Karachi Erupts

December 2, 2008

While the Mumbai attacks have garnered huge media attention, a tragedy which has the potential to be far greater is unfolding on the streets of Karachi. Ironically, the city from which the terrorists are supposed to have departed en route to Mumbai, is now racked by violence in which over 40 people have died and over 200 have been reported injured, so far.

Rioting has focused on several districts that are home to a poor, mainly immigrant population, as gangs from the city’s dominant MQM party have terrorised ethnic Pashtun communities. In Orangi Town, for example, Dawn reports that “Life remained paralysed” this morning, as “fear of organised ethnic violence forced eviction of families from certain blocks and closure of small businesses, mostly owned by people from upcountry.”

The attacks on ethnic minorities (those that are not of the Mojahir group, who are mainly migrants themselves, having arrived after partition in 1947) hold the potential for an urban catastrophe. Having lasted since Saturday, they have already shown notable brutality, with their perpetrators intent on generating terror amongst the communities affected.

An editorial in Pakistan’s Daily Times newspaper laments that “The rioters have struck indiscriminately, killing people, raping women, and burning houses, thus forcing the inhabitants to shift elsewhere” while the same paper’s correspondent Faraz Khan reports that rioters “even chopped ears, noses and other human body organs with knives and scissors.” In a sign of the power of the MQM, and the attitude of Islamabad towards the poor of Karachi, “law enforcement agencies have not approached the areas where these inhuman incidents are taking place.”

The government of Sindh, which is headed by the Pakistan People’s Party, has responded slowly and weakly. Now, after three days and nights of rioting, it may have gone to the other extreme, issuing a “shoot on sight” order to police. There seems no guarantee that Karachi police, who may be dependent on the MQM for patronage, will comply.

One aspect of the violence in Karachi is clear. Since the beginning of the “war on terror,” American led offensives in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s frontier provinces have led to the flight of thousands of families to the cities. Economic reforms initiated before Musharraf came to power in 1999 have also played a part, enforcing austerity upon rural areas and driving migrants to urban areas.

Excellent reporting from Amar Guriro of the Daily Times sheds some light on those being targeted. These include people like 50 year-old Rehmatullah, who is “a laborer and works on trucks transporting concrete and sand to different areas” and whose 2 year-old daughter was caught by a bullet ricocheting of a stone. Rematullah left the Quetta region a decade ago due to lack of work and rising prices.

Akhtar Saeed, a 23 year-old drain digger who lives “under a bridge in North Nazimabad” fled Bajaur due to the conflict there, which was sparked by U.S. air strikes and continues to rage.

These poor migrants from warzones are being targeted by MQM squads for the land that they cling to. As Xari Jalil of the News reports, “One man who wanted to remain anonymous told The News that it was only an issue in essence of nothing but “reverse encroachment”.

For Jalil’s interviewee, “This means that they remove many people who belong to the underprivileged circles and they term them as encroachers, but in fact the people who are removing them are themselves encroaching that land afterwards. They want the land and they want to distribute it amongst themselves and they don’t want anyone else to be in the middle.”

Such attacks are part of a long history of violence on the part of the MQM, which supported U.S.-backed dictator Pervez Musharraf during his rule and espouses a racist “Mojahir” ideology, viewing Sindh – in which Karachi lies – as its ethnic territory. In that sense, the MQM is not unlike the Hindutva BJP, with which its leader, Altaz Hussain, has in the past consulted.

In the recent past, the MQM has acted as a paramilitary force for the dictatorship to use against progressive forces. In 2007, it was MQM militants who gunned down 40 members of the PPP when they gathered to greet deposed Pakistan Chief Justice Iftakhir Chaudry to the city. In April 2008, MQM militants killed 12 protesting lawyers. The judiciary was targeted even after Musharraf had left power, as it had long made itself an enemy of the ruling coalition. It seems that the MQM took the opportunity to keep such elements out of Karachi, which it reportedly rules like a private fiefdom.

