Back in January, I wrote a post entitled, “Violence in Karachi 101,” in which I attempted to break down the players in the then-conflict, the root causes, and potential solutions, thanks mainly to interviews with journalists covering the issue on the ground. In Karachi, violence and political tensions have erupted time and time again, cloaking the city in bloodshed and garnering momentary headlines.
Huma Imtiaz wrote in the NY Times yesterday, “Targeted killings of various ethnic groups and political parties’ workers have left more than 300 people dead since 2008.” In recent months, noted Dawn Newspaper, Karachi has suffered “the worst such violence in years with 85 people killed after a lawmaker was shot dead in August.” Since Saturday alone, more than 70 people have died in the city as the result of such killings. Imtiaz reported,
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), representing the city’s Muhajirs, and Awami National Party, (ANP), with a dominant Pathan support base, have had tense relations. The MQM has accused the ANP of supporting organized crime and the ANP charges that its opponent is a terrorist organization that is responsible for the killings of Pathan residents. Both parties are coalition partners with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party in Sindh.
But what are the nuances of this conflict? Are the players involved the same as previous spates of violence and are they motivated by the same root causes? For those of us not from or currently living in Karachi, the nuances of the conflict seem daunting to comprehend. Below, two journalists – Huma Yusuf from Dawn (currently the Pakistan fellow at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) and Shaheryar Mirza, a Karachi-based reporter for Express 24/7, provide insight and help answer some FAQ’s related to Karachi’s most recent outbreak of violence:
Q: News agencies report that unrest first broke out in Karachi on Saturday, a day before a by-election was slated to be held for a provincial assembly seat left vacant after Raza Haider from the MQM was assassinated in August. Was the by-election the cause of this recent outbreak of violence or was it merely a catalyst following months of escalating tensions?
According to Yusuf, the mechanics of the conflict are the same as always – ethnically driven conflict over turf and power in Karachi. Although the by-election can be seen as the “catalyst” for the recent violence, political/religious/ethnic tensions are always simmering in the city. Orangi Town, the site of the by-elections, is the “tensest district in Karachi that is divided between the Mohajirs and the Pathans,” and the assassination of Raza Haider led this to be a very emotionally-charged election among MQM’s constituents.
Mirza added, the MQM has held the provincial (MPA) seat in Orangi Town since 1988. Although mostly Urdu-speaking communities live in Orangi, “it borders many different areas which have absorbed the large influx of Pashtun immigrants. Therefore, the two communities, as they expand, run into each other and begin to overlap.” As a result, he added, “some votes are won and lost in the new overlap,” leading to competition for power or “turf.” Competing groups subsequently use violence and extortion to rule certain areas. “It is a lot like the way gangs exert their influence in other countries except that in Karachi, political parties are behind it.”
However, noted Mirza, this “political turf war” is only one aspect of Karachi’s violence. The drug mafias, criminal organizations, militant groups, student organizations, and ethnic violence “all overlap and link with each other through politics, ethnicity, and religion,” creating a complex web of unrest and tensions.
Q: This is obviously not the first time tensions in Karachi resulted in violence – is this spate of killings part of the larger trend from the past or is it different? (Are the killings less targeted and more indiscriminate?)
According to Yusuf, this recent outbreak of violence appear to be more brutal, mass killings, inclusive of people other than party workers (like the assassination of shopkeepers near Shershah). She noted, “This could indicate two things; (1) Since the MQM has been worrying about shifting demographics in Karachi (in favor of a growing Pashtun voting block) the stakes of this round of violence are higher, and the parties are trying to give each other sterner/more violent messages than before. And (2) the involvement of other criminal groups and gangs (i.e. the Lyari gangsters that MQM has complained of). This is not a new phenomenon, but indicates a worsening level of security, law and order control.”
Mirza also noted the conspiracy theories surrounding the killings. “Amongst people who have been reporting on crime in the city for a long time, it is a common assertion that intelligence agencies also play a part in the violence – whether it is to raise tensions and pit certain groups against each other or for small-time political assassinations.” Another conspiracy theory, he added, “is that a certain political party will assassinate members of their own party (if they want to get rid of them in any case for instance) to basically show that their leaders are getting killed and trigger an ‘operation’ in an enemy area.”
He also noted another important aspect of these killings – the resulting perception amongst people within the community.
I was in Orangi town during the elections and a man came up to me and asked me where I was from. I told him I’m Urdu-speaking. He became comfortable and said, “First it was the Sindhis that were killing us, then the Punjabis and now the Balochis.” He was not affiliated with the MQM but was Urdu-speaking. This is important because this is felt by many who are directly affected by the killings. Political parties have ethnic foundations in Pakistan despite what they may proclaim. But when these killings take place, people will forget about the turf war and think simply that it is a matter of ‘wiping out’ their ethnic communities or oppressing them. The parties play on these emotions and the people support their parties as a result of this.
Q: What role do politicians from these parties play versus the supposed political agents that are perpetrating these killings? How does this impact the political sphere?
According to Mirza, “It is hard to say exactly how much role the politicians play in the actual ‘ordering’ of killings and the like.” Much of the violence is perpetrated on a more local level through local actors and agents from political parties, with “some resulting from personal enmities within rival parties in an area.”
He added, “The PPP has a greater disconnect from its lower cadres than the MQM. In Karachi, it is said the MQM is so well disciplined and organized that it would be unheard of that any action is taken without the direct consent of its supreme leader.” However, Mirza added, “I find this hard to believe and the rapid spiralling nature of violence contradicts the fact that every killing can be ordered from such a high place.” The political sphere is impacted a lot through the blame game. “The MQM has specifically identified politicians and political agents it thinks are responsible, bringing them into the public sphere. The politicians seem to be immune from a lot of the personal attacks, except for how they are viewed within their rival’s minds.”
Q: Much like before, Army rangers were deployed in the city to restore order. Is this productive in breaking the cycle of violence in Karachi?
According to Yusuf,
The Rangers’ presence historically has succeeded in reducing incidents of violence. The problem, though, is that deploying the Rangers is not a long-term, systemic solution to the deep-rooted problems of Karachi violence. It’s just a temporary band-aid, one that loses effectiveness once the elite forces step away from tense areas. In some ways, reliance on the Rangers over the years has worsened the problem, because that means the police have remained largely inept and corruptible in the face of Karachi’s complicated ethnic and turf wars.
While it is good that the federal government and politicians have been taking increasing note of Karachi’s violence, added Yusuf, “the truth is that this is a local problem, with well entrenched powerful local actors. The solution will have to come from within Karachi, not from Islamabad.”
Q: As a journalist reporting on this issue on the ground in Karachi, what are some obstacles or frustrations you face in your coverage?
As is common with most types of war/conflict reporting, noted Mirza, the people who get killed become a statistic in the news process. He added, “We aren’t given the space to pursue the families and give the victims a face or their families a voice. The reporting is very simplistic when it comes to targeted killings.” Moreover, he noted, a lot of killings that take place during a long spate of targeted killings “get falsely reported and lumped into the overall death toll.” This exacerbates the situation, making it seem worse than it is, and panicking the public even more.”