Living among the marksmen



Supporting those who are busy killing us

At the end of every working day, when we sit in front of the TV screens, my mother, who cannot understand Urdu, comes to us and asks us a question, “How many people have been killed today?” The question is often responded with a plain figure describing number of people that fell prey to the unending violence in the city. She asks more details about the nature of killings and we tell her about the ethnicity, political affiliations and faith of the victims; it’s how these killings have been assorted. The queries end up with cursing the government and political parties reviled for backing warring gangs.

On the evening of 13 March, the daily stats of violent acts from Karachi, tagged with a term “target killings”, included a prominent figure of the city. The deceased was a woman and Director of Orangi Pilot Project, Parveen Rehman, who had been killed with a 9mm pistol by armed motorcyclists in quite the similar fashion as most of the target killings had happened in the city.

People on the social media were lamenting the death, effing and blinding the remorseless assassins, and I had to answer the questions asked by my mother after watching TV channels showing scenes from the hospitals where Parveen Rehman’s dead body was wrapped in white shrouds labelled with the logos of Khidmat-e-Khalq Foundation (KKF). Unhinged by the footage and my replies, she murmured, “I can’t understand how this woman could be a problem for anyone?”

The name associated with the efforts on improving the lives of those living in slums could not, and should not, have been a threat to the powerful affiliates of armed political and religious groups. It has been reported that her intense efforts in archiving and documenting the records of 1,500 goths in the outskirts of the city, which were grabbed, divided and sold out by these groups, and her support for those people who were dispossessed of their lands, had earned her chafe and displeasure from different quarters. One wonders how these records and files can prevent and stop people from selling these precious lands. One can assume that political powers are the primary suspects, which actually have the ability to manipulate administrative processes hence paving way for their affiliates to skip all the obstructions coming in their way.

With the emergence and realligning of the new players in the aftermath of the 2008 elections, the authority of the old contenders, who have for many years enjoyed monopoly over political powers and its outcomes, has been challenged. They reacted violently to the new political realities. The new political players have encouraged a tit for tat response, but what has been an established fact is that militancy goes out of bounds exceeding the assigned limits. Armed elements in these political groups have reacted in the same way: exercising autonomy at different levels with unwanted results in a few cases.

During these years, while the demographic changes in the city have been discussed, the most significant change which has been overruled due to various political reasons is the drastic shift in the equation of powers towards various religious and sectarian hardcore militant groups. The maneuvering by the political parties has been emphasised upon but taking hold of the precious lands by various religious groups has been hardly discussed or taken into account. It starts with a boundary wall around a small part of land acquired in the name of a mosque, which is then gradually extended to greater parts of the land with the help of activists of the jihadi and sectarian militant outfits. After the possession is established, later a section of the land is kept for the mosque and madrassah and the rest is sold out in the name of collecting funds for the mosque and madrassah.

These localities around the mosques and madrassahs are under effective control of these armed groups, who do not allow non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to operate, and look at their women workers with suspicion and disdain.

These groups have asserted their authorities and exercised powers to negotiate disputes at the lower level. With the arrival of their militant counterparts from other parts of the country, they have overstepped their domain many times by targeting dissident elements in the political parties, as well as those who stood up against militant groups and sided with the government and military where military offensives were undertaken against these militant groups.

While most of these groups, exercising authority to commit violence or employing coercive measures, were delegated these powers by the state for various political or ideological reasons, the state comes into action only if one group has to be dragged down in favour of the other or it has started acting more independently than what has been accorded to it in the first place. What matters most, to the establishment, is not the anti-people character of these groups but the anti-state activities, that too specifically against the vested interests of the establishment and not the state in general, which would have been a good idea.

Ali Arqam is a journalist based in Karachi. He can be emailed at: and interacted on Twitter at: @aliarqam



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