Understanding the Karachi violence – by Nadeem Paracha

A changed political landscape

This may sound surprising, but the truth is that the recent spat of violence in Karachi is quite unprecedented.

Violence between the city’s major political parties and ethnicities has been an unwelcome aspect of the sprawling metropolis since the 1980s, the understanding of which was based on a largely accurate narrative

However, the recent round of violence squarely based on ‘targeted killings’ and related reprisals challenges this narrative.

The old narrative

The violence between ethnicities, political parties and Muslim sects in the city (that erupted in the mid-1980s) was mainly due to the stress the city’s widespread economy, resources and political balance suffered when the city began receiving large waves of Afghan refugees, fleeing from war-torn Afghanistan.

According to the 1981 consensus, almost 58 per cent of Karachi’s population comprised of Urdu-speaking ‘Mohajirs.’

The Pashtun population of the city was under 10 per cent before 1981, but since most Afghan refugees arriving in Karachi also spoke Pashtu, the city’s Pashtun population began to increase rapidly.

Until 1981, Karachi’s social, political and economic culture was dominated by the sensibilities of Mohajirs who were politically conservative but socially liberal. They prided themselves for shaping a city that had become a vibrant economic hub and also a leading entertainment and education centre, having the largest number of modern cinemas, clubs/bars, universities and colleges in Pakistan. Equally involved in this activity was the city’s Punjabi community which constituted about 12 per cent of the population.

However, things in the city began to change dramatically with the arrival of Afghan refugees. In the absence of a democratic set-up – the country was under a military dictatorship – the Afghans’ entry into the city was extremely mismanaged, based on zero consensus between the city’s political and economic interests.

The first signs of the change in this respect were felt on the politicised university campuses and colleges of the city. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Karachi’s campuses were hotbeds of an intense electoral tussle between the Islamic rightists and the left-leaning progressives.

But the progressives began facing a purge when military under General Ziaul Haq toppled the popularly-elected Z.A. Bhutto and imposed a conservative dictatorship.

Many believe that since the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and its student-wing, Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), began to work closely with Zia and the Islamist Afghan guerrilla groups that he (along with the US and the Saudis) was supporting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the IJT became the first student organisation to arm itself with sophisticated weapons.

After violence perpetuated by the IJT intensified on Karachi’s campuses, progressive groups also began arming themselves. Between 1979 and 1983, a series of assassinations and clashes between the rightist and progressive student groups plagued the campuses, with both groups now being sold guns by the Afghan refugees.

From within the chaos emerged the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO) – formed in 1978.

APMSO became the first concentrated expression of Mohajir nationalism. Although until the late 1970s most of Karachi’s Mohajirs were JI voters, APMSO joined the progressive student alliance, the United Student Movement (USM), at the University of Karachi in 1981 – signalling that the Mohajir community was feeling increasingly alienated by the JI.

With a ‘gun mafia’ consolidating itself in Karachi, the same mafia also began bringing in large quantities of heroin. Initially at least, the gun and drug mafias were almost entirely being run by Afghan refugees (with the blessings of a fast-deteriorating police force and corrupt Army personnel).

The residential areas of Karachi’s Pashtuns were where most Afghan refugees decided to set-up camp.

By 1984, the city’s recourses and infrastructure could barely keep pace with the refugee influx. Also, with gun and drug mafias springing up, the crime rate in the city shot up drastically, and heroin addiction (compared to 1979 figures) increased by a whooping 500 per cent!

Karachi’s majority Mohajir community accused the city’s Pashtun population. The Pashtuns sided with the Afghans and soon, riots broke out when a young Mohajir college student (Bushra Zaidi) was crushed to death by a bus driven by a Pashtun (1986).

The episode triggered a deadly Mohajir-Pashtun mêlée when the congested, low-income area, Orangi – home to both Mohajir and Pashtun communities – erupted with ethnic violence.

The riots eventually saw the rise of the Mohajirs’ first bonafide political party, the Mohajir Qaumi Movment (MQM).

Within a matter of two years, the MQM rose to become the largest political party in Karachi. The JI was almost wiped out and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) barely managed to hold on to its strongholds in the city.

The city’s political landscape had changed significantly. The intensity and nature of crime and violence in the city (from 1981 onwards) had become such that almost instinctively, political groups now chose to retain trained cadres of armed militants to look after the parties’ interests outside the assemblies.

Another destructive spectre that had reared its ugly head during the economic and political turmoil in Karachi in the 1980s, was sectarianism. Just as heroin and guns had followed the Afghan refugees into the city, so did a particularly militant version of Sunni Islam.

This (sometimes called ‘Wahhabism’) version was being propagated by the Zia regime among various Afghan guerrilla groups stationed in Peshawar, with many puritanical and militant ulema and leaders were also allowed to set-up mosques and madrassahs in Karachi.

It is believed that perturbed by the influence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (led by Shia clerics in 1979) could have on the Sunni-dominated Pakistan, Zia allowed newly-formed radical Sunni outfits to unleash their wrath on the country’s radical Shia groups.

