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Karachi is Burning: The dynamics of violence becoming more complex


By Ali K Chishti
27 April, 2012

With hundreds already killed in ethnic, political and sectarian conflicts this year, the dynamics of violence in Karachi are becoming more complex
Of the 1,138 people killed in Karachi during the first half of 2011, 150 were political workers, according to the HRCP. This year, Sindh Home Ministry and Karachi Police report that 405 political workers have been targeted already. "More than 10,000 people have been killed in political and ethnic violence in the city since 2007," says Aftab Rauf Khan, a senior security official. "What is worse is that there have been no prosecutions."
Political and ethnic violence in Karachi has increased significantly since 2008. There were just over 200 target killings in the city in 2006, 318 in 2007, and 786 in 2008. At least 1,183 people died in political and ethnic violence in the city in 2009, more than 1,300 in 2010, and over 1,700 in 2011.
Karachi is Pakistan's largest financial hub and contributes to at least 60 percent of Pakistan's GDP. But the business community in the city has been facing abductions for ransom and extortion. "It is tragic that businessmen and their families are being targeted," says Zia Ahmed from the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, "but it is even more tragic that there has been no action from law-enforcement authorities."
Law-enforcement officials privately admit there is some fear in the police department too. More than 3,710 police officials have been killed in Karachi since 2001. "Since January this year, 29 policemen have been targeted," a senior official said. "How do you expect the police to take action when it has been under such immense threat?"
The battle for Lyari
Security officials are carrying out one of the largest operations in the city so far in the gang-war hit Lyari locality of Karachi. The operation is led by the famous Chaudhry Aslam of CID, who is said to be out on the streets with his men.
The key target of the operation is said to be the People's Amn Committee (PAC), a local group apparently supported by controversial former home minister Zulfiqar Mirza and accused by the MQM of ethnic violence.
"The action against us is being carried out on the orders of the MQM," PAC's Uzair Baloch says. "It is unfortunate that the operation is being backed by the very PPP that we had been supporting since we were young."
But Chaudhry Aslam denies the raids are politically motivated. "We are operating against known criminals," he says.
Tensions are so high in Lyari that Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah had to make a public statement. "The president has decided to take on criminal elements in all political parties," said a source close to President Asif Zardari. "He has decided to begin with his own party, but criminals from other parties will also be targeted in the second phase." There is a consensus in the PPP that Uzair Baloch is a liability, he said. "PAC or no PAC, the PPP will win in Lyari."
Uzair Baloch, according to another source, met PML-N's Ghous Ali Shah through Habib Jan Baloch who is linked to British politician Lord Nazir Ahmed. The source said Baloch was offered to join the PML-N.
In the rest of the city, law-enforcement officials have recently arrested a large number of suspects linked to political and ethnic killings in dramatic raids led by Pakistan Rangers.
"More than 187 suspects from the PPP, the MQM, the ANP, the Sunni Tehrik, and MQM-Haqiqi have been arrested," an intelligence source said. "Of them, 42 are from the MQM."
"It remains to be seen how these men will be prosecuted," says Syed Mahmood, the former chief prosecutor of Sindh. "In the past, people like MQM's Ajmal Pahari and PAC's Baba Ladla were not convicted despite evidence and admission."
'All political parties collect bhatta'
"All political parties in Karachi - including the PPP, the ANP, the MQM, and the Sunni Tehrik - collect bhatta (extortion)," Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in a bold statement recently. "There are criminal elements in all political parties and they need to be arrested."
Malik is in the provincial capital with a special mandate from the president to "sort out Karachi".
"There was a time when there was just one party that took donations," said businessman Umer Javed, who claims to pay Rs 0.2 million in extortion. "Now there are so many parties, a trader doesn't even know who he is paying. We have to pay anyone and everyone."
Karachi has 18 towns and the MQM wins elections in 16 of them. But only three towns suffer from rampant extortion. Security officials say political groups are not the only ones in the business now. "From district government officials to the police, everyone demands bhatta," says Hasham Siddiqui, a security consultant based in Karachi who advises high-profile clients including banks. "In fact the police are the biggest mafia. They take money from small traders. Even parking contractors overcharge and that is a form of extortion."
Demography, sectarianism and turf wars
After the recent raids, representatives of various political parties have met President Zardari and called for peace.
ANP Sindh President Senator Shahi Syed made a reconciliatory statement for the first time in recent years. "It is fortunate that all political parties have decided to allow law-enforcement authorities to take action," he told reporters.
"No political parties want to be associated with criminals, and that is why action is being taken regardless of party affiliations," said PPP hardliner Syed Faisal Raza Abidi.
An official said President Zardari had recently formed a "peace committee" with representatives from all political parties to monitor Karachi's security situation.
Demographics have played a huge role in Karachi's politics. Recently, the MQM's major concern has been unchecked migration from the North. "Karachi is the biggest Pashtun city after Peshawar now and we aim to capitalize on that, because it is our democratic right," said Shahi Syed.
The Election Commission of Pakistan is redrawing constituencies in Karachi on the orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and the MQM says it will be the biggest victim.
"We had been promised local council elections again and again, but the PPP backtracked on every occasion," an MQM coordination committee member said, asking not to be named. "We feel betrayed and we have conveyed that to the president."
"Local elections will take place and a suitable date will be announced soon," said Agha Siraj Durrani, provincial minister for local bodies. "Everyone is on board."
Sectarian violence has also resurged recently in Karachi, and key Shia personalities and workers of the Sunni Tehrik have been targeted, allegedly by rival Deobandi militant groups.
A recent suicide attack on a senior superintendent of police Rao Anwar was unique. Officials say an investigation revealed that the bomber was hired by a former SHO of Sohrab Goth, who wanted the SSP dead because of personal rivalry.
As Karachi sees another bloody year with hundreds already killed, the incident is a sign that the there are several different dimensions of violence in the metropolitan, and that the violence may not stop soon.
Ali Chishti is a TFT reporter based in Karachi. He can be reached at