Thursday, August 12, 2010




Every time there is a spurt in the violence in Karachi, the Federal Interior Minister, Rehman Malik descends on the city to play peacemaker between the ANP and MQM. For a few days, all the killing comes to a sudden stop, and then the cycle repeats itself. After Raza Haider's assassination, a 10 point code of conduct has been agreed to by the MQM and ANP. That this is touted as a solution to target killings is a tacit acceptance of the political nature of the target killings. After all, if the killing of Raza Haider was the handiwork of what Malik has called the 'third force' and 'enemies of Pakistan' who want to destabilise the country – Rehman Malik has blamed the Sunni terrorist groups Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) – then clearly a code of conduct between MQM and ANP will not be of much help in ending the violence. The 'third force' theory also does not explain who was responsible for the bloodletting that followed Haider's assassination.

While there is no denying the strong presence of Islamist terror groups in Karachi, the city also has a thriving underworld that revels in the unsettled conditions that exist in Pakistan's commercial capital. Criminal syndicates involved in narcotics, gun-running, land-grabbing, protection, extortion, kidnapping and contract killing rackets have been operating in Karachi with relative impunity under political protection and patronage. The politicians rely upon the criminal syndicates to settle political scores and also raising funds for political activities. But it was not only politicians which benefited from the underworld; the Islamists too developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the criminal syndicates. The nexus of criminal syndicates with both politicians and Islamists was aided by the fact that most criminal gangs in the city were organised along ethnic lines, which allowed them to play a role in the politics of the city which too was polarised along ethnic lines.

In the 1980's and 90's, Karachi politics was primarily polarised between the ethnic Sindhis and Mohajirs. An attempt by the intelligence agencies to forge a Punjabi-Pashtun alliance – the Punjabi-Pashtun Ittehad – had run aground. The only force to pose some sort of a challenge to the MQM in Karachi was the religious parties. But in recent years, the Pashtuns have become a force to reckon with. Karachi is today not only the largest Urdu-speaking, Gangetic Plain Muslim city in the world, it is also the largest Pashtun city in the world. In the 2008 elections, the Pashtuns, under the ANP, won a couple of seats in the Sindh provincial assembly and are today part of the coalition government in Sindh. The massive influx of Pashtuns in Karachi has caused consternation among the MQM. For now, the MQM has managed to gerrymander the constituencies in a way that they dominate the elections. But this dominance is threatened by the rising number of Pashtuns in the city, especially in areas where the two communities live side by side.

Political considerations apart, the MQM is also deadly opposed to the growing presence of Taliban in the city, which they see not only as a political threat, but also as a threat to their way of life. Regardless of MQMs unsavoury reputation as a fascist party, the fact remains that it is the only middle-class political party in Pakistan and perhaps the party with the most modern, progressive, even secular, outlook in Pakistan. Unlike most other political parties which tend to take an ambivalent stand against the Islamists, the MQM has always taken a tough, uncompromising position against religious radicalism.

But the MQMs opposition to the talibanisation of the city was seen by the ANP as a thinly veiled attack on the growing Pashtun presence in the city. Although the ANP too has been in the vanguard of the fight against the Taliban, and has suffered far more at the hands of the Taliban than any other political party in Pakistan, in Karachi local political considerations have muddled ANP's politics. By positioning itself as the party representing Pashtuns in Karachi, the ANP might unwittingly be also batting in favour of the Taliban, many of whom are believed to have taken refuge in Pashtun dominated areas.

The fact that the police has busted many Taliban modules in Karachi and apprehended members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan from Pashtun areas of the city lends credence to the MQM charge that the ANP is turning a blind eye to the growing talibanisation of Karachi only to appease its Pashtun vote bank. The tension between the MQM and ANP has been exacerbated by the rather provocative speeches and statements issued by the ANP leaders, both at the national level and the city level, against the MQM. Add to this the enrichment of some ANP city leaders from their links with the various mafias and the growing aggressiveness and assertiveness of the Pashtuns to stake their rights over the city by force of arms if necessary and the picture of the anarchic situation in Karachi is complete.

Caught in the middle of the political tussle and war of words (not to mention bullets) between the ANP and MQM is the PPP, which is trying to juggle various critical political objectives in Karachi. The PPP-led coalition government in Islamabad would be reduced to a minority without MQM support and therefore the PPP simply cannot afford to rub MQM the wrong way. At the same time, the PPP must keep on the right side of the ANP both because the ANP support is important in Islamabad as also because the ANP and PPP are in coalition in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Compounding the problem for the PPP is the deep animosity that its Sindhi vote bank has for the MQM. The more the PPP embraces the MQM, the greater the danger that it could alienate its Sindhi support base. Although the PPP has tried to balance its politics by stonewalling on the issue of local government legislation in Sindh in which the MQM has a vital stake, it has added to the angst in the MQM which feels that it is being denied its rightful political right to run Karachi. The MQM appears unwilling to allow any other political party a piece of the Karachi political pie by dividing the city in a way that other political parties will have a stake in Karachi politics.

Adding to an already complicated situation is the somewhat dubious role being played by the infamous intelligence agencies of the Pakistan, namely the ISI and MI. Quite aside the fact that many of the Islamist groups and criminal syndicate have deep links with the 'agencies' and are known to operate with the tacit blessings of the 'spooks', there are reports of involvement of intelligence personnel in target killings. Even in the past, there have been reports that the 'agencies' have been acting as agent provocateurs to fulfil some political agenda of the military top brass – destabilise the sitting government or remove inconvenient people from the scene with complete deniability. This time around too, there are good reasons to suspect the direct or indirect (through their Jihadist proxies) involvement of the 'agencies' in the target killings to destabilise the PPP government in Islamabad.

    Given the multiplicity of players involved, restoring some semblance of law and order in Karachi seems to be a rather tall task, way beyond the intellectual or administrative capacity of the civilian government. But it is unlikely if even the army will be able to handle the situation in Karachi, which is heading for a meltdown. Like the rest of Pakistan, Karachi too is now waiting tensely for that one spark that will conflagrate the whole place.


    <1280 Words>                    12th August, 2010



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