Why Karachi is in deep trouble
21 January, 2011
By Shafqat Mahmood
Karachi has never settled down in the last two years. The recent spate of targeted killings is a continuation of earlier battles. Are these a consequence of endemic poverty, ethnic hostility, or a fight to death for political space? There are no easy answers, but it seems to be a combination of all three.
Some political parties are trying to pin the blame on land, drug and other mafias. This is either a total misinterpretation or a deliberate denial of reality.
The conventional wisdom otherwise is that the influx of a large number of Pakhtuns from the troubled Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and FATA regions has upset the ethnic balance in the city. Some estimates place the Pashto-speaking population at about twenty five per cent.
It is argued that this has particularly troubled the MQM because it sees its political hold over Karachi diminishing. Obviously, if the twenty five per cent get organised, they would take proportionately similar numbers of seats in the provincial and national legislatures, besides dominating pockets of the city in local elections.
These conjectures are not out of place, and there is every reason to believe that the MQM would feel politically threatened. However, this does not explain why it would prompt the party to unleash its militants to kill the Pakhtuns. How many can it kill, anyway, in a Pakhtun population of approximately 2.5 million?
Another explanation, in which the PPP is also included, is that people being targeted are political organisers for the respective parties. The idea of targeting them being that if the activists at the local level are eliminated it would grievously hurt each party’s organisational capacity.
A particularly conspiratorial theory is that the PPP is methodically eliminating the MQM’s local activists who get the vote out and are very active in “fund”-raising. And, in response, the MQM is eliminating activists of the PPP in Lyari, and those of its ally, the ANP.
If these theories, conjectures and explanations are even partly true, they reveal a very grim picture. This warfare, what else can one call it considering the number of lives lost, is unlikely to end. It isn’t as if one party or the other is going to go away. They all have to live together and the problem of ethnicity leavened by a fight for political power will continue to haunt this troubled city.
The problem is exacerbated by a virtual collapse of the structure of the state. The first line of defence or guarantor of order is the police, but its presence is like a shell without substance. This is generally true of every place in Pakistan, but in Karachi it has another dimension.
Apart from the usual problems of poor training, bad equipment and working conditions, low pay, and so forth, Karachi’s bureaucracy and police have been infected by political recruitments over a long period. The result is that the loyalty of these foot soldiers of law and order is not with the institution of the state but with the respective political parties.
This obviously results in poor discipline and lack of coordination. For an organisation that, to be effective, needs secrecy, it also leaks like a sieve. Its capacity to keep any operation confidential, if at all any such adventure is contemplated, is nonexistent. The result is failure after failure, because the targeted individuals or groups are never found.
No wonder that a federal force, the Rangers, have been inducted into the battle. The problem is that this paramilitary organisation does not have the capacity to deal with an endemic problem that has seeped into the sinews of society. It can partially impose curfew or, in a specific area, do house-to-house searches, but it cannot possibly replicate knowledge of local conditions that a police force has.
This is the reason that the most effective operation against criminals and murderers was launched by the police under the supervision of the PPP government in the nineties. The army had failed earlier, but the police succeeded. Why, because it had local knowledge and could pinpoint the target with accuracy.
Another police-led operation of a similar kind is not possible. Partly because of the divided loyalties identified in it earlier but also because of the repercussions that individual police officers had to face later. After a political settlement, when many of the criminals were released, the officers were targeted and killed one by one. Only those survived who were able to run away.
Given this history, why would any police officer take the risk of being proactive against murderers that currently rule the roost in Karachi? And, lest I am misunderstood, these criminals do not belong to one community. They proliferate everywhere; they are found among the Punjabis, Baloch, Pakhtuns, Sindhis and Mohajirs. Elements of just one ethnicity are not dying in Karachi. All are.
How are we going to come out of this quagmire? Any solution has to include a political settlement, besides a serious overhaul of governance mechanisms in the city. The PPP, the MQM and the ANP are only allies in name in the government. Their respective leaderships have to move forward and become real allies. If there is no political settlement, the bloodshed will continue.
A realisation has to dawn that no political party or ethnicity can win this battle. Even if a particularly party or community is temporarily cowed down, the problem will not end. The Mohajirs, Pakhtuns, Sindhis and Baloch cannot wish each other away. They will still be living in the same space, however many may die in this war. Ethnic-cleansing, reprehensible as it is, is just not possible.
None of the political parties that represent these communities can be sole winners, however much they may temporarily appear victorious. The imperative of demography will assert itself politically, come what may. There is therefore no way out except a political settlement that recognises the space of each community in Karachi. Otherwise the bloodshed will continue forever.
On the governance side also, much needs to be done. The police force has to be cleansed of politically motivated recruitments. A similar exercise has to be carried out in the judiciary and in local-government institutions. Unless the scourge of ethnic or sectional loyalties is wiped, the state structure will remain nonviable.
The main imperative is for all parties to look at the larger picture. If Karachi descends into total chaos, the repercussions will be catastrophic not only for the people living there but for the country as a whole. In such a scenario, no one will be a winner.
Unfortunately, the enormity of the danger facing the country is not visible in the government. No All-Parties Conferences are being called, no emergency meetings running late into the night; only Rehman Malik mouthing inanities.
This will not do. Unless serious political and administrative steps are taken urgently, we are on the cusp of a tragedy.