June issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

An alarming rise in sectarian violence in Karachi has exposed the shortcomings in the government’s much touted campaign against religious extremism and underscored a danger of descent into complete anarchy. In the past month, Pakistan’s commercial and financial heartland has been rocked by a wave of bloody terrorist attacks that have taken the lives of at least 60 people, including more than 25 worshippers killed in the latest suicide bombing at an imambargah.

The bombing, believed to be in retaliation to the assassination of Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai a day before, was perhaps the bloodiest in the troubled city in recent years. The assassination of the country’s most respected Sunni cleric, who had close links with Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime, is shrouded in mystery. Mufti Shamzai had called upon Muslims to join the jihad against American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though his murder followed the attack on an imambargah on May 7, there are serious doubts that it was linked to sectarian strife. The incident did, however, trigger retaliation against the Shia community.

The police hold the outlawed Lashkar-i-Jhangvi responsible for the recent spate of suicide bombings at imambargahs. The group seems to be carrying out terrorist attacks with impunity, despite the government’s claims that it had broken up its network. The group is also believed to be involved in earlier suicide attacks against Shias in Quetta.

There has been a sudden spurt in terrorist activities in the city of Karachi. Twin car bombs were detonated outside the Pak-American Cultural Center, close to the residence of the American Consul-General, while the American fast food outlets, McDonalds and KFC, have also been targeted.

The degenerating law and order situation and Karachi’s return to a bloody cycle of violence not only indicates the failure of the security agencies but is also symptomatic of a wider political problem. There is virtually no government in Sindh. The loose and fractious coalition, cobbled together by the army and the ISI, could hardly provide effective governance to the country’s most problematic province. The cross-dresser chief minister is no more than a figurehead. Significantly, Sindh is the only province where the governor belongs to a political party and is an important partner in the coalition. There is a huge confusion on the issue of who really rules the province. With its man as the governor, the MQM seems to dominate the government.

The MQM found its way back into the establishment’s favour after10 years. Political expediency brought the erstwhile foes together, in a bid to keep the Pakistan People’s Party out of the battle for power in the province. The return of the MQM has sparked off a turf battle between it and the Jamaat-i-Islami which now controls Karachi’s local government. It is quite evident that the JI’s success in the local elections was the result of the MQM boycott of the polls. With its hold over the provincial government, the MQM now wants to show who is the master of the city. That has sparked a direct confrontation between the Karachi city government and the provincial administration. The bloody clashes between the two groups during the bye-elections, leaving more than 12 people dead, was an outcome of the deadly strife between the two parties.

Predictably, the turf war has further weakened the effectiveness of the provincial government in dealing with the law and order situation. The virtual collapse of the provincial administration has also created a highly conducive atmosphere for the return of the crime mafia and sectarian terrorist groups. The helplessness of the administration was quite evident as mobs rampaged through the city in past weeks. In a predictable move, the administration has sacked the city police chief and some other officials, thus absolving itself of any responsibility in the matter. Rumours were rife that, in response to the crisis, President Musharraf would remove the provincial government and impose governor’s rule in the troubled province. But the options are severely limited in the present circumstances. The MQM has already warned that it would resist any such measure. Can the federal government afford to take on a direct confrontation with a major ally when things are not going well for it? In desperation, the establishment has offered the PPP the lead in a new coalition government in Sindh. But, predictably, Benazir Bhutto is not prepared to bail Musharraf out of the Sindh mess.

The economic cost of unrest in the country’s economic powerhouse is huge. The present situation in Karachi threatens to slow down the economy which had shown some signs of recovery. The spiralling violence is a serious threat to the stability of the country and has increased the political risk for potential investors. The stock market fell sharply on fears of more violence. Reacting to the volatile situation, the Karachi Stock Exchange 100-share index fell 182.92 points, or 3.3 per cent, to 5278.92.

It is very obvious that neither a change of face nor imposition of governor’s rule will help to salvage the situation in Sindh. What is happening in Karachi is symptomatic of the overall situation in the country. It is General Musharraf’s politics of manipulation that is largely responsible for the present political mess not only in Sindh, but in the country as well. The violence is not confined to Karachi alone and has spread to other parts of the country.

A major cause of rising religious violence is General Musharraf’s failure to fulfil his promise to come down hard on militancy and to reform the madrassas, which are the centres of Islamic extremism. A crucial part of the plan to combat terrorism, outlined by General Musharraf in his landmark speech in January 2002, was to regulate and transform those seminaries whose role in promoting jihad had come under intense international scrutiny.

The issue does not seem to be on General Musharraf’s priority list any more. Analysts say the half-hearted measures which have been taken so far lack conviction. To date, no regulation has been formulated to make it mandatory for the seminaries to register with the government and no rule specified to control their funding. Analysts say the country continues to be held hostage by extremist elements.

The resurgence of Islamic extremist groups is evident in the rising graph of sectarian violence. More than 300 people have been killed in Pakistan in sectarian violence this year alone. Though the government has cracked down on activists of some outlawed groups, most analysts are doubtful whether these half-baked measures would succeed in the absence of a coherent long-term strategy. It is quite intriguing how heavily armed terrorists continue to operate with impunity, despite the government’s claim of having destroyed their network.

A large number of madrassas are involved in preaching religious and sectarian hatred and continue to provide recruits for jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. What is most alarming is that all the suicide bombers involved in the recent terrorist attacks in Quetta came from madrassas run by radical Islamic militant groups. Musharraf has wittingly made an alliance with the mullahs and has done nothing substantive to curb religious extremism.

The situation in Karachi should serve as an eye-opener and a reminder that patchwork measures cannot deliver peace and stability.

The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.