Karachi’s Beirut-style civil war – by Jan Assakzai

The MQM knows that the threat to its monopoly over street power stems from only one community — the Pakhtuns — so it has taken upon itself the task of browbeating them into submission

The recent violence in Karachi has left scores of people dead. Many of them belonged to the Pakhtun community. This is not the first time that the Pakhtuns were targeted in various parts of the city. Karachi hosts the largest concentration of an urban Pakhtun population, surpassing Peshawar, Quetta or any other city in the country. Some estimates put the number of Pakhtuns in Karachi at nearly seven million out of a 17 million population.

Over the last nearly 10 years, the Pakhtuns have almost solely depended on Karachi to make a living. Geopolitical events in the Pakhtun-dominated areas such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA and northern Balochistan (partly due to the Baloch-dominated government’s discrimination and partly because of the Baloch insurgency) almost diminished the chance for the Pakhtuns to have a meaningful source of livelihood.

They are involved in low skilled jobs in Karachi. I have been tipped off that the Pakhtun owned hotels and dhaabas are being put out of commission overnight. There are also reports that the Pakhtuns are being systematically sought out and removed from Urdu-speaking areas. Removal means eviction by landlords, refusal to buy goods from Pakhtun businesses and so on. Though the Sindh government has, as usual, blamed unknown ‘miscreants’ as being involved, let us face the fact: the MQM is again blamed for its involvement in this violence.

The MQM has a dark history. There were over 25 political workers killed in May 2007 when the MQM resorted to violence to prevent Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry — who, at the time, had been suspended by military ruler Pervez Musharraf — from addressing lawyers in Karachi. The MQM was acting like a local bully for President Musharraf who had always been supported by the MQM.

It has always tried to maintain an iron grip on all public activities related to the Urdu-speaking populace. It has targeted the press, burnt thousands of copies of a popular daily, looted the offices of another newspaper and attacked the homes of journalists. The aim of such terror activities was to force the Urdu-speaking dominated media in Karachi to give the MQM prominent coverage for its activities.

The MQM has monopolised the Urdu-speaking community’s power by literally beating, torturing and killing the workers of their opponents. Therefore, it has not only targeted ethnic rival groups but has also wiped out internal dissidents (Mohammad Waseem, Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan: The Case of MQM).

The MQM knows that the threat to its monopoly over street power stems from only one community — the Pakhtuns — so it has taken upon itself the task of browbeating them into submission. However, the MQM’s policy, which is heavily stacked against the Pakhtuns, may backfire.

Since there is no going back for the Pakhtuns and other minorities from Karachi, the Pakhtuns are likely to resort to forming militias for their protection. They might be tempted to adopt vigilantism, as every Pakhtun is culturally wired to obtain arms and take revenge for any loss. They are also likely to reverse what ANP leader Shahi Said termed as an “ongoing process of ethnic cleansing” of the Pakhtuns in Karachi.

The moderate Pakhtun leadership of the ANP might not be able to control the potential militant brand of Pakhtuns hardened by the MQM’s highhandedness. Of course the MQM vigilantes will retaliate. Thus the worst-case scenario will become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Karachi will begin to resemble a replay of Beirut where, in the 1970s, there were massacres of the Palestinian inhabitants of Tel al-Zaatar and Karantina by the Christians and of the Christian inhabitants of Damour by the Palestinians.

It is high time that policy makers in Islamabad seriously think about breaking the MQM’s stranglehold on Pakistan’s economic jugular vein, i.e. Karachi. And the only way to do that is to break the political monopoly of the MQM on different power levers.

First, proportional representation (the process enlisted in the UK after hundreds of years of the old ‘first-past-the-post system’) should be adopted so that the electoral system is not biased against smaller political parties. It is common that in the ‘first-past-the-post system’, major parties obtain the main advantage despite getting an overall minority share of the total votes polled.

Secondly, the redrawing of existing constituencies in Karachi should be done on the basis of ethnic rather than linguistic demographics, as the Pakhtuns and other ethnic groups who now speak Urdu because of having lost fluency in their first languages are now wrongly codified as Urdu-speaking. The current census only offers the choice of a first language spoken at home and does not have the choice of ethnicity. Ethnic demography will give more of a share to the Pakhtuns, Punjabis and other ethnic groups in the federal and provincial legislative assemblies and, thus, will serve as a check on the exclusivist MQM.

Third, the re-demarcation of the Pakhtun and Urdu-speaking areas will also ensure a change in Karachi’s local government, which has been a long-standing desire of the PPP, ANP, Sindhi nationalists, JI, PTI and the PML-N. Also, until the re-demarcation of the city on the basis of the above method, the district government should be appointed by the federal government.

Fourth, the Pakhtun-dominated areas in Karachi should be re-demarcated in a manner that will ensure a proportionate Pakhtun representation. Fifth, the district government of Karachi should not be handed over the control of the police until fair redrawing of the constituencies takes place.

Finally, a review commission appointed by parliament should determine the share of other ethnic groups in Karachi and to oversee the removal of difficulties in getting domicile certificates and national identity cards in the city.

The writer is a London-based analyst hailing from Balochistan. He can be reached at janassakzai200@gmail.com

Source: Daily Times, 27 May 2010



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