August Issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 10 years ago

Karachi, the country’s commercial hub and its largest city, continues to remain on the edge. The tall buildings, glittering commercial plazas, plush offices, wide roads, new bridges and affluent neighbourhoods are only a veneer hiding the coarseness and perils of this port city where lawlessness, violence and crime reign supreme. This teeming city of an estimated 16 million people boils over with political strife, ethnic rivalries, sectarian tussles and religious extremism. The inter-party and intra-party turf wars are not the only factors responsible for the bloodletting on Karachi’s streets. The feuding gangs of criminals and land-grabbers are also involved in the killing spree. No wonder then that there has again been an alarming surge in what the police and media describe as targeted killings. Around 150 political assassinations have taken place from January to July, 2010.

The victims belonged to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP), the MQM (Haqiqi), the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Ahl-e-Sunnat and Al-Jamaat, Sunni Tehreek, Majlis Khatm-e-Nabuwaat, the Jamaat-e-Islami, and included Shiite activists and Sindhi nationalists. Then there were those victims who got killed on account of their professions — they included around 10 policemen, five doctors and six real-estate agents.

Police and government officials, however, maintain that not every killing in Karachi is a targeted or a politically motivated one.

“There is an element of exaggeration here,” says Jameel Ahmed Soomro, information adviser to the chief minister of Sindh. “The media often creates hype and jumps the gun… if one goes into the background of each of these killings, one would find many victims who had nothing to do with any political party, religious group or gang of criminals. They were ordinary citizens, who were at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Waseem Ahmed, the Karachi police chief, revealed that from January 1 to July 24 there have been 878 murders in Karachi, out which 136 were identified as political murders. Newspaper records show that since July 24, there have been more than a dozen other political killings in Karachi, bringing this total to more than 150.

The complexity of the situation can be a nightmare for any government, especially one which finds its two coalition partners consistently at each other’s throat. It has to constantly perform a delicate balancing act between conflicting political interests. And if in doing this, political expediency takes precedence over everything else, then justice and the rule of the law become the first casualties.

In the quagmire of Karachi’s lawlessness, lines between friends and foes are often blurred. Earlier this year, PPP supporters were at loggerheads with workers of their coalition partner, the MQM, mainly in the city’s district south and west. The situation cooled down only after the direct intervention of President Asif Ali Zardari and MQM leader Altaf Hussain, both of whom want to see Karachi calm at any cost.

According to Soomro, who is a close confidant of Zardari, the process of destabilisation of every government starts from Karachi, therefore maintaining peace in Karachi remains the PPP’s top priority.

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Photo: AFP

But the MQM-PPP rivalry — in fact the turf war between their supporters in select constituencies — has always been a small part of the bigger problem that is Karachi. Even the MQM’s bloody rivalry with its dissident factions led by Afaq Ahmed and Amir Khan, which began in the early 1990s, does not ring any alarm bells in the corridors of power, despite the fact that it has claimed thousands of lives and continues to fester even today. Similarly, religious violence, including Shia-Sunni sectarian killings, despite its regularity and ferocity, does not have the potential to transform into an unmanageable conflict. It is the Mohajir-Pathan fault line that has the real potential to upset the apple cart and develop into a full-blown ethnic conflict in a city where rival groups remain heavily armed and state institutions operate by conceding power to various interest groups.

The Urdu-speaking and Pathan communities have a long history of violence dating back to the rule of former president Ayub Khan, way back in the 1960s. However, it was the era of another military ruler General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, during the 1980s, which saw a sharp surge in the level of violence between them as entire neighbourhoods were attacked, looted and plundered by gunmen and hundreds of people were killed.

However to their credit, both the MQM and the ANP managed to put a cap on the ethnic conflict not only through the 1990s but also for the most part of the present decade. However, in recent years the divide between these two secular parties has widened, triggering fears of a revival of confrontation.

Ameen Khattak, a hard-core ANP worker who is now secretary general of the Sindh chapter, says that his party made history by winning two provincial assembly seats in Karachi, for the first time, in the last general elections. “This is the main reason why the MQM is not accepting us… in all those constituencies where they lost or they fear losing in future elections, they are trying to bring demographic changes by creating new clusters of neighbourhoods comprising their supporters who are Urdu-speaking.” He adds: “Even the anti-encroachment drive has been made controversial as it is targeting only Pakhtuns.”

But for the MQM, the matter is not that simple. They argue that one of the main reasons behind the recent Karachi violence is the fact that land-grabbers and criminals have penetrated the ranks of political parties, especially the ANP.

