As the Muttahida Quami Movement and Awami National Party each attempts to be the last party standing, Karachi dies slowly of a cancerous civil war ignored by the privileged classes of the city
Karachi -- a city on fire. Why does it burn? Why don’t the flames catch anyone’s eye? As the AfPak region’s headlines continue to be dominated by security stabilization in Afghanistan, preparations for the Afghan political transition, the eventual drawdown of forces in 2014 and Pakistan’s increasingly volatile relationship with the US, any developments in the domestic conditions of Pakistan go unnoticed.
But Karachi stands out to me, in observing from a distance and being once engulfed by its hostility. It remains part of me all the same. The city and the turmoil within speak to a larger context of political instability and uncertainty about the country’s future. Will an overshadowed city in civil conflict become the defining feature of a crumbling Pakistan?
Karachi is being set ablaze at the hands of those who promise political stability and control but attempt to harness it through ethnic violence. As the Muttahida Quami Movement and Awami National Party each attempts to be the last party standing, Karachi dies slowly of a cancerous civil war ignored by the privileged classes of the city and by the rest of the country. Times and circumstances have changed, with ethnic and politically-rooted violence between Mohajirs and Pashtuns now replacing the former Sindhi-Mohajir tensions and the conflict between Sunnis and Shi'as. Murders occur overnight and in broad daylight in countless instances of firing and arson attacks. Increasing incidents of kidnapping and extortion finance the violence. Meanwhile the country remains unconvinced of a problem greater and more severe than target killings alone.
A protracted conflict, the enduring and violent situation in the largest city in Pakistan between communal groups finds its roots in the struggle for basic human needs such as security, distributive justice, and political and economic participation. In this case, cleavages divide the feuding groups along ethnic lines and result in lasting hostility accompanied by periodic outbreaks of violence.
Although defined as political parties, the MQM and ANP are largely based on ethnic foundations. The Mohajirs are the Urdu-speaking minority who chose to migrate from India after Partition to build the Quaid's vision. The Pashtuns migrated to Karachi fleeing the conflict in Afghanistan and its bordering areas in Pakistan, seeking too economic opportunity in the growing metropolis. This led to the rise of the Awami National Party (ANP), the predominantly Pashtun party, in Karachi politics with newly gained assembly seats in 2008. In a city with an existing Mohajir majority and a government perpetually dominated by MQM, the recent influx of Pashtuns has caused unrest within the city's ruling party as well as the population who are wary of the newcomers' attempts to settle their land and acquire their jobs. The federal government has engaged in several counterinsurgency operations against militants in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, displacing hundreds of thousands of Pashtuns who then migrated to Karachi. With both parties vying not only for political control of the southern port city but also command over the significant trade conducted there, tensions have escalated to a point where it is unsafe to venture into certain neighborhoods for fear of being targeted due to one's ethnic appearance. Ordinary citizens don't stand a chance when it comes to the measures implemented by the political parties to secure their power. Violent and hostile attacks authorized by high-ranking officials in these organizations are carried out by hired guns of criminal gangs, despite assurances from leaders that their respective parties are based on non-violence and their solutions to resolving matters founded in peaceful processes.
Estimates from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan show 740 victims of violence this year already after an astonishing total of 1,715 violent killings in 2011. After a severe instance of over one hundred deaths in just a few days and resulting city-wide strikes in the summer of 2011, heads finally began to turn as the city shut down. Instead of arriving in Karachi to express concern and address the affected areas, President Asif Ali Zardari issued orders to restore peace, security, and the commissioner system, from a safe distance. In a time of crisis when leadership is most needed, where was the president of Pakistan?
If not for the city's denizens, who are a merely humanitarian concern, one would at least expect him to show concern over the economic value of the city. The largest city in Pakistan, Karachi dominates the domestic economy as well as provides a bulk of the country's GDP. Despite this significance, the national government has done little to quell violence in the city while Karachi's economy suffers as collateral damage. Perhaps a plausible explanation for this neglect is the strategic maneuver of allowing the MQM and ANP to weaken each other by battling it out in their own conflict while the PPP remains unattached to the situation, therefore suffering no harm or blame and emerging as the strongest party. In fact, it is in the PPP's interests to allow and even encourage the violence to safeguard its rule. However the PPP claims another party is instigating the violence, as shown by a recent instance earlier this spring when PPP Karachi president Syed Faisal Raza Abidi cited a “third force” as the perpetrators of the killings who hoped to implicate the Sindh coalition parties in order to create rifts between them. These claims are no different from the “foreign hand” that is used as a source of blame at the national level. Such distraction from finding the root causes of conflicts is preventing them from being resolved.
Earlier this summer in an attempt to manage the violence and extortion, the Sindh government implemented a strategy to enhance police presence in sensitive areas such as Orangi and Lyari. This may appear to be a logical initiative to quell the violence but in reality, it won't yield much in results because the police are powerless against the strength of armed, established gangs. A more appropriate solution would be the formation of a citizens' committee which acts as a liaison with the police and includes members of various ethnic groups, professions, and income levels. Its objective should be to expose the roots of the violence and voice the concerns of ordinary people in the affected communities. However much sense such a solution may make, it is likely to remain unimplemented as MQM and the ANP attempt to strong-arm any such initiative in an effort to prevent their gangs/political parties from being undermined. Another obstacle would be the citizens' fear of becoming the next victims as a result of participating in such a committee.
Politically and ethnically motivated target killings may be one explanation for the civil war that plagues Karachi, but there is also the possibility of these murders being random expressions of anger. Frustrated and trigger-happy individuals are releasing their rage in a manner that takes the lives of innocents. Their victims may be people who are guilty of nothing other than being of the wrong ethnicity in the wrong neighborhood. It is clear that an end to the violence is not on the horizon when murders are signed with self-righteous threats: “Jo mohajir subay ka ghaddar hai wo maut ka haqdar hai.” Even as the newly elected Prime Minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, pledges to place a peaceful Karachi as a priority on his agenda, an air of skepticism avails itself and Karachi waits still for an end to its suffering.