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Dante in Karachi: circles of crime in a mega city

Karachi’s astonishing violence is generally ascribed to political and ethnic rivalry. While this may be true to an extent, its roots run deep into the incredibly complex structure of this city of 18 million people, where politicians, criminals, terrorists and migrants from nearby warzones compete for power and survival
Marco Mezzera
10 October 2011

As waves of diplaced people and refugees stream from nearby warzones, the southern Pakistani city of Karachi has become one the world’s fastest growing cities, and also one of its most turbulent and violent. In July and August, 2011, it was once again engulfed by a ferocious spree of killing that, according to conservative estimates, left more than 300 people dead.

The spike in violence is largely attributed to a political struggle that has spun out of control. But the microcosm of Karachi’s urban strife rests on layers of tensions and rivalries that go far deeper than inter-party conflict. The political component is compounded by extreme ethnic rivalries, contributing to the indiscriminate escalation of violence. Behind it all is a vast substratum of illegality, fuelled by migration and displacement, that has thrived on the political-ethnic confrontation and has put to work its own agents of violence.

On this most recent occasion, the trigger for unrest was deemed to be the exit from the provincial and national coalitions, on June 27, of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the political party that until recently was in full control of the city.

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PPI/Demotix Image. All rights reserved. 

The MQM claims to represent the 45 per cent Urdu-speaking Mohajir community in Karachi. It took the drastic step of withdrawing because of political squabbling with the dominant party in both the city and national coalitions - the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari. It was not the first time these tensions have surfaced. At the end of 2010, the MQM also quit the federal government because of allegations from a PPP minister that the party and its Mohajir constituency, descendants of those who migrated from India to Pakistan after partition in 1947, was behind the latest waves of targeted killings in Karachi.

In May 2011, the MQM decided to rejoin the federal government, most likely because of fears that it could be sidelined from the national political game. But the truce lasted for just a few months. Sensing itself marginalized in Pakistan’s National Assembly, the MQM was reportedly forced to accept decisions foisted upon it by the ruling party. This unusual state of political subjection was too much to accept, and the MQM broke the bond that had been created with the formation of the national coalition government in 2008.

A descent into strife 

Once the undisputed dominant party in Karachi, in recent years the MQM has faced increasing competition from the Awami National Party (ANP), which claims to represent the city’s 25 per cent Pashtun population who have migrated from the northwest of the country.

As these migration flows have sharply increased in recent years, with an estimated 300,000 displaced Pashtuns pushing into Karachi as a result of counter-insurgency operations in their home region, so has the political weight of the ANP. This trend was confirmed during the 2008 general elections, when the ANP secured two seats in the Sindh Provincial Assembly for the first time in its history. The violence that once again spiralled in Karachi in 2009, with targeted killings taking centre stage, may be regarded as a last-ditch effort by the MQM to retain its status within the capital of Sindh and at the national level.

According to this argument, the MQM opted for a violent strategy of brinkmanship in order to warn both its political allies and its enemies that it will not relinquish power without a fight, and to underline that the maintenance of law and order in Pakistan’s massive commercial capital would depend on its consent.

In fact, within its short life-time, the party has been marred from the start by violence and rifts. One year after becoming the third largest party in the national legislature, in 1989, a faction of the MQM broke away and formed a new party called the MQM Haqiqi (H). The rift was caused by accusations that the original party was abandoning its commitment to defend the Mohajir community in favour of  a more pragmatic mainstream appeal. True or not, the resulting conflict was extremely bloody. The original MQM accused the rebel faction of receiving arms from the Pakistani military, and of serving as the  puppet of the national political establishment with the goal of denting the MQM’s popularity in urban Sindh.

Karachi was affected by growing unrest and spreading illegality. And in one way or another, the MQM was frequently involved. Besides its ‘traditional’ role in hostile activities against other ethnic groups living in the city (mainly Pashtuns), the establishment of the MQM (H) initiated a long process of infighting within the Mohajir community.

When an army operation was launched in 1992 with the aim of restoring law and order to Karachi, the initial focus was on armed robbers, kidnappers and drug peddlers. This quickly shifted to the MQM, as many of its members were perceived as threats to public order. The military operation continued for over two years, spanning the terms of two governments, and taking on the form of urban guerrilla warfare, with atrocities committed on both sides and with MQM members confronting soldiers and police. State institutions and security forces were routinely targeted by rocket launchers and other sophisticated weaponry.

In November 1994, the army formally withdrew, and para-military troops took over the maintenance of law and order. The violence, however, intensified: 1995 and 1996 are cited as the years in which the casualties of street violence peaked, with a reported 2,095 people killed in Karachi in 1995, and 1,113 in 1996.

