Page 1 of 2 Islamabad fiddles while Karachi burns
By Amir Mir
ISLAMABAD - The law and order situation in Pakistan's commercial capital
Karachi has taken a turn for the worse, amid growing apprehensions that the
violence-stricken largest port city of Pakistan may eventually turn into
another Beirut of the 1970s and 1980s, when rampant terrorism, target killings,
gang wars and sectarian and religious fundamentalism was the order of the day.
Located in the south of Pakistan, along the coastline meeting the Arabian Sea,
Karachi spreads over 3,527 square kilometers in area, almost four times bigger than
Hong Kong. With an estimated population of 18 million, Karachi is the most
populous city of Pakistan and one of the world's largest in terms of
Being the foremost financial center, it is home to premier banking, industry,
economic activity and trade. Locally known as the "City
of Lights", Karachi is home to prime corporations involved in textiles,
shipping, the automotive industry, entertainment, fashion, arts, advertising,
publishing, software development and medical research. Being the location of
Karachi port and Port Bin Qasim, two of the region's largest sea ports, Karachi
was the capital of Pakistan until it was replaced by Islamabad in 1959.
Karachi, also the capital of Sindh province, has long been the destination for
generations of ethnically diverse migrants. Being a multi-ethnic metropolis
where a diverse people had lived peacefully until internal and external forces
gradually pitted them against one another, the Karachi of today bears
remarkable similarities to the Beirut of the past.
Home to displaced Palestinian migrants, who were first welcome and then
resented by the native people, a city where arms proliferated as by-products of
warfare in neighboring states, Beirut was a place where the inner
contradictions of the Lebanese state and society had converged. The rot spread
from Beirut and eventually led to a bloody civil war across the whole of
Lebanon, which resulted in an estimated 175,000 civilian fatalities, prompting
Israel to invade southern Lebanon in 1978, and the whole country in 1982.
Just like Beirut, Karachi is currently hitting headlines for all the wrong
reasons in the wake of an unending spate of bloody violence that has claimed
over 250 lives in the first three weeks of August, while more than 300 people
were killed in July alone. Likewise, 500-plus people had been killed in
targeted killings in the trouble-stricken city during the first half of 2011
(between January 1 and June 31), compared with 753 people who lost their lives
Both the major ethno-political parties of Karachi - the Muttahida Quami
Movement (MQM) representing the Urdu-speaking citizens and the Awami National
Party (ANP) representing the Pashto-speaking populace, despite being in
coalition with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP)-led provincial government in
Sindh, blame each other for the wave of gory violence and the subsequent rise
As per the national census of 1998, around 45% of Karachi's population
affiliated itself with Urdu. By 2010, almost 25% of Karachi's 18 million
inhabitants called themselves Pashtuns. The remaining 30% of the population
comprises Sindhis, Balochis, Punjabis, and more.
As far as the strength of the political parties in the 168-member Sindh
assembly is concerned, the PPP has 93 members, the MQM 51, the Pakistan Muslim
League (Quaid-e-Azam Group) 11, the Pakistan Muslim League (Pir Pagaro Group)
eight, the National People's Party three and the ANP two.
Sindh's Pashtun population stands at around 25%, but the ANP has only two
members in the provincial assembly. Admittedly, not all Pashtuns are ANP
voters, but 25% of Karachi's population is massively disenfranchised. The PPP
has 93 members in the provincial assembly but 95% of them are from outside
On the other hand, the MQM's stronghold in urban Sindh is reflected in the
provincial assembly, where it occupies 28 of Karachi's 33 seats. Its control
over the Urdu-speaking Mohajir representation gives the MQM enormous potential
to keep its organizational and ideological resources at high alert most of the
The root cause of the law and order problem in the city is that both the MQM
and the ANP have seemingly converted themselves into narrow ethnic-based
entities that are using violence as a tool against one another.
Although the MQM is largely held responsible as the main perpetrator of the
violence, the ANP has apparently also started playing the same game.
Consequently, Karachi is literally armed to the teeth today. From top
politicians, landowners and industrialists to the sharpshooters of the
underworld, guns are more visible than anything else.
Security officials say the nexus between politics and crime is an old one in
Karachi as hired assassins, extortionists, kidnappers, drug-peddlers,
land-grabbers, gunrunners and even petty criminals have successfully managed to
find their niche in one political party or another. All of them are heavily
armed and most of them have the connections needed to escape arrest and
Therefore, Karachi seems to be witnessing a process of militancy today, like
Beirut of the past, where the crisis involved only one sectarian party at the
beginning which gathered the Maronite community under the leadership of Pierre
Gemayel, the fascist founder of Phalange party, and his son Beshir Gemayel.
As the crisis persisted, sectarianism flourished and spread to the rest of
Lebanon, turning the whole country into a cauldron of ethnic strife. Like
Beirut, Karachi also seems to have reached a state of complete anarchy, with
hundreds of bullet-riddled and tortured bodies, stuffed in gunny bags, being
recovered from different parts of the city every day.
