a punishment to the MQM for walking out of the alliance and cajoling it to its return.

While politicians play out their games of survival in the multiethnic city of 17 million people, the writ of the state is nowhere to be seen. Its absence, says Ms Shaukat, works for everybody. “For rangers and security agencies to continue to dominate the city; for mafias to continue to maintain a presence in the city offering people protection from rival groups. This may also explain the deep divisions among various ethnicities, communities and followers of religious sects. We have a state that is not interested in integration, and we have mafias whose interest lies in deepening the wedge between various groups/communities.”

Lamenting the callous manner in which the stakeholders have been operating to further their selfish designs, Rehana Hakim, editor of the monthly magazine, Newsline, asserted that not one of them was making any serious effort to find a solution to the multiple problems that have led to the shutting down of industries and flight of capital from the city. What they have done rather successfully is turn Karachi into a virtual war zone.

Source: The Hindu, New Delhi