Karachi burns, again

May 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

The news has been dominated by the Facebook debacle which has now led the Government of Pakistan, directed by the Lahore High Court, to ban not just Facebook but over 1,000 other domains in Pakistan. (For the record, we condemn the ban, while recognizing at the same time that initiatives such as the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” group on Facebook isn’t about advocating free speech at all, but rather is designed to hurt, offend, and inflame.)

Meanwhile, Karachi has been suffering terribly, with 23 people killed on May 19 in targeted attacks. May is always a tricky month, and not just because of the heat. Readers may recall that May 12, 2007 was one of the deadliest days in recent Karachi memory. On that day, supporters of the lawyers’ movement were prohibited from demonstrating peacefully, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) took the opportunity to not just shut down free speech and peaceful assembly but also take aim at its political rivals. On May 12, 2007, 46 people died and about 150 people were injured as the result of orchestrated violence by MQM thugs. These thugs were unhindered in their mayhem, and in some cases even helped, by local law enforcement authorities. The targets of the violence were ostensibly supporters of the deposed judges, but were targeted because of their status as activists of local opposition parties, most notably the Awami National Party (ANP).

To understand why the MQM would want to target the ANP requires a bit of background on Karachi politics. First, it must be understood that the MQM was the brainchild of the military establishment, in the 1980s when General Zia was in power and the dictator du jour in Washington. The party, supported no doubt a very real constituency on the ground, was meant to weaken the power of opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chief among them. This was possible because of a radical demographic shift that had occurred in post-independence Karachi. Starting in 1947, Karachi became home to millions of “refugees” from India who were mostly Urdu-speaking, mostly from the United Provinces (later Uttar Pradesh) in India, and mostly urban and lower middle class. This was in contrast to the local Sindhi-speaking population, which was largely rural and working class. A vacuum was created with the departure of Hindus from Sindh, since this group represented most of the wealthy elite. But instead of allowing for upward mobility for local Sindhis, the departure of elite Hindus allowed the newly-arrived migrants to rise to the top, which they could do much more easily given their advantage in education, bureaucratic and entrepreneurial experience, and not least their fluency in Urdu which gave them tremendous cultural capital. In time, the urban centers in Sindh, most notably Karachi and Hyderbad, came to be dominated by the Urdu-speaking community, or Muhajirs (migrants) as they came to be known.

The PPP was certainly the first truly national party, drawing from all ethnic groups within Pakistan, but the party had an especially faithful following among Sindhis. So nurturing the MQM, which represented the Urdu-speaking, would be a useful way for the establishment to weaken the PPP’s position. And that’s precisely what happened. Today, the MQM controls the local government of Karachi, and it holds most of Karachi’s seats in the provincial and national assemblies. The appeal of the MQM has been primarily to claim discrimination on behalf of a privileged group – that is, to want to maintain privilege and power in the face of rather feeble attempts to redress the grievances of the poor (in this case, mostly rural and Sindhi). So one can immediately see that the party is a reactionary force. But it has become much more sinister in the recent past, bordering on fascist, and the targeted attacks on May 12, 2007, and again on May 19, 2010, are good illustrations of this.

What’s happened to Karachi in the last two decades is yet another demographic shift. This time, the city is seeing a rapid increase in the Pashtun population of the city (driven by war, drugs, foreign intervention, and the ever-present lure of The City). Karachi now has more Pashtun people than Peshawar. It is Pakistan’s largest Pashtun city. By some accounts, the Muhajir and Pashtun populations of the city are almost at par. So the MQM feels threatened. Thus, the attacks on ANP activists (the party representing Pashtun interests), the targeting of Pashtun neighborhoods, the demonizing of Pashtuns as extremist and violent, and the narrative of the “Talibanization of Karachi” and the need to fight against it. All of this makes the War on Terror extremely useful for the MQM for entirely local reasons, and for the most banal of motives: to hold on to power.

What happened on May 19, then, was a reminder from the MQM – that they’re still in charge, and no challenge to the party’s authority will be tolerated. And, in an ironic twist of fate, the government at the Center, led by the PPP, now also finds it convenient to deploy the War on Terror for its own ends (also for banal motives: power and cold hard cash). The PPP is also in coalition with the MQM in the Sindh Assembly, but it is in coalition with the ANP at the Center, which means it has done some balancing act in the last few days. But it seems clear which side it will come out on. Just today, the Interior Minister announced that the deployment of Rangers in Karachi will be increased:

Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said that the recurring of the targeted killing incidents in the metropolis after every four-five months is a part of a conspiracy to destabilise the country and its links go to Fata and Swat…

He said that the deployment of Rangers in the city was being increased and the special powers conferred upon them under the Anti-terrorism Act of 1997 had been extended for three months.

So, to recap: the reactionary MQM conducts a terror campaign against Pashtun Karachiites, the PPP uses this as an opportunity to link the very local processes in Karachi to the war in FATA, and the federal government gets to keep its hold on Karachi via the brutal Rangers. Ah, the War on Terror – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

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