Faisal Sabzwari, a provincial minister and senior MQM leader, maintains that political workers like Ameen Khattak are being exploited by criminals who have joined the ranks of Karachi’s ANP. “The land mafia is one of the most powerful groups in Karachi… this mafia is using the ANP to derail the anti-encroachment drive, which was launched after the recent presidential ordinance,” he remarks. “It is extremely unfortunate that the anti-encroachment drive is being given a political colour.”

The provincial government halted the drive when a police contingent came under heavy fire in Baldia Town where the city administration was trying to clear more than 170 acres of land in the cottage industry zone near Ittehad Town of encroachers on July 15. Two of the encroachers — Farid Mumtaz, 25, and Habib Noor, 27 — also died in the exchange of gunfire. After strong protests from the ANP, the Sindh government suspended the drive on July 21, underlining how difficult it has become to take simple administrative measures in a politically charged atmosphere.

Provincial adviser Jameel Ahmed Soomro maintains that thousands of acres of land in Karachi have been encroached upon, including government land, parks and playgrounds as well as land where the lease has expired but people continue with their illegal occupation.

“There was a time when land-grabbers used to construct illegal mosques and seminaries to encroach on land. Now they put up flags of political parties,” he says. “We managed to clear encroachments on 1,100 acres of land in the first few days of the drive, but subsequently had to put a limited halt on the campaign.”

He is of the view that criminals in the ranks of political parties and not political workers were involved in land-grabbing. “We have asked our ANP and MQM friends to discuss their differences in the core-committee meeting rather than in public, but this request is not being followed. We want all political parties to support the anti-encroachment drive.”

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

Police sources report that land-grabbers and organised gangs are armed with weapons and money. In most cases they use their ethnic affiliation as a political card, particularly in Baldia Town, Sohrab Goth, parts of Gulistan-e-Jauhar, Gulshan-e-Iqbal and several other neighbourhoods. “Some of the biggest land-grabbers in this city hail from the lawless tribal region,” reveals a police officer, requesting anonymity.

Khattak the ANP leader, however, insists that only poor Pathan labourers were being targeted in the anti-encroachment drive. “The MQM has created the entire Altaf Nagar despite a controversial city government resolution, but no action has been taken against them,” he says.

The MQM contradicts him by saying that the city government gave alternate plots to those people whose land was occupied by land-grabbers and there was nothing unlawful in this decision.

As the MQM and the ANP trade accusations, the police say that taking action against criminals and gangsters is easier said than done. “The police face a lot of difficulties in solving the cases of targeted killings,” says Waseem Ahmed, the police chief of Karachi. “One of the key problems is the criminalisation of political parties.”

Understandably, the police and civil administration often find their hands tied when it comes to taking action against any criminal or interest group. For Waseem Ahmed, “blind FIRs” (First Information Reports against unknown people) and a lack of witnesses often result in the acquittal of culprits. “Many times false cases are registered against top politicians in murder cases, which helps the real culprits go scot-free,” he says. The easy availability of illicit and licensed weapons also remains a problem for the police, who want stringent laws against this menace.

However, another senior police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, reveals that due to political expediency, parts of Karachi remain as lawless and crime-ridden as the northern tribal areas of Pakistan where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants dominate.

“There is simply no writ of the state in many areas of Karachi and the laws of the land do not apply there,” he says. “The state institutions have to concede ground when it comes to enforcing simple traffic rules because that could transform into an ethnic issue. We can’t even order that silencers be put on two-stroke rickshaws or take action against smoke-emitting vehicles, let alone cleaning the city of big crime mafia and land-grabbers,” laments the police chief.

“It is not just crime gangs and mafias which operate here with the connivance of political parties. Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives too, are active in this city, raising funds, recuperating, reorganising and regrouping. Parts of Karachi are as good or bad as Waziristan.”

It is not just the PPP-led government that is to blame. Its predecessors also took ad hoc measures whenever Karachi spun out of control, and thus they failed to remove the root causes of the conflict and lawlessness. Rather than opting for a neutral police force and ensuring the rule of law and fairplay, successive governments have resorted to policy of appeasement, compromise or political victimisation for short-term political gains. The pattern of this ad hoc management has not changed, though the level of violence and its ferocity have risen with every passing year. The city has lumbered from one cycle of violence to another, punctuated by uneasy periods of lull. And this pattern continues. Life in Karachi has moved from one tragedy to the next — and it is simply the resilience of its citizens that has kept this city afloat.

Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.