Vehicles, offices in Bahria Town set ablaze

Published June 7, 2021
POLICE arrive as smoke billows from buildings in Bahria Town on Sunday.—PPI
POLICE arrive as smoke billows from buildings in Bahria Town on Sunday.—PPI

• Teargas shells, rubber bullets used to disperse mob, dozens held
• SAC protests against demolition of villages, land grabbing
• Protesters say arsonists don’t belong to SAC

KARACHI: Two international fast food franchises, several vehicles, a showroom and two offices of estate agents were set on fire in Bahria Town Karachi (BTK) on Sunday after a mob forced its way through the main gate during a protest by the Sindh Action Committee (SAC) against the mega housing project.

Police resorted to teargas shelling and fired rubber bullets to control the situation that turned ugly after thousands of people arrived at the housing project from different parts of the province to stage a peaceful protest against ‘land grabbing’, ‘forced eviction of locals’ and ‘demolition of villages’ in the name of development.

The protesters, however, refused to accept any blame for the trouble, alleging that the BTK staff themselves got hold of some nationalist party flags and set fire to the main gate, the Business Trade Centre, the car showroom, vehicles, motorcycles, and other property on their own to give another colour to their peaceful protest.

As the SAC had given a call for sit-in outside the main gate of BTK on the M-9 motorway in advance, police had already placed containers on roads and temporary barriers to prevent the protesters from getting close to the BTK gate.

‘Halo halo [proceed proceed] Bahria Town’ was the main slogan that attracted thouands of people from not just Karachi but other parts of Sindh, including Thatta, Jamshoro, Sukkur, Larkana and Hyderabad, to the protest. There were also plans for holding simultaneous sit-ins in the UK and US to raise the issue of the indigenous of Sindh and the snatching away of their ancestral lands.

However, when the police attempted to stop SAC leaders, intellectuals, rights activists and others travelling in caravan of vehicles from moving close to BTK, they staged a sit-in on the highway, affecting heavy traffic flow, officials said.

Witnesses said suddenly protesters started removing barriers and reached the main gate while policemen deployed there did not stop thousands of protesters. The situation worsened as a mob then forced its way through the main gate and set fire to it as well as offices, restaurants, showroom and other property, triggering fear and panic among the residents.

In other acts of vandalism, the glass of offices were smashed with rocks and sticks besides a bank and an ATM were reportedly looted.

Fire brigade official later said they managed to control blaze at five to six places in BTK with the help of five fire tenders.

As arson acts continued for nearly half an hour, there was retaliation from the law enforcement agencies in the form of tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, baton charge, arrests etc., which also resulted in several injuries. Many women and children who were also taking part in the protest and sit-in fell unconscious. Many were taken into custody and were still at the Gadap Town Police Station till the filing of this report.

Police version

A senior police officer requesting anonymity told Dawn that around 8,000-10,000 protesters arrived and removed temporary barriers before more than 100 of them entered BTK. The police said as per their strategy policemen were unarmed to prevent ‘collateral damage’. Therefore, no casualty took place while the police managed to detain around 80-90 persons and FIRs would be registered against them, said the officer.

The officer regretted that the provincial administration or the ruling party had not made any effort to hold talks with SAC leaders before their arrival. He also disclosed that the Malir deputy commissioner had made efforts at the highest level of the government, asking them to engage the protest organizers in talks, without success. “No one was willing in the govt. or the ruling party in Sindh to hold talks with the protesters as two high-ups in the PPP were pole apart on the BTK issue,” the officer believed.

Residents’ anger

BTK residents called it an act of terror as thousands of people entered the residential areas and allegedly looted valuables from a whole building. They claimed that the people were armed and set fire to a plaza while there was no police or Rangers personnel for their protection. The residents wondered what sort of land victims were those who subjected them to such terror and violence.

SAC stance

SAC chief Syed Jalal Mehmood Shah told the media that the people who indulged in violence had nothing to do with his party, claiming that the SAC was not involved in the violence.

He said miscreants by indulging in violent acts tried to give different colour to their peaceful struggle.

Another SAC leader, Dr Qadir Magsi, told the media that there was a possibility of chemical use for the arson attacks and blamed the elements who were known to use chemicals for arson attacks in the past in Karachi for the latest act of violence.

The leaders said that before their arrival at the venue, their workers were stopped in different districts and they had to stage protests on the highways before reaching BTK.

Earlier talking to media, SAC leaders Syed Jalal Mehmood Shah, Dr Qadir Magsi, Sanan Qureshi, Zain Shah, Riaz Chandio and others demanded removal of the Sindh government for ‘failing to protect lands of Sindh’. They said BTK had been built ‘illegally’.

Vowing to resist the BTK’s alleged moves to demolish old villages, the leaders said mega housing projects on the motorway were aimed at bringing a demographic change in the province turning the Sindhis into ‘minority’.

“It is colonisation of Sindh by wealthy businessmen, which we reject,” said Syed Zain Shah of Sindh United Party.

“The people of Sindh are the rightful owners of their lands. They want their lands back, they want their rivers back,” said Jagdish Ahuja, also of Sindh United Party.

Later in the evening, SAC leadership after an urgent meeting held a press conference in Jamshoro and gave a call for province-wide protests on June 9 and a sit-in outside Sindh Assembly against arrest of their workers during the protest against BTK.

Jalal Mahmood Shah, Dr Magsi, Sajjad Chandio, Zain Shah, Riaz Chandio, Masroor Shah and others congratulated the people on the ‘successful protest’ against BTK and said violence was part of a conspiracy against their protest.

Attempt to sabotage peace

Minister for information Nasir Husain Shah and adviser to chief minister Nisar Ahmed Khuhro at a presser alleged that the protestors resorted to arson acts during their protest outside the BTK.

The PPP leaders said the buildings in the BTK were damaged due to fire incidents, which “was an attempt to sabotage peace”.

“The protesters took law into their hands,” Mr Khuhro said, adding that they also blocked traffic on the highway that was clearly an ‘illegal act’.

Governor praises Rangers

Sindh Governor Imran Ismail expressed his regrets over the BTK incident, asking as to why the IG police did not take steps when the protest had been announced several days ago.

He said timely action by the DG Rangers prevented the city from big tragedy. “DG Rangers ensured steps as per professional requirements, which was appreciable.

“The BTK administration should resolve its issues as soon as possible so that the citizens can live in peace and tranquillity,” the governor observed.

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2021

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