These attacks soon mutated into serious sectarian clashes between the two sects (especially in the Punjab). Karachi, too, witnessed a number of such clashes.

After being extended by its clashes with the Pashtun community and then the PPP/PSF (Pukhtoon Student Federation) and the Sindhi population of the city, the MQM seemed to have exhausted its Mohajir nationalist card, and it consequently became more authoritarian and militant in nature.

Between 1992-98, the state and government (first under Nawaz Sharif and then Benazir Bhutto), believing the MQM to be on the verge of disintegration, launched multiple operations against it through the police and paramilitary forces.

During the operations in which a large number of police personnel and MQM/APMSO activists were killed, the state soon discovered the high level of ‘weaponisation’ that the city was now facing.

The operations that had kept the city’s police, paramilitary forces and political parties embroiled in turmoil, further deteriorated the city’s infrastructural and economic condition. As crime and violence continued unabated, new-found puritanical Islamist outfits took the opportunity to set-up base in the city.

The new outfits in this respect were made of a new wave of Islamists, inspired by the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan (in 1996). As a reaction to this, the Sunni Tehreek (ST) – a militant partly based on the teachings of ‘Barelvi-Islam’ came about in the early 1990s to check the spread of ‘Wahhabi/Deobandi’ militant groups.

Even though the more moderate Barelvi Sunni Muslims are a majority in Pakistan, they are considered to be ‘heretics’ by the Wahhabis.

When the artificially-formed MQM splinter group (MQM-Haqiqi) collapsed, many of its members joined the ST.

Beginning again

Karachi returned to ‘normality’ after the arrival of the Musharraf dictatorship. Between 2002-2007 there were negligible reports of ethnic violence in the city and consequently, the city’s economic activity picked up again.

The MQM won the local bodies elections in 2004 and ran the city amicably, fully supported by the Musharraf regime. Also, no major suicide bomb attack by Taliban/al Qaeda took place in the city (after 2005) and sectarian violence also witnessed an all-time low.

By 2008-9, Karachi began to stand out as perhaps the only major city in the country not plagued by the audacious Islamist violence that had gripped the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

However, as the recent spat of violence in Karachi suggests, boiling underneath the decade-long relative calm over the city was a new breed of monster. This monster may give the impression of being related to the ethnic and sectarian ogres that terrified the city in the past, but that is not the whole story.

According to the 1998 consensus, the Mohajir majority of the city had fallen from 51 per cent to 48 per cent, and many believe this has further dropped to about 41 per cent.

The Punjabi/Saraiki section of Karachi’s population that stood at about 16 per cent in 1998 has increased to about 17 per cent, while the Pashtun population has risen to 16 per cent.

The sectarian and religious make-up of the city has changed a little as well. Experts believe that although Karachi still holds the largest number of what are called ‘liberal Muslims,’ and the majority of Muslims in the city follow moderate sects of the faith, the last 10 years has seen a growth in people shifting towards the more radical brands of Islam.

For example, the Karachi’s memon (Gujrati speaking) community that until the late 1990s was seen to have been supporting secular parties like the MQM and the PPP, is now one of the main backers of the ST.

These changes have so far not affected MQM’s large vote bank in the city and the PPP has managed to hold on to its traditional areas of support. But these changes did help the Awami National Party (ANP) expand its influence. For the first time it was able to win more than two seats in an elections in the city (2008).

In the last 10 years, the PPP, MQM, ANP and ST have all retained militant wings. Unlike until the 1990s when these wings usually comprised of youth indoctrinated by radical ideologues of the involved parties, these wings eventually came to be controlled by street thugs and criminals.

Local party leadership continued to patronise these groups, many of whose members then made good of the political patronage they were receiving and diverged into indulging in various criminal activities including extortion, kidnapping, dacoity, drugs and land grabbing.

That is why the recent spat of ‘ethnic violence’ in Karachi is slightly different than the one the city suffered 10 years ago. Ethnic and political ideology is not the motivating factor. And neither is economics, as such.

The scene in this respect has simply boiled down to open gang warfare between the MQM, ANP, PPP and ST militants who are now neck-deep in activities revolving around drug, land and gun mafias.

The reason why the MQM-ANP-PPP coalition government (in the city) has struggled to contain the recent violence is mainly due to the top leadership’s failure to reign in their militants.

These militants who were used by their parties (on college campuses in the 1980s, and on the streets in the 1990s), spiralled away from their respective parties’ controlling apparatus and many of them are taking matters into their own hands.

The leadership of these parties have now become well aware of this phenomenon, but they see themselves trapped by it – as if blackmailed by the militant groups within their parties – because many of these groups also include members who mobilise voters during an election.

The good news is that there is now every possibility that the political parties in this respect are (if reluctantly) willing to finally allow law-enforcement agencies to crack down on these groups. The reason is simple: In the long run, it will be these leading parties of Karachi who stand to lose influence and popularity if the anarchic ways of their rough militants are allowed to continue for short-term gains.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

Source: Dawn, 21 October 2010



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