The Taliban nexus 

As recently as July 2011, both the MQM and the ANP were still refraining from blaming each other for the most recent waves of killings, preferring instead to direct the blame at the Pakistani Taliban. According to a prominent MQM leader, domestic extremists were intent on dividing Karachi along linguistic and ethnic lines as part of their grand plan to bring anarchy to the country.

Two months later, however, the parties were trading accusations of fuelling violence, and demanding the prohibition of their rival from national political life. The MQM even termed the ANP the biggest terrorist organization in Pakistan, and accused it of carrying out attacks on behalf of India and Afghanistan.

The MQM first made explicit accusations of a direct link between the ANP and the Taliban two years beforehand, claiming that the ANP had fostered the “Talibanization” of Karachi and protected Taliban groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in addition to other criminal elements belonging to the city’s drug and land mafias.

These allegations are difficult to substantiate, as the ANP itself, a secular and socially-oriented party, has been a regular target of the Taliban in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where it took over the reins of the provincial government from an alliance composed of four religious parties after elections in February 2008. Following this success, a campaign of deadly attacks was unleashed against ANP members by religious extremists, making it nearly impossible for the party to perform its legislative tasks.

The MQM has also been involved in violent confrontation with sectarian organizations. Many of the ethno-religious and political incidents that caused the killing of 143 people in Karachi in 2008 were pinned on clashes between the MQM and Sunni Tehrik (ST). Founded in Karachi in 1990 with the specific objective of protecting the interests of the Barelvi sect against competing religious organizations, the ST welcomed many former MQM activists within its ranks following the 1992 military crackdown. The two groups, however, later came to loggerheads after the ST decided to transform itself into a political party.

Regardless of whether the MQM’s allegations of linkages between the ANP and the Taliban are true, the fact is that Karachi has become a major source of income for Taliban groups. They are believed to profit from criminal activities such as bank robberies, thefts, car snatchings, and kidnappings for ransom. And where they do not carry out such activities by themselves, they are allegedly turning to criminal gangs for their cooperation, or recruiting members of these groups directly into their ranks. They have also profited from the flows of Pashtun migrants who have poured into Karachi in recent years by blending into their communities and using them as a recruitment base.

Many of the dozens of militant and sectarian groups present in Karachi, including the Taliban, are also involved in violent disputes between majority Sunni and minority Shia Muslims. This sectarian violence is often connected to the overall ethno-political tensions that run through the city. Sunni groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sunni Tehrik are often opposed to Shia factions such as Sipah-e-Muhammad, Jafria Alliance and Tehrik-e-Jafria, some of which entertain relationships with the MQM.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is probably the most known of the Sunni sectarian groups active in Karachi. Composed of more than six factions, it initially started its operations by targeting the Pakistani Shia Muslim community. Subsequently, it also turned against western and domestic high profile political targets. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was held responsible for the kidnapping and killing, in 2002, of US journalist Daniel Pearl, and one of its men is thought to be the suicide bomber that killed Benazir Bhutto in 2007.

A teeming underworld

The incredible growing pace of Karachi’s population, with between 200,000 and 500,000 new migrants arriving in the city every year from within and outside the country, has placed huge constraints on the municipal planning and development authorities’ capacity to organize necessary infrastructure and services.

Large squatter settlements and slums have arisen throughout the city, currently housing about five million people in conditions of illegality. This institutional vacuum has been filled by some of the 200 criminal gangs operating in Karachi and by the numerous special interest groups, whether political, ethnic or sectarian, to which individuals look for protection. Faced with a lack of basic services, the squatters turn to criminal syndicates to get a plot of land allocated, and subsequently to receive the utilities for their households. A booming land-grabbing business has emerged, accompanied by lucrative and illegal delivery of essential services. Competition for control of these areas and of their businesses triggers turf wars between rival mafias, while law enforcers and administrators are silenced through corruption.

In the final analysis, it is difficult to determine precisely where Karachi’s latest violence has come from. Much of it is linked to ethno-political competition between various parties and organizations. But its roots run much deeper, and involve actors and forces that normally would never be associated. The boundaries between political activism, terrorism, assassination squads, land grabbing mafia, and drug-driven criminality have become blurred, and at times intersect. What is left behind is the sad landscape of a once flourishing city now pervaded by fear and death, with about 2,000 people killed since 2009. Karachi, a frantic metropolis of about 18 million inhabitants, resembles a giant black hole, ready to swallow and conceal all kinds of criminal elements, from the smallest drug peddler to the highest Al-Qaeda executive.

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