Playing with fire

July 11, 2011

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TORN apart by ethnic and political strife, Karachi has long been a tinderbox that can be set ablaze by the smallest of sparks. There is no shortage of antagonists in this city and the latest round of allegations can trigger a deadly chain reaction. It has often been said that Karachi is more cosmopolitan than any other major city in Pakistan. A patchwork and quite resplendent quilt, if you will, that had been carefully and harmoniously crafted over time but began falling apart at the seams in the mid-'80s. Since then we have seen peaceful pauses that are almost inevitably destroyed by the most horrible violence imaginable. Mohajir versus Sindhi nationalists, the security operation against the MQM, a short-lived spell of 'activism' by the Punjabi Pakhtun Ittehad and then the out-and-out conflict between the MQM and the ANP that has rocked the city in recent years.

Now yet another inflammatory ingredient has been tossed into the pot. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which has parted ways with the Pakistan People's Party, is clearly at loggerheads with the administration. Neither side has done itself any favours. Zulfiqar Mirza of the PPP seems bent on provocation. He almost boasted the other day that he met MQM-Haqiqi leader Afaq Ahmed, Muttahida's primary foe, in jail. Is it becoming of a minister to have contact with a man who is, rightly or wrongly, accused of heinous crimes including murder? The government must act with greater restraint than its opponents. The MQM, for its part, has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging the government to take its pick: political negotiation or street combat. As messages go this one is quite clear, for it seems that both sides have taken polar positions that can only hurt the city further. The MQM's statements come close to a threat of extreme violence. At the same time, the MQM ought to be asked whether a person like Aamir Khan, a former dissident who was until recently accused by the MQM of similar atrocities, should have been present at the press conference in which the Muttahida's Anis Kaimkhani lambasted the PPP.

Karachi has seen enough warfare and cannot afford another showdown. Too much blood has been spilled already, families devastated and livelihoods lost due to industrial shutdowns and a general fear factor that is crippling productivity. The numbers game cannot be played out in Sindh. The political situation here is far too complex than in other parts of the country and cannot be resolved without a joint effort. We need to learn how to live with ourselves.