The South Asia Channel

Karachi’s deeper problems

It’s been just over a month since the last time a hundred lives were lost to gun violence in Karachi, but even within that time span the guns never fell silent. In less than a week another 100 people have been murdered by what Sindh’s Information Minister has called "terrorists, target killers, the mafia (land, ...


It’s been just over a month since the last time a hundred lives were lost to gun violence in Karachi, but even within that time span the guns never fell silent. In less than a week another 100 people have been murdered by what Sindh’s Information Minister has called "terrorists, target killers, the mafia (land, or drug take your pick) and criminal elements." The roots of the violence and solutions have been discussed before, and one can go back decades to gain a fuller understanding of what ignites this city’s violent restlessness.

Most of the victims this time around have been members of the Baloch community in Karachi and the Urdu-Speaking (Muhajir) community. The Baloch are a minority, whereas Karachi’s most powerful political party has its roots in the Urdu-speaking Muhajir community.

The city is mired in a condition where ethnicity is shamelessly thrown around in verbal melees between political parties. This sentiment trickles down to supporters and members of ethnic communities because party propaganda is rife throughout the city. The MQM, who had managed to free their public rhetoric from the term ‘Muhajir,‘ over the last decade, has begun using the term again to shape a narrative of victimhood around the party and the overall Muhajir community. This will only further alienate the party, revive old wounds and create more ethnic tension. Politicians from the Pashtun-nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) and the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have been playing the ethnic card to shift blame and to promote the same sense of victimhood. As a result, every ethnicity in Karachi claims benighted status in the conflicts. Yet this most recent conflict, like those before it, is not about Muhajir or Baloch; it is simply another example of murder used as a tool to gain leverage in political negotiations. The violence will end temporarily when political wrangling over the local government system currently being fought over in political assemblies and meeting rooms has completed its course.

Karachiites have become used to seeing the body count rise, but recent tales of torture, mutilation of bodies, rape and the attack on a bus carrying plain-clothes policemen, killing  four of them, have brought the public to their breaking point. Businesses shut down because of violence and strikes in reaction to the violence. The so-called "day of mourning" announced by the MQM crippled a city that is already reeling from financial losses suffered because of violence; previous estimates by traders have ranged from Rs. 1.5 billion to 5 billion (about $17 million to 57 million) losses per day. This fresh round of violence provoked the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry to call on the army to step in to Karachi and take control, a sentiment that many citizens and resigned, demoralized, law enforcement officials share. 

However, bringing the army into Karachi recalls the old skeletons in the closet from the early 90s, when the army launched the volatile Operation Cleanup. Thousands were tortured, killed and went missing from 1992-1994. The MQM (Muhajir Qaumi Movement at the time) was the main target of this operation. Some of the Urdu-speaking Muhajirs, the MQM and their supporters have constructed a narrative of "genocide" against their community around this operation. It goes without saying, then, that the memory of this dark period is a tinderbox that many citizens, no matter how fed up they are with the violence, don’t want to spark.

It is also unclear how the army would be deployed in Karachi. Would the army control all of Karachi, or would they just be in sensitive areas such as the nine locations where the Rangers and police have been ordered to conduct operations  by the Sindh Provincial Government? Would the government be willing to send the army into their own constituency and those of their coalition partners, namely the MQM and the ANP? Would they be conducting search and raid operations, or would they act merely as peacekeepers, further provoking and stretching the fragile state of the city? It is hard to imagine that the coalition partners of the current government in Pakistan would be dealt with as severely as they need to be, not because the army would tip-toe around political parties, but rather because the PPP would not risk losing votes and their political alliances ahead of elections.

However, the army is not a solution to the violence in Karachi. At the very best it is a band-aid solution, and that too only if it does not end up creating an even bigger, more protracted conflict through consistent low-level interventions that upset political parties while still not addressing the root causes of the violence. The army will be able to maintain some semblance of peace on the streets, but its deployment would ultimately be a law-enforcement solution to a political problem. The only way the army can find a permanent solution to the violence in Karachi is by maintaining a permanent presence in the city. The appearance of peace created by an army presence would be just a façade maintained by competing political parties, and would eventually crumble after the army left. The fact is that you cannot remove political violence as a political philosophy through force, as a city that views violence as an appropriate and necessary tool for inter-group conflict will always re-arm itself unless it is reformed ideologically.

In partnership with putting in place a de-weaponization plan (including attempts at harsher sentencing for arms possession and a computerized weapons license system, which are already underway), a political solution is necessary to stem the flow of killings. While various parties may prompt individual killings in a city, they quickly spiral out of control once the carousel of revenge starts spinning.

It is therefore difficult to be optimistic about the moves planned in Karachi by the government. The city has gone through many security operations over the past two years, and they have always been partisan in nature. Mass arrests are made with no consequence (despite being termed ‘surgical’ or ‘targeted’),  either because no one has the audacity to eventually testify in court, or because political pressure results in few, if any, convictions. And strong law-enforcement and a police force that isn’t beholden to politicians will bring greater order to the city than a military or paramilitary operation. But a lasting peace can only be made once political parties reform violent elements from within, and negotiate with each other without the threat of violent retribution.

The quickest solution to the cycle of violence in Karachi would be for the populace to wake up to the fact that their political parties do not represent their ethnicity or their interests. The public needs to resist political parties and gangs trying to hijack their communities to commit crimes under their names. Malcolm X once said, "It’s the ballot or the bullet." In Karachi the ballots are backed by bullets, and the voters end up in body bags.

Shaheryar Mirza has a masters in journalism and public affairs from American University in Washington D.C. and works as a reporter for Express 24/7 in Karachi, Pakistan. Follow him on twitter @mirza9.