The Karachi conundrum

VIEW: The Karachi conundrum —Mohammad Jamil

The MQM and the ANP should decide whether they believe in peaceful coexistence for all of Karachi’s citizens or if their political and parochial interests are dearer to them. But they should remember that they have no other choice but to coexist

Karachi smoulders. The plain truth is that two political entities, which happen to be ruling coalition partners both in the province and at the Centre, are pitted against each other in a bloody battle for the conquest of Karachi — the MQM for keeping the port city as its exclusive preserve, and the ANP for making inroads into it. For their politics, they have thrown the city into turmoil. Karachi, the commercial and industrial hub of Pakistan, was a symbol of peaceful coexistence where people from all provinces, i.e. the Pashtuns, Baloch and Punjabis lived in complete harmony with the Sindhis, Mohajirs, Memons, Bohris, Agha Khanis and Parsis up to the late 1970s. Karachi had seen turmoil once in 1965 during the presidential election when the late Fatima Jinnah was contesting against Ayub Khan, and a second time in 1972 when language riots emerged after the Sindh Assembly passed a language bill adopting Sindhi as the official language of the province. With the formation of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, later renamed as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) to erase the stigma of being an ethnic-based party, the dynamics of the conflict changed. The MQM mobilised the Urdu-speaking people to make Karachi its exclusive preserve, and also to dominate other cities in Sindh like Hyderabad and Sukkur.

However, during the 1990s, the conflict was not Mohajirs versus Sindhis but Mohajirs versus Pashtuns and Punjabis. To understand the reasons behind the present chaos and conflict in Karachi, one has to analyse the events that have taken place in the recent past. After a C-130 crashed on August 17, 1988, killing General Ziaul Haq and other top brass of the army, Ghulam Ishaq took oath as acting president of Pakistan. Elections were held in 1988 and the PPP emerged as the single largest party, winning 93 out of 207 seats in the National Assembly, and the late Benazir Bhutto was invited to form the government. Since the PPP did not have a simple majority, it formed a coalition government with the MQM. But within months, differences emerged and the coalition collapsed. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, using Article 58(2)(b), dismissed the PPP government and dissolved the assemblies. Elections were held on October 24, 1990. After the Islamic Democratic Alliance led by the PML-N won the elections, the MQM joined the coalition government. When Karachi sank into a bloodbath during the 1990s, military operations were conducted twice to quell the violence.

After the Nawaz government was overthrown in 1999 by the then chief of army staff, General Pervez Musharraf, the MQM again had an almost free hand, as it could get police and other administration officers of its choice posted in the metropolis. Karachi once again became its exclusive preserve. Its strong contenders, Jamaat-i-Islami and MQM-Haqiqi, were knocked out with the support of the government and the no-go areas of MQM Haqiqi were reopened. During this period, the MQM obtained the redemarcation of constituencies according to its wishes. Despite that, the ANP secured two seats in Karachi.

For quite some time, targeted killings have continued unabated, and the coalition government has failed to stop these killings. After MQM MPA Raza Haider was shot dead in Karachi, MQM workers went berserk and killed about 100 Pashtuns and torched transport vehicles, vans, trucks and buses owned by them. It must be said that there was not even a remote possibility of the ANP’s involvement in his murder despite MQM’s allegations. A majority of those killed belonged to the working class who had come to Karachi to eke out a living.

Last week, a code of conduct was agreed upon among the three parties to rid Karachi of bloodshed and targeted killings. This is significant as well as revealing. There is an implicit confession that their hands are not that clean. After all, why would these parties need, at all, such a code if their conduct had been above board and unblemished throughout this ongoing blood-soaked saga? Even if the land and drug mafias are involved, these coalition partners cannot be absolved of responsibility, as similar criminal syndicates operate all over the world through connections in high places that guarantee protection to their criminal activities. And Karachi is no exception. If this code of conduct is to take the political sting out of the incessant bloodletting gripping Karachi and pull it out of this gory fratricidal turf war, nothing like it. But Karachi’s harried residents have every reason to be sceptical, as this code is not unique. Over the years, they have witnessed many a political understanding. The MQM and the ANP should decide whether they believe in peaceful coexistence for all of Karachi’s citizens or if their political and parochial interests are dearer to them. But they should remember that they have no other choice but to coexist.

The MQM leaders claim that the population of Urdu-speaking residents is 10 million, i.e. descendents of those who had migrated from India to live in Karachi. On the other hand, Pashtun leaders claim that the Pashtun population exceeds five million. As both sides have armed themselves to the teeth, this war will give no decisive victory to any side, and at best it may be a pyrrhic victory, which is not likely to be sustainable. The three parties may have put their seals on the agreement, but none is showing any signs of abdicating their political objectives in the city. Not only will these three parties suffer from their internecine conflict, they could cause colossal damage to the country. Political leaders belonging to the ruling parties as well as opposition parties must understand that Pakistan is in dire straits. Terrorism is still stalking the land, lawlessness is rampant everywhere and poverty, want and hunger are mowing down those living below the poverty line. People are committing suicides, and these are increasing by the day. Turf wars or sheer politics of power and pelf are consuming all their time and energy, while the country is slipping deeper into a morass. Can we hope that the leadership will come out of its stupor and take measures to reverse the trend if they want to stay relevant to the people?

The writer is a freelance columnist. He can be reached at


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