Life in the metropolis has become so precarious that even common citizens are
becoming victims of the killing spree and kidnapping has become a common
occurrence. The law-enforcement agencies believe that the ethnic-cum-political
rivalries between the Mohajir and the Pashtun communities were the dominant
factors behind most of those killed in Karachi this year so far.
In fact, Karachi has always been a city of refugees. At the time of
independence in 1947, Karachi was a sophisticated trading city inhabited by a
large number of affluent Hindus, Parsis, Muslims and Christians. The city
population increased considerably when hundreds of thousands of the
Urdu-speaking migrants from India (Mohajirs) came to Pakistan, especially after
the 1971 dismemberment of the eastern part of the country (now Bangladesh), and
started settling in Karachi.
As Russian forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979, hundreds of thousands of the
Pashto-speaking refugees from Pakistan's Pashtun belt in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa
province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) started migrating
Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States,
counter-insurgency operations in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA have resulted in
the displacement of tens of thousands of people, with an estimated 300,000
internally displaced persons pushing into Karachi.
The mass influx was bound to destabilize established equations, hence changing
the demographic composition of Karachi (which was once dominated by
Sindhi-speaking people) and turning it into an Urdu-speaking Mohajir-dominated
city. In such a situation, ethnic differences were bound to emerge between the
Mohajirs and the Sindhis, the Pashtuns and the Sindhis and the Mohajirs and the
Sindhis, thereby causing tensions.
After Pakistan's third military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq toppled the
government of the first elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, (who was a
Sindhi) in July 1977, the military and intelligence establishment decided to
nourish and nurture an Urdu-speaking student leader, Altaf Hussain, who was a
The establishment wanted to weaken Bhutto's PPP by dividing the Sindh province
on ethnic lines (Mohajir vs Sindhi). Consequently, in 1984, Hussain, who at the
time was chairman of the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organization, launched a
political party - the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) or the Mohajir National
Movement. In a bid to weaken the PPP, the Zia regime allowed the MQM to form a
network of professional militants through which it successfully established its
stronghold in Karachi and literally took over the city.
Gradually, the MQM's militant wing rose in stature and strength, with
extortions, carjacking, land-grabbing, illegal construction etc earning it
massive revenues to run party affairs. As a result, the MQM has retained power
since it became part of mainstream politics in 1985 (when the Zia regime held
general elections on a non-party basis after a gap of almost a decade), by
entering into alliances with major political parties - at different times, the
Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the PPP.
It is generally believed that being the product of the Pakistani military and
intelligence establishment, the MQM has always enjoyed the support of the
military leadership, with the aim of undermining ethnic Pashtun groups and
However, after Zia's death in 1988 in a plane crash, the military's policy
towards Hussain saw a drastic change, with the Inter-Services Intelligence
(ISI) accusing him of being an Indian agent conspiring to break up Pakistan by
converting Karachi into an independent Mohajir state called Jinnahpur.
This led to a massive military operation under then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif
in 1991, prompting Hussain to flee Pakistan and settle permanently in England.
The "operation clean-up" by the army had exposed many torture cells and brought
before the public the violent tactics employed by the Mohajir party. Yet the
military operation was finally allowed to peter out because the army and the
politicians did not agree on its direction.
The second crackdown against the MQM was carried out during the tenure of prime
minister Benazir Bhutto. This was spearheaded by the police with the help of
the paramilitary Rangers, which took out many hardened criminals associated
with the Mohajir party.
The action was successful as peace was restored to Karachi and the state for
once seemed in ascendance in the city. However, once the Benazir government was
dismissed prematurely, the MQM staged a comeback and started to display many of
the old tactics that had defined it since day one. A number of police and civil
officers involved with the operation against the Mohajir party were hunted down
and killed. Others chose to run or hide.
The third crackdown against the MQM was carried out by the second government of
prime minister Sharif following the October 17, 1998, murder of the former
Sindh governor Hakeem Mohammad Saeed, who was allegedly assassinated by MQM
activists in Karachi.
The main accused in the murder case was Zulfiqar Haider, a serving member of
the MQM from the Sindh assembly. On October 28, 1998, 10 days after the murder
and having received the initial inquiry report from the authorities, Sharif
accused the MQM legislator and seven other party activists of involvement in
the murder and set a three-day deadline for Hussain to hand over the killers,
including the Haider, failing which he threatened to discard the PML-MQM
On October 31, following the MQM leadership's refusal to meet the deadline,
Sharif suspended the provincial assembly and imposed federal rule in Sindh,
which was followed by a massive crackdown by the security agencies against the
However, after Pakistan's fourth military dictator General Pervez Musharraf
took over the reins of power in October 1999 following a coup, the MQM
literally started ruling the roost, mainly because of Musharraf's Urdu-speaking
Mohajir connection with the MQM and its self-exiled leader.
Having usurped power, Musharraf went to see Hussain in London. This was strange
because several criminal cases had been registered against Hussain even at that
time, including that of kidnapping and torturing a serving army officer. An MQM
stalwart was later named Sindh governor and he reportedly had several criminal
cases registered against him - all of which were dropped. Under Musharraf's
patronage, the MQM not only acquired unbridled power in Sindh but started to
spread its wings to other parts of the country, including Punjab.