Karachi’s drift into violence

May 3, 2009

“Traditionless, dysfunctional, and unstable, Karachi is an unfortunately apt metaphor for Pakistan’s general condition,” wrote Robert D. Kaplan in Atlantic Monthly. True to his description Karachi with its 15 million populations of divisive ethnicities, slums, political violence and chronic power outages is a fault line on which Pakistan is sitting. The recent spate of ethnic violence that killed at least 34 people is an indicator of dangerous path which this city is heading towards anarchy and chaos.

Unlike, tribal areas and NWFP, Karachi, with its huge industrial base is the economic lifeline of the country and any prolonged conflict on ethnic grounds is a sure recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, this city periodically witnesses’ crises and people are killed, properties burned and ransacked, but administration due to one or the other reasons did not take any action or probes these incidents. The polarization, which Karachi had undergone in 1980s under military government, is now bearing fruit in the form of political and ethnic violence.

The drift of the city into political and ethnic violence over the past few decades has been steady. Target killings are followed by a period of public outburst, incidents of killing, arson and then denials, condemnations and enquiries follow and everything comes back to square one. Tensions which had gripped city in the past either they be language riots, Bushra Zaidi case, Operation Clean Up or May 12 have always pitched different ethnicities against each other and these unsavory incidents fuel further tensions as city’s doyens try to get political mileage out of these.

This city has grown as home to the heterogeneous communities from all over the country due to the economic opportunities it offers and people from other parts of the country head for Karachi in search of greener pastures. Earlier, this wave of arrival pitched Sindhis against Mohajirs as former felt marginalized on their own land as Mohajirs outnumbered them in cities. Now the same feeling is behind the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) tirades against Pakhtuns in the city.

Discordant ethnocentrism

Ethnic lines dividing the Karachi run deep and ethno-linguistic polarization of city could be traced back to the same feelings. The rise of Mohajir nationalism coincided with the language riots and introduction of quota policy in 1970s under Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government. The language riots crystallized the Sindhi-Mohajir divide while the introduction of quota system in 1973 compelled Mohajirs to think that this move was aimed at their marginalization.

In 1978, Altaf Hussain founded All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organization (APSMO), which became foundation stone of a political party by the name of Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) in 1984. The driving force behind the MQM creation was the growing discontent and sense of being discriminated against amongst Mohajirs by majority groups. It wanted recognition of Mohajirs as the fifth nationality of the country. Bushra Zaidi’s death in a road accident in 1985 added another dimension to ethnic conflict and Pakhtuns completed the troubling trio. In 1987, MQM swept local body polls and it was in provincial and national assemblies in 1988 general elections. In 1992 government launched ‘Operation Clean Up’ against MQM and score of its activists killed in encounters.

The rise of MQM or Mohajir nationalism is marked with ethnic violence. Prior to MQM formation and after Sindhi-Mohajir clashes continued throughout 1970-1990, while Pakhtun-Mohajir violence came to surface in 1985. Its clash with the state dominated 1990s. The party’s internal feuding with its breakaway faction-calling itself  MQM-Haqiqi marked late nineties. Following Musharraf’s coup MQM sided with the dictator and the bloody massacre on May 12, 2007 took the city back to violent nineties. Pakhtun issue again resurfaced during Musharraf’s rule as feeling intimidated and discriminated against Pakhtuns formed Loya Jirga or Pakhtun Action Committee (PAC) in 2006. Loya Jirga has been vocal to for the rights of slum dwellers and transporters.

As the militancy wrecked havoc in the north of the country, Internally Displaced People (IDPs) turned to Karachi and MQM started making hue and cry of Talibanistaion of the city. Its coalition partner PPP denies the Talibanistaion of city; however, regarding land mafia, drug cartels and other criminal elements it agrees with MQM. Awami National Party (ANP), which represents Pakhtun in Karachi and has also won two seats in provincial assembly in 2008 general elections, is of the opinion that Pakhtuns are being targeted on the pretext of Talibanistaion.

Tension in Karachi is fraught with serious implications for the rest of the country and state has miserably failed to come to the rescue of common people in the face of criminal gangs taking over the city. MQM also needs to part ways with its militant past and have to realize that its own survival is tied to peace. The city where haves and have-nots are living within no distance of each other is prone to many dangers and ethnic and religious violence increases the risk of Bosnia like bloodshed.