Its genesis lies in the 1970s and 80s, when its leader (some say “cult leader”) Altaf Hussain returned to Sindh after working as a cab driver in the United States. Under the protection of the dictator Zia Ul Haq, Altaf built a network in Karachi to counterpose the PPP, which Zia (and his American minders) despised. As journalist Adnan Gill has written for the Asian Tribune,

Almost from the very beginning, MQM was a militant party that believed in doing its business at the barrel of gun. Based on the racial lines, MQM established no-go-areas and also opened up a number of torture cells around the city. MQM is frequently cited for its involvement in terrorist and mafia activities, especially within the city of Karachi. It is widely believed, it generates funds through carjackings, land grabbing, kidnappings, drug running, extortion (Bhatta), etc to sustain its absconder leadership hiding in London. To this day targeted killings remain its most favored modus operandi to silence its critics/opponents, and to put down dissensions within its own ranks. MQM is also documented for making remarkable gains in successive elections through rigging and naked violence.

During its rise, the MQM made a fortune out of trading and shipping drugs out of the port of Karachi. This naturally included opium from Afghanistan, which was of great assistance to the U.S. war effort there. With the resumption of civilian government, in the 1990s, Altaf accumulated a dizzying number of charges against him, and fled to London, where he resides. His movement, however, is still strong in Karachi and has embraced electoral politics, albeit with a generous helping of violence.

From its inception, the MQM has wedded an ideology of Mojahir chauvanism with organized crime and corruption. Since the beginning of the “War on Terror”, however, it has also added a strange element of neo-conservative muslim baiting to its repertoire.

Its leader now speaks of the “Talibanization” of Karachi, due to migration. Like the BJP and other far-right Hindu groups, Altaf has urged his followers to form self-defense groups. In November, as Dawn reported, Altaf “advised youths to join private security agencies, because by doing so they could contribute to the security of their localities” and instructed that MQM cadres should “also try to join police and army.” According to Altaf, Karachi has become “infested with fully armed Taliban who [have] encircled all localities” – strikingly racist rhetoric, if Taleban is seen correctly as code for Pashtun.

This call out to form paramilitary groups was accompanied by a fascistic call for the wealthy elite in Karachi to fund it. As Dawn’s correspondent continued, “Although the MQM was not a party of feudal lords or capitalists, Mr Hussain said he would appeal to well-to-do people to donate generously for those who could not afford the fee for arms licences.” As is now being seen, such rhetoric has translated into attacks on the poor and vulnerable, not “Taliban” terrorists.

Analyst Ayesha Siddiqa argues that the MQM has been turning Karachi into a state within a state. As she wrote recently in Dawn, while “The party which runs the city has projected itself as a secular and liberal force prepared to prevent militant forces from disturbing peace and law and order in Karachi,” in reality, the MQM “seems to have assumed the same responsibility as the Turkish military performs of keeping the socio-political culture liberal.” The thuggish and racist MQM is posing as the guardian of the “liberal” elites, and the state has retreated almost out of sight.

Siddiqa questions the premise of “Talibanisation” – writing that “Regarding the MQM s move, there appears to be no entity to challenge the party’s assumption regarding the increase of Talibanisation in the city, which many believe is not happening but is merely an excuse to checkmate the movement of people, especially those from the Frontier province to Karachi. Given the increased insecurity in the Frontier, there is a demographic shift with people moving to other cities, Karachi being one which offers greater opportunities.”

Yet as she says, there is no real opposition to this venomous politics of ethnic division and violence.

It is also striking that the violence in Karachi comes so soon after the attacks in Mumbai. Such rioting has been on the cards in Karachi for months, as the growth of MQM “defense” forces indicates, but the timing is not an accident. The MQM has taken the opportunity presented by the Mumbai attacks to launch an assault on migrants from areas in which the “Taleban” are thought to be strong. Those migrants are finding few friends domestically or internationally, with attention focused elsewhere.

The fact that the British government harbors and, perhaps, supports Altaf and his organization is scandalous, and worth interrogating. Questions might be asked about how the terrorists who attacked Mumbai worked out of Karachi, a city that the MQM controls.

There seems to be little chance of the U.S. or UK asking questionsof themselves about the consequences of their wars, however. Those remain the overriding factors in the eruption of violence in South Asia, as the Pashtuns of Karachi are discovering, again.


One Response to “Karachi Erupts”

  1. ykhan Says:

    i am stranged that you were not able to write anything about MQM work done in karachi during last four years.

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