May issue 2009
Are They Here?
Karachi’s days of peace and calm seem to be numbered. The city-wide eruption of violence on April 29, 2009, broke what was already an uneasy calm. The killing of two MQM workers when they were attacked by armed men in the hills of North Karachi who had opened fire at Zarina Colony, triggered the violence.
As violence spread to different parts of the city, shopkeepers pulled down their shutters and traffic grew thin on the roads. Bilal Colony in Korangi was one of the worst-affected areas where five people were killed and 10 others injured. In addition, five shops were also burnt. The police and Rangers soon arrived and made arrests. According to a resident of the colony, Sindhi, Mohajir and Pathan communities all reside in the area. In the past, he says, there have been times when the Sindhi and Mohajir communities have united against the Pathans and exchanged weapons among each other for this purpose.
Across the city, buses and vehicles were set ablaze while firing went on continuously. Among the worst-hit areas were North Karachi, New Karachi, Benaras, Sohrab Goth, Abul Hassan Ispahani Road, Safoora Goth, Quaidabad, Gulistan-e-Jauhar, Shah Faisal Colony and Surjani Town. Shoot-to-kill orders were issued to law-enforcement agencies by the prime minister and a state of emergency was declared at hospitals. Examinations scheduled for the next day were postponed and all education institutes remained closed. By the end of the day, 25 people had been killed and an estimated 50 were injured. According to police chief Wasim Ahmed, 50 miscreants were arrested and 17 weapons seized from them. However, while the situation had relatively been controlled by the next day, news reports revealed that a teenage boy was gunned down in Khokrapar, while another youth was killed in Orangi town.
The outbreak of violence was not something unforeseen. Tension had been mounting in the preceding days, after several members of the ANP were targeted around the city. On April 20, the dead body of an ANP worker, who was earlier abducted from Pehlwan Goth area, was found near Sharah-e-Faisal. Five days later, motorcyclists opened fire at students belonging to the Pakhtun Students Federation (PSF) opposite Urdu University, killing a student leader and injuring eight other party members. Earlier, the murders of two ANP workers, Ashraf Agha on January 21, 2009, and Fazal-ur-Rehman Kakakhel on February 6, were followed by violent reactions in the city.
Only recently, in December, the city had come to yet another of its frequent standstills. While efforts to maintain law and order and calm in the city are being made in the form of peace committees set up by the MQM and the ANP, it remains to be seen whether these committees will be able to achieve the desired goal and restrain the two communities from indulging in hostile actions against each other.
The causes for the tension between the two ethnic communities are numerous and deep-seated. They can be traced back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent migration of Pakhtuns, both from Afghanistan as well as the Frontier province. This migration was accompanied by the arrival of the drug and gun culture. Together, they changed the demographic balance of the city as well its character, with Karachi becoming increasingly violent. The 1998 Census, the last carried out in the country, put the Mohajir population at 48% and the Pakhtun at 11%. The percentage gap between the two groups has narrowed further in subsequent years, especially in the years after 9/11 when Musharraf decided to join the US war on terror and scared Pakhtuns fled from the worn-torn region. The migration continues to this day. According to reports from officials in the NWFP, nearly 550,000 people have been displaced from the Pashtun tribal areas in the last eight months alone; out of them 300,000 are reported to have settled in Karachi in the Pashtun strongholds including Sohrab Goth and Surjani town.
Ostensibly, the MQM, which views Karachi as its city, is not very comfortable with the fast changing demographic balance, which would tilt its vote bank considerably. Hence the growing tension between the two ethnic groups.
The first ethnic riots broke out on April 15, 1986, over transport, an industry dominated by the Pakhtun community. A Pathan mini-bus driver broke a traffic light and sped into a group of students from Sir Syed College, which was located in the Mohajir-majority locality of Liaquatabad. One Mohajir student, Bushra Zaidi, was killed. The days following the incident were marked by violent riots across the city, strong police action against protestors and the torching of buses. Eventually, the army was deployed in the Mohajir-dominated Liaquatabad and Nazimabad.
