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Back to the future?

May 14, 2007


With more than 30 people dead, over 150 injured and dozens of cars, buses and other property set ablaze in a matter of few hours, Saturday’s mayhem in Karachi continues to send shock-waves across the country. But for someone who has been a witness to the turbulent period from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, it was like déjà vu once again.

Perhaps, the only factor that made things a little different, and resulted in disturbed and/or angry reaction throughout the country, was the presence of private television channels that exposed the ugly face of Karachi’s forgotten militant street politics to millions of living rooms in Sindh, Punjab, North West Frontier Province and beyond for the first time.

The big question being asked now is: were the violent events of Saturday, when the city streets witnessed a killing spree, an aberration, or was the relative peace witnessed in the last few years a façade and a thin one at that? And were the events of Saturday spontaneous or engineered and well choreographed? It also shows how the last few years have been utilised by the militant groups of Karachi to re-group and re-organise themselves, with the more powerful amongst them now having a greater potential to paralyse Pakistan’s commercial hub in a matter of hours - only to ‘restore’ its ‘normality’ the very next day.

President General Pervez Musharraf, though disturbed by the killings, was otherwise quite pleased with the rallies held in Karachi and Islamabad in his support which, in his view, was the real ‘people’s power’.

The fact that thousands of paramilitary Rangers and riot police stationed in the city did not even make an effort to restore order, and that the state seemed to have abdicated its responsibility for hours during the bloody day, did not appear to be a matter of concern for him.

He also didn’t seem bothered by the fact that scores of people were shown on live television, brandishing automatic guns, attacking and killing people, or keeping the staff of a television news channel hostage for hours by constantly firing at their building.

This at least is the impression one got from his speech at the Pakistan Muslim League rally in Islamabad. The rally also heard the argument that the Karachi violence erupted only because of the Chief Justice’s ‘intransigence´. The president accused the chief justice and his supporters of not adhering to the government’s advice against travelling to Karachi.

But returning to the events of Karachi, it is fair to say that what happened on Saturday was not different from the pattern witnessed during the decade of violence in the 80s and 90s.

It is also a stark reminder that there is peace in Karachi because it suits the militants. Otherwise turning it once again into a battleground would not be a problem for them. So, those who in these years of relative ‘calm’ in the city were more concerned about the increase in street crime, or the politics of ‘bhatta’ or ‘protection money’ will now be compelled to look at the real issues.

Those who have studied the pattern of violent politics in the unfortunate city know how it first started in the mid-80s with what looked like a popular campaign against reckless driving by mini-bus drivers. But the anti-transporter violence of April 1985 soon degenerated into fierce ethnic battles between armed factions representing the Mohajirs and Pakhtuns.

Within no time the militant groups representing the Punjabi settlers also took a plunge into the conflict.

Towards 1988 the dynamics of ethnic violence changed, with militant Sindhis in confrontation with the militant Mohajirs. The next two years saw a new phase during which the direct fight in Karachi was between the supporters of the MQM and PPP, and at one point the security forces had to bring out not just the armoured personnel carriers (APCs) but also tanks in the city to control the situation.

In the next few years the dominant pattern of violence was in the form of clashes between the mainstream MQM and its breakaway faction, the Haqiqi, and also the result of two security operations, first by the army and then by the civilian government of Benazir Bhutto.

In those days, the MQM received a major blow and an unspecified number of its supporters died in alleged extra-judicial killings, but it made a comeback in 1999 to once again become part of the ruling coalition as a result of elections of 2002.

Another factor that reminded people of the violence pattern of yesteryears was that neither any group accepted the responsibility for violence, nor the otherwise efficient security forces deployed in Karachi were prepared to blame anyone. But as always, within minutes of the violence in Karachi, a never-ending blame game started.

The opposition parties, from the PPP to ANP and Jamaat-i-Islami were blaming the MQM and the government, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement leaders were holding everyone else, including the chief justice, responsible for the killings and violence. This may continue for many more days to come.

Then, Karachi is not like Sri Lanka, Lebanon or even Palestine, where militant groups have their own code of honour, and in most cases take responsibility for their actions, even at the cost of being described as terrorist outfits. The most unfortunate part of violence of the past two decades is that in a city where several thousand people died in violent incidents or target killings, not a single political or militant groups ever accepted responsibility for a single act.

It was invariably left to the people and the security agencies to assess and analyse, and then use the situation to their respective benefit. This is exactly what is happening with the Karachi situation now.

On Saturday journalists and other eyewitnesses saw dozens of gunmen. They were not from one group alone, as in a number of areas armed men belonging to ANP or PPP and other opposition parties were also there to take on the MQM militants.

It’s pointless to discuss who had the upper hand, as it is not likely to take the debate anywhere. Still, there is weight in the argument that since the city belongs to the MQM, and it is also the dominant party in the provincial government, it was largely its responsibility to ensure peace, even if it meant postponement of its rallies and public meeting.

But does this mean the CJ and his supporters can be absolved of any responsibility? Probably not. May be the chief justice, having lived an isolated life as a judge, was not aware of the dangers of doing politics in Karachi. But others with him knew Karachi, and could have easily sensed from their past experience what was waiting for them on their arrival on a day when the MQM was determined to bring out its full force on to the streets.

Calm may be restored to Karachi soon, some protest at Saturday’s carnage notwithstanding. But the question haunting many minds will be: will there ever be lasting peace in Karachi? In other words, can the kind of development witnessed in the last few years in the form for new roads and flyovers and public parks, instead of politically-motivated street violence, become the real feature of the country’s main commercial centre.

It’s difficult to believe that the events of Saturday have not made many people in the establishment as anxious as most ordinary citizens who watched the violence on television. The events demonstrated to many that there remains a potential for another major round of ethnic or political violence in Karachi.

The fear is that if all those with the power to rein in the militancy don’t put the brakes on it and, instead, some continue to find justification for such incidents then in the coming months – particularly during and after the elections – this style of politics may take this otherwise bustling metropolis back to the dark decade of the mid-80s and 90s.