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Archive for January 13th, 2010

Violence in Karachi 101

(LA Times: Rehan Khan / European Pressphoto Agency) Protest in Karachi

LA Times: Rehan Khan / European Pressphoto Agency

The recent spate of targeted killings in Karachi has garnered much media coverage, with news agencies reporting that 41 people have died in the commercial capital since the beginning of the year, “including 10 MQM workers, 10 from a breakaway faction called Haqiqi, and 16 members of a committee set up by the ruling party in Lyari to control violence in the area.” Most of the victims were reportedly killed because of their political affiliations.

According to BBC News, “It was the discovery of the decapitated body of an activist from the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) in the old city area of Lyari which sparked off the latest round of violence.” Speaking to the LA Times, analyst Ikram Sehgal described the current situation in Karachi, “Think of Chicago or New York a century ago.”

Despite joint calls by PPP and MQM leaders to restore order to the city, this is not the first time such a conflict has erupted. Dawn’s Huma Yusuf reported,

Karachi has a long history of ethnic conflict, sectarian violence, land mafias and intra- and inter-party tensions. All these have been in play during this past fortnight, making it abundantly clear that a discerning approach to Karachi’s violence is required. Policing and investigations into recent incidents must be informed by knowledge of ‘local’ social, political and economic factors, which in this city of 18 million differ from locality to locality. For that reason, the MQM’s request for the Rangers, the army and intelligence agencies to maintain law and order in the city is akin to slapping a band-aid on a deep, infected wound.

For many of us not from or currently living in Karachi, such a complex situation may seem daunting or difficult to understand. Below are some FAQ’s to better breakdown the nuances of this conflict:

Q: Who are the main parties in this conflict and how did it escalate out of control?

While Karachi has many rival gangs and factions, the main parties in the current conflict are workers or gang members associated with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which controls Karachi, and the Pakistan People’s Party, (PPP) which controls the provincial government of Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital.

While some of the recent killings have been linked to the general crime syndicates, many have been attributed to the land mafia, noted a journalist currently covering the story in Karachi.

The LA Times, in its coverage, noted, “Rival gangs aligned with political parties are at war in part because a large number of long-term land leases are about to expire, some dating back nearly a century to the days of British rule, with ownership reverting back to the local government.” Although Sehgal told the news agency, “This is all about land. It’s incredibly valuable and it’s up for grabs,” the journalist I spoke to noted,

For political expediency things are being blamed on just the land mafia or just the Baloch gangs in Lyari whereas it’s really a broader mix of elements. Some of it may be about land but in the end it’s all political and some say it has been linked with the abolishment of the local government system.

Ultimately, Karachi has a long history of factional violence and gang warfare, so many of these factors have become yet another reason to reopen old wounds.

Q: Why has Lyari been the hot spot for the recent violence and attention?

Lyari Town, one of 18 constituent towns in Karachi, is dominated by ethnic Balochis, who form a major vote bank for the PPP. The area has become the center of the rise in killings due to the lawless nature of the area, populated by gangs involved in  activities like extortion and drugs. The journalist I spoke to noted, “The Baloch [in Lyari] have been an easy target because they don’t have proper representation in the government. The PPP gets their votes from this group but they don’t adequately represent them.”

In response to the government’s subsequent deployment of paramilitary forces to Lyari, (which led to nearly 50 arrests), Lyari’s People’s Aman [“Peace”] Committee launched a protest on Monday against both PPP and MQM leaders. One organizer of the rally told reporters, “The government is victimizing its own people to appease its political allies, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. We demand an operation in the whole city without any discrimination.” My journalist source, who has been reporting on the story, noted that many believe the government is undertaking this operation to show that “something is being done,” and targeted Lyari because it is an area that “can easily be disturbed without great political repercussions.”

Q: How effective have these paramilitary troops been in restoring some semblance of control in Karachi?

As the targeted killings increased over the weekend, Interior Minister Rehman Malik ordered patrols by police and paramilitary rangers to curb the violence, while asserting that political parties were not involved in the killings. While this appeared to work, at least temporarily, the LA Times noted that many in Karachi “didn’t expect it to last.” The aforementioned journalist source, based in Karachi, echoed, “The rangers that have been sent in with the police won’t make much of a difference, particularly since the police is politicized and doesn’t come under the jurisdiction of the city government.

Q: If violence between rival gangs and factions associated with political parties is not a new phenomenon, how can the cycle be broken?

According to Dawn’s Huma Yusuf, recognizing that the dynamics of Karachi’s violence is locally defined (i.e. not associated with militancy in Swat for example) and entrenched in a long history is “the first step towards effectively maintaining peace and stability.”

In the opinion of the journalist I interviewed, one immediate and long-term solution is developing a better funded and “de-politicized” police force, which can provide a more solid foundation for law and order. He noted, “29,000 police with around 90 odd police stations in a city of 18 million is completely inadequate.”

Although joint statements by the MQM and the PPP in the aftermath of these killings is significant, a top-down political solution will not be sufficient in fully addressing the multiple problems that exist on the ground. If the government seeks to achieve a long-term solution, [not just a strategy that places a band-aid over the problem] it must address the systematic root causes behind the violence and the inter-rivalries. Whether it’s the drug, land, or tanker mafia, this has ultimately been a struggle for power with continuously dire consequences.

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