The situation only got worse when a group of Pakhtuns in Benaras Colony attacked a bus carrying Mohajir students to Bushra Zaidi’s funeral. A Pakhtun gang also stoned a bus of Mohajir students and stormed Abdullah Girls College, molesting female students in the process.
On October 31, 1986, a bus transporting MQM activists to a rally was attacked in Pakhtun-dominated Sohrab Goth, killing six people. Nearly 50 people were killed over the next week as ethnic riots broke out across the city. A couple of months later, a military operation in Sohrab Goth, ostensibly targeting drug and arms dealers, infuriated the Pakhtun community. The next day, the ‘Aligarh Colony Massacre’ took place as hundreds of Mohajirs were killed in retaliation.
In all, over 1,000 people were killed that week.
There was relative quiet on the Mohajir/Pakhtun front during the 1990s, as the MQM found more dangerous enemies in the form of the state — a massive operation against MQM was launched — and breakaway factions — the MQM-Haqiqi was formed. A number of factors reignited the simmering feud after 9/11. The MQM, which had been on the opposite side of the religious parties since the mid-1980s, was strongly opposed to what it viewed as the increasing threat of Talibanisation in the city. The rise in religious extremism, according to the party, was also responsible for the worsening law-and-order situation in Karachi. The MQM maintains that many of the refugees coming into Karachi from the NWFP and FATA are actually members of the Taliban who are preparing for terrorist acts and getting funding for their activities. One of the methods to raise funds is believed to be kidnapping for ransom, something that has increased in Karachi over the past few years. The party further alleges that the city’s drug and land mafias have formed an alliance with the jihadists.
While this may be true, innocent Pathans, who have been settled in the city for years and are simply leading a hand-to-mouth existence, are unfairly being targeted. There are numerous incidents where tandoorwalas have been gunned down and small shop-owners businesses’ have been burnt. More so, the fact that simply looking like a Pathan — clothed in shalwar-kameez with a topi on the head and usually with a beard — is proof enough that they are militants. But Pathan is not synonymous with the ANP or, indeed, the Taliban. Nor is Mohajir synonymous with the MQM. This distinction must be made to prevent the murder of innocents.
However, this is not to deny that there aren’t people from the Pakhtun community who sympathise with the cause of the Taliban and offer them refuge in areas they control, in addition to providing them with a base to operate from.
The MQM has suggested a number of tactics that could be used to counter the perceived Taliban threat. For one, they urged the citizens of Karachi to be constantly vigilant, looking out for possible militants in areas that are known to harbour them. The ANP, as well as the wider Pakhtun community, have taken this call to be a form of ethnic profiling, with the entire community under suspicion. Reminiscent of a call made by the MQM chief in 1986 asking his supporters to sell their possessions to buy Kalashnikovs, and urging residents in upscale areas to learn how to use guns. He also called on girls to get martial arts training, although he did not explain how a karate kick was supposed to deter a suicide bomber.
Apart from the ANP, some commentators have also accused the MQM of hyping the Taliban threat as an excuse to consolidate their hold over the city. Certainly, the Taliban are not as strong in Karachi as they are in the NWFP, FATA or even southern Punjab. But anecdotal evidence suggests that their numbers may be growing.
There have been unconfirmed reports that women shoppers, even in upscale areas of the city, have been told that they should cover up by groups of bearded men. A rash of SMSes have also been sent advocating Taliban-style rule in the city.
But the ANP argues that even if the Taliban are present in the city, it is unfair of the MQM to target the entire Pakhtun community. However, much of the criminal element that has migrated to Karachi, and is carrying out kidnappings and robberies to fund the militants, takes refuge in Pakhtun-dominated areas, where they are shielded by much of the community.
In the countdown to May 12 — the day the ANP has announced to hold its rally — the citizens of Karachi wonder whether the kind of carnage that had taken place on May 12, 2007, will be repeated or will it be much worse this time round. Talk among certain circles is that if the situation at hand is not controlled soon, it is bound to explode, in larger proportions than had been witnessed two years ago. There is no shortage of weapons on all sides and it now rests on the call of the decision-makers of the political parties to make or break peace. Considering that both the ANP and the MQM are coalition partners, both in the centre and the province, that should be their first priority.
Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.