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Bloody puzzle, simple solution

November 23, 2012

A FLURRY of bomb attacks targeting Muharram congregations and the army chief’s statement may have pushed Karachi off the agenda but it won’t stay that way for long.

In any case, the ferocity and frequency of Shia-targeted attacks was also a reminder that a challenge posed by a toxic ideology cannot be wished away. Neither, perhaps, can it be negotiated to oblivion. It has to be acknowledged as an existential threat and dealt with head-on.

As you read these lines, you must be among the untold number of Pakistanis who are hoping that over the Ashura period more innocent blood isn’t shed. As it is, if it weren’t for the valour of our unsung heroes, the police, many, many more would have perished in the attacks.

One’s usual scepticism towards the police takes a back seat when foot constables throw protective cordons around large Muharram gatherings, processions, knowing fully well the dangers, as was demonstrated by the Rawalpindi bombing where policemen who intercepted the attacker also died.

I have seen what sort of hate material is being used to provoke anger against the minority Muslim sect. This is available on the Internet but, more significantly, being waved around at ‘religious’ congregations, meetings. Inflammatory enough to instantly ignite minds primed with hate for years.

Like the overall slide in the security situation because of the absence of a national consensus on how best to deal with it, the anti-Shia violence has also steadily gathered momentum with no visible sign of a counter-strategy by the state.

The large Muharram congregations present meaty targets to the terrorists. And, in the absence of an effective effort to strike at the root of the problem, huge resources are once again being deployed to deal with the symptoms, at best, on a temporary basis.

If a strategy isn’t evolved and deployed soon, there are fears that the whole situation could spiral totally out of control as some recent killings in Karachi have demonstrated. Here, it is believed, members of the community generally at the receiving end took matters into their own hands.

This paints a sufficiently nightmarish scenario on its own. Superimpose this religious intolerance and the toxic, hate ideology on troubled Karachi and who’d blame you for never sleeping a wink again. Any amount of anxiety is justifiable and none enough.

In a recent TV interview, former military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf was asked how he was able to keep Karachi relatively peaceful and quiet. He said when he came into power there was “gang warfare between MQM (A) and MQM (H)”.

“We dealt with it by talking to the leadership of A and H. We also used force where needed.” He was firmly of the opinion that the puppeteers had to be controlled in order to control the puppets. Dialogue and force were both needed and it is “up to the government to reach the right mix”.

The current situation, the general said, was more complicated and needed to be identified as such as “MQM’s jhagra is with the Pathan; it is MQM against Baloch and Sindhis in Lyari and there is also the ANP and Taliban” in the frame. He didn’t name the PPP and probably missed the Sunni Tehrik.

Like his successor who threw cold water this week on those demanding an army operation in Karachi, Gen Musharraf also warned against “overusing the army” and felt the Rangers were fully capable of backing the police.

The picture he painted of Karachi seemed pretty close to how one independently assesses it. Agreeing with his diagnosis, however, doesn’t mean for a moment one has to endorse how he dealt with various challenges when in power.

His regime took ‘dialogue’ with various parties such as Taliban and other religious extremist groups to mean capitulation, a complete abdication of the state role and writ over areas controlled by these groups allowing them to eliminate any opposition and achieve complete domination.

The ground lost to the militants as a result of, for example, the 2004 Shakai and the 2005 Sararogha agreements hasn’t been regained even seven to eight years later despite the soldiers writing a shining chapter with their blood sacrifices following Gen Musharraf’s exit.

Sadly, even this effort is now stalled because of a lack of political consensus in the country which appears as much rooted in ideological factors, as it is in fear and political expediency, allowing breathing space to the militants as evident in their renewed attacks.

It isn’t a cliché that being the business and commercial capital of the country Karachi is like its jugular. This is now being bled in no uncertain terms. The Musharraf years saw peace in Karachi but the regime’s blanket support also allowed the MQM to greatly enhance its physical punch.

This of course meant that other competing groups started to play catch up. With the decline in the power of the MQM (H) which was crushed, Sunni Tehrik also started to emerge as a street power, enjoying all the perks and benefits of its part domination of a rich city.

The military’s discipline meant that while Musharraf was in charge his Karachi policy went largely unchallenged. After his exit, those in the establishment who were beginning to get concerned about MQM’s might, started to look for a ‘counter’ force. The Lyari ‘gangs’ were born, empowered.

In an ironical twist, many of the players involved in this bloody conundrum also enjoy mass support, are represented in the assemblies and contribute to the existence of a delicately perched government. Anything that may tip this balance won’t happen.

Everyone who calls for ‘fair and even-handed’ action against the ‘criminals, the target killers’ also takes this to mean immunity from the law for their own cadres. In what they see as a zero-sum game none of the players seem to have the vision and maturity to abandon this policy.

Till one player or more take the initiative and shift their reliance solely onto electoral power and politics of service and delivery, Karachi will continue to bleed.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.