Below, Jackie, an American working in Karachi and CHUP’s Correspondent, delves into this week’s violence in the city and discusses who are the players, why are they fighting, and how it has impacted daily life in Karachi:
While this week’s international news coverage of Pakistan focused on Indo-Pak relations following the Mumbai bombings, here in Karachi, pre-existing ethnic tensions between Pathans and the native-Urdu speaking population erupted. The violence started on Saturday in Banaras Chowk and quickly engulfed the western parts of the city. The conflict raged on until Tuesday evening, leaving 42 dead, hundreds more wounded, and thousands of dollars in property damage.
On Saturday night, while I was getting ready for a wedding, my roommate called me from just south of Orangi Town, concerned over the reported violence in the area. She had gotten stuck in a terrible traffic jam on the way home from work, and her driver mentioned that there had been some rioting in the area. At first, I assumed this was the usual gang-related unrest that plagues the areas where our organization operates. However, it became increasingly apparent this was much worse – I began receiving phone calls from different people reporting gruesome stories of violence and destruction from the northwest of the city. I ended up staying in that evening, and the next evening, and again the next…
Rumors abounded – the factions of the MQM population were cutting off Pathan ears, the Pathans were retaliating by pouring superglue in people’s eyes and ears. It was particularly scary being shut-up in the house and hearing sporadic, word-of-mouth accounts from family and friends of friends in the area; it wasn’t clear what was actually happening, and how much, if any, of these stories were true. At one point, we heard that 50 or 60 buses were driving around shooting people at random, then an hour later someone else claimed everything was more or less fine, some minor riots, but with no casualties. As the violence continued into the week, different ‘finger-pointing’ theories emerged. These ranged from an alleged RAW (India’s foreign intelligence organization) plot in response to the Mumbai attacks to an MQM-led uprising against the growing Pathan population in Karachi.
The major papers reported stories of torched businesses, houses and vehicles as well as shootings and indiscriminate murders. People were fleeing the area to stay with family in other parts of the city. Many shops and businesses closed their doors and schools shut down until Wednesday. Sindhi officials and party members made empty statements calling for unity and claiming the riots were a conspiracy by some against democracy. Because the local police were basically ineffective, the paramilitary Rangers were let loose on the city, but even this failed to curb the bloodshed.
After hearing these stories, reading the news and talking to different people, I have reached some understanding of the situation. The increasing violence in recent years in NWFP led the Pathans, the major ethnic group in that province, to move to other areas in the country. Consequently, Karachi – the industrial and commercial hub of Pakistan – has seen a significant increase in its Pathan population. The MQM [see previous blog entry], an Urdu-language based party, fears any potential threat to its political hold on the city, and from time to time harasses this population by threatening local Pathan-owned businesses. Many fear the “Talibanization” of Karachi, supposedly led by these new Pathans, adding further fuel to the fire. In the most recent election, the PPP [Pakistan People’s Party], the ruling political party, the ANP [Awami National Party], a secular party that has a strong Pathan base, and the MQM agreed to form an alliance. Not surprisingly, these riots demonstrate that these political statements of unity for the greater good of Pakistan do not amount to much. Many say that it was the two parties, MQM and ANP, that stirred up this conflict. As for how exactly this started, or who is behind it, I do not know, but it seems plausible that the underlying hostilities between these two groups have created a tense situation that can explode into violence with very little prompting. It will be interesting to see how the story unfolds over the next week as hundreds of people involved in the riots were arrested and are now in police custody.
Regardless of who is responsible for fomenting the recent spate of violence, it’s obvious the supposed PPP-MQM-ANP alliance does not run very deep. The police and paramilitary Rangers exercise little power, and, once things spiral out of control, everyone sits back until the smoke clears and the politically motivated blame game begins.
To read Jackie’s other guest posts, click here.