By Bilal Baloch, July 8, 2011
The level of killing, burning, battering, and smashing endured by Karachi over the past four days has not been seen in the commercial capital for many years. Many will be quick to brand this political conflict as “ethnic” violence. But such a simplistic, deterministic evaluation has grave consequences, the apogee of which is seen within poor government responses both past, and present, to violent outbreaks in the teeming city.
As things stand, the government reaction to the ongoing violence has been typically slow in coming. The Provincial Information Minister, Sharjeel Memon, declared today that a “shoot at sight” order — for anyone involved in the violence — had been prescribed to the security forces in the city. Elsewhere, the Frontier Constabulary (FC) — a paramilitary force that draws personnel from, and largely operates in, the Khyber-Puktunkhwa province — will now join the police and paramilitary Rangers in Karachi. Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik stated that this move would enable the “miscreants” to be targeted, and law and order to be maintained. Yet filling the city with truckloads of security forces will do little to combat what is, at its core, a political quandary.
The dilemma is thus: How should the government respond effectively and objectively to the violence when it is the very political actors tasked with governing and solving Karachi’s problems that are themselves protagonists of the quagmire? When the workers and supporters of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Awami National Party (ANP) — the former a member of the ruling coalition government up until very recently, and the latter an existing partner within it — are slaughtering one another, who should the ruling partner, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), crack down on? They could move against the ANP, but this would effectively lead their government to collapse. Perhaps the government could use their iron fists against the MQM, but battering this powerful party, long the overlords of Karachi, traditionally results in political suicide. It appears that the consolidation of party politics supersedes the merciless killings of the populace, starkly, when the killings themselves are a political tool used by all sides.
This politicking lends itself most crudely in promoting the “us vs. them” paradigm, something distinguished South Asia historian Dr. Ayesha Jalal has noted is deeply entrenched in historically contingent Pakistani communities. Pakistani political parties conjure up this divisive narrative to discredit opponents in the political realm and today, the rhetoric has become essential to the survival of individual parties. This identity construction, and demonization of the “other,” serves as the basis for Karachi’s “ethnic” politics, divided between Muhajirs and Pashtuns. While the goals remain largely political, the tactics used incite and exacerbate ethnic tension. This framework leaves little room for cross party cooperation, but plenty of room for anger and dispute.
Poor government responses, both past and present, continue to fuel this exact tension, which drives the violence in Karachi. Many innocents are killed within the midst of such political battles, and when these civilians observe no viable attempt at protection of their safety, their faith in government is shattered. It is within this vacuum that the private militias of smaller parties brandishing the apparently attractive, “ethnic” or “sectarian” flag can succeed, fueling further sectarian hatred and pushing people into ethnic camps for their own protection. Indeed, though the 1992 “Operation Clean Up” worked on the true premise that MQM workers were intimidating locals in Karachi, collecting illicit taxes, and housing terror cells, the crackdown instead resulted in a an all-out push by the government and army, to cleanse the city of the MQM’s base, the Muhajir community, in an effort that struck the guilty and innocent alike. And to what end? The MQM came to government a decade later, with a hardened resolve to firm up its hold on Karachi, proliferating propaganda of the negative “other” in government, and with its militia and irregular forces still fully intact. This ambition has also led to a survival narrative that aggravates any battles for space, or political rights, in the city, leading to quick explosions of violence at any slight or injury rather than attempts at dialogue or conflict resolution.
So what needs be done? First, the MQM must put an end to its “Karachi is ours” mantra. This thinking has led to a system of governance more akin to movie mafiosas than political representatives. The threat they encounter in the form of the Pashtun-backed ANP is a natural political evolution seen in every metropolis around the world undergoing demographic shifts, and the MQM must “win” Karachi through votes and constructing sound policy, rather than futile attempts at intimidation.
Indeed, in unofficial estimates (the last census was in 1998) the Pashtun community is today said to represent up to 40% of Karachi’s population. The logic, to the MQM, is that this represents a larger capture of seats for the ANP, and, naturally, a diminution of MQM power. Yet as the demographics continue to shift, the MQM must face this reality and battle their opposition through ballots, rather than bullets, lest an eventual population shift turn against them in a deadly way. In turn, the ANP must learn from the experiences of the MQM and not promote an ethnic “other” narrative. What’s more, the ANP, PPP and MQM must put an end to illicit planning and settlement building, in order to increase their political space. Increasing influence in Karachi must be earned through vote capture, not land capture. Beyond over-burdening the city’s infrastructure, this activity leads to communities who see themselves as politically and — thanks to the narrative of their parties — ethnically at odds, to live in towns that resemble fault lines ready to collide and erupt the city open.
Some may deem such a prescription wishful thinking, but then again, the alternative is going on in Karachi right now. If the parties’ political leadership do not strike a change in narrative and cease painting their woes as a result of ethnic marginalization, and as part of a broader struggle for “survival,” then the current wave of violence may finally burst Karachi’s defenses, and crash more fully onto the millions who call it home.
Bilal Baloch is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is currently conducting field research in Karachi. You can follow him on Twitter @babaloch.