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The day of the sector commanders

May 18, 2007

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WITH apologies to Euripides for quoting him again: “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” No other explanation holds for the events of May 12 when Pakistan’s once-upon-a-time City of Lights was handed over, with the utmost of deliberation, to the forces of darkness and anarchy.

There is nothing surprising in avowed criminals spreading lawlessness, nothing surprising in a mafia carrying out a murder, mafias after all being in the business of murder. But here was something completely different: the supposed guardians of order themselves perpetrating disorder, gifting for 24 hours and more the city of Jinnah to elements dedicated to violence and intimidation---elements whose trademark has been the political use of terror.

Not just the abdication of authority but much worse: for perhaps the first time in our none-too-happy history a provincial government, with encouragement from afar, not only turning a blind eye to anarchy but actively encouraging it. If this is not madness, what is?

Why the paralysis of Karachi, the gifting of it to killing and mayhem? Why the miraculous disappearance of the so-called law-enforcing agencies, the police and the Rangers? Only so that the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, should not travel down the Sharea Faisal and arrive at the High Court to address the Karachi Bar. Our city and who dare enter it against our wishes?

This was going one better than the Nazis. They set fire to the Reichstag in 1934 so as to find a pretext to crush their opponents. But they set fire to one building, however important, not the whole of Berlin.

Here an entire city, Pakistan’s largest, its financial and commercial hub, its only seaport, paralysed – hundreds of buses, trucks and containers hijacked in the previous 24 hours to block not just the major arteries but also minor roads – all because Justice Chaudhry should not be able to get out of Karachi airport and those wishing to welcome him should not be able to go to the airport.

Justice Chaudhry and the lawyers accompanying him were not allowed to step out of the airport. Yet Gen Musharraf feels no qualms about holding them, rather than himself, responsible for what happened in Karachi that day.

The Nazis had their gauleiters. Karachi has its sector commanders. This was the day of the sector commanders.

With roads blocked, movement was difficult if not impossible. But people were willing to brave all obstacles and make it to the airport. At several points they were set upon and ambushed, all with the greatest deliberation. Fortytwo dead are the accounted for victims of this slaughter although the real toll could be higher. Many more were injured.

At the Jinnah Hospital which I visited the next day I saw people lying with gunshot wounds – all poor, most of them day-labourers, in pain and dazed at what had befallen them.

The sector commanders were trying to show their strength. What they have exposed instead is their weakness, their terror at the thought of Justice Chaudhry coming in triumphal procession down the Sharea Faisal. One man striking terror into the hearts of a multitude: the wages not of strength but abject cowardice.

Gen Musharraf outdid himself that evening, declaring before the rent-a-crowd gathered in front of the houses of parliament in Islamabad that it was the power of the people which had manifested itself in Karachi and that anyone daring to stand in its way would be crushed. As a British paper has commented, not a twinge of shame, not a touch of remorse, just loud talk and a swaggering attitude and this on the day Karachi was visited by death and anarchy.

We’ve heard of riots being incited against Muslims in India by Hindu extremists to achieve some dark political purpose. In Karachi no compunction was shown in shedding Muslim blood in order to score a political point that defies sense and understanding.

And as if to emphasise the ‘strategic’ nexus behind these events, at a hastily-convened meeting of the Q League in Islamabad, Gen Musharraf exhorted his assembled supporters (for the most dispirited because of the killings in Karachi) not to leave the MQM alone in its hour of trial and distress. This was less exhortation than a cry from the heart. Not a word about healing Karachi’s wounds, not a word of regret about the madness that had tipped Karachi into anarchy, just a long harangue about coming to the aid of the MQM.

Even from that gathering of the meek and the docile murmurs arose against the MQM, only to be brushed aside, the order of the day being “support the MQM”.

There was also anger at the media, presumably for showing the emperor and his cohorts without their clothes. The media is being watched was the second order of the day. It better behave or it would be dealt with sternly.

This seems to be the season of sternness. The Chief Justice was dealt with sternly and we know what has come of that. Karachi has been dealt with sternly and we know the grim fruits of that. There are other indicators in the wind: the firing on the house of Munir Malik, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association (two days before the CJ’s arrival in Karachi). Now the tragic killing of Hammad Raza, Assistant Registrar of the Supreme Court.

Hammad, virtually staff officer to the CJ, was reportedly under pressure to give evidence against him. By all accounts an upright officer, it is being said that he wasn’t coming around. The government says he died in the course of an attempted robbery – an explanation few people in the country are willing to buy. His wife says it was a targeted killing. Allah knoweth best. All we can be sure of is that strange things are afoot in this season of sternness.

Hand it to Gen Musharraf though for making no bones about his ambition. His third order of the day at that same Q League meeting was not to be upset by ‘temporary’ troubles and instead concentrate on ‘my reelection’ which would benefit the Q League’s election prospects. A preview, no doubt, of the free and fair elections towards which we are supposedly heading.

Elections under Musharraf, elections in Karachi under the aegis of its sector commanders: there were few takers for these ideas before, fewer still after the events of May 12.

Army chiefs have presided over our biggest disasters: foolish, unnecessary wars, even the country’s dismemberment. Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan are the true fathers of Bangladesh. If the people of Bangladeshi had any gratitude, they would raise statues in their honour.

But the army command allowing itself to be perceived in the colours of ethnicity – and I choose my words most carefully here – is a first, never happening before. Are our self-appointed saviours, whose time as all the signs suggest, is clearly up, totally oblivious of the grave consequences of their actions?

Karachi-specific ethnicity was a bad enough phenomenon. Nothing, however, can be more sinister than playing the ethnic card from the centre. This is one game of poker best avoided. There also should be some limits to personal ambition. Self-preservation is a powerful feeling and up to an extent understandable, but it shouldn’t be stretched to the point where it drags everything down with it.

This is going to be a long, hot summer. Pray God some sense prevails. Pakistan was not created for men of limited ability to play around with its destiny. Pakistan a failed state? By no means. Its failures have been the failures of its leaders. But we may have turned a corner and in that sense left the past behind because the one sentiment being voiced across the country is, “Enough is enough”.

The yearning for change is visible. More than that, as the popular response to the judicial crisis shows, the struggle for change is being joined by wider sections of the people.