Karachi is a big city

Transnational Institute

The first thing that springs to mind in Pakistan when the city of Karachi is mentioned is violence. There were almost 2,100 political murders and countless wounded there in 1995. Assassinations, massacres, indiscriminate shootings and bombings were the order of the day. Those who visit the city today still feel the tension in some parts of the city, but the phase of ubiquitous terror seems to be over. It's hard to see why Karachi became a capital of violence in the first place. But the fact that Karachi has not seen any major attacks for a few months also needs to be explained.

Karachi is not just any city for Pakistan. It is the economic metropolis of the country, the big companies, the national airline PIA, the branches of the multinational corporations are based here. Karachi has the only deep sea port. Sixty percent of the country's tax revenue comes from here, and seventy percent of Sindh province's taxes. In the conversation, the governor of the province, Kamal Uddin Azfar, also emphasized the special economic position. It should be remembered that Karachi is the richest city in Pakistan, probably also in all of Southwest Asia. The per capita income is four to five times the national average. We have a very high level of literacy, we have health care, we have half of all phones in the entire country, half of the cars.

For Pakistan with its more than 130 million inhabitants and for many people from neighboring countries, the city actually acts like a magnet, like one City of lightsin which a better life becomes possible. While Karachi had fewer than half a million inhabitants when the state of Pakistan was founded almost fifty years ago, nobody knows the number anymore. Neither the government nor the city administration have reliable estimates, but 15 million people may already live here.

The birth of the state of Pakistan in 1947 was a very bloody affair: the separation from India brought ethnic cleansing on both sides of the new border, with an estimated one million dead Hindus and Muslims. Around seven million refugees streamed into the country. It was Muslims who had to flee India and educated and better educated people who made a conscious decision to move to Pakistan to help build the new Islamic Republic. These were millions of people coming into the country Mohajirs: called what no more than refugees means. Almost all of them settled in the cities, and almost always in Sindh Province. Karachi became their informal capital, where the Mohajirs and their descendants now make up a slim majority.

When this wave of refugees subsided in the mid-1950s, there was massive immigration from other parts of the country. Many Pashtuns came from the north-west province, but people also streamed into the city from the Punjab and poor Baluchistan.

When what was then East Pakistan - and today's Bangladesh - split off at the beginning of the 1970s, many non-Bengals moved from there to Karachi. In the eighties, because of the war in neighboring Afghanistan, many Afghans came, again numerous Pashtuns. Today more Pashtuns live in Karachi than in any other city in the world, more than in Kabul or Peshawar. Since that time, numerous, legal and illegal, immigrants from Bangladesh (this time Bengal), Iran and India have also streamed into the city. It is estimated that more than ten percent of the population may be illegal immigrants from neighboring countries.

As a result of this massive migration, the Sindhis, the original inhabitants of Sindh Province and its capital Karachi, have found themselves in a hopeless minority situation. There are probably more illegal immigrants in the city than Sindhis. However: that alone does not explain the culture of violence. By the mid-1980s, the various ethnic groups had coexisted peacefully.

Anyone who speaks to Muhammad Shoaib Suddle, the Karachi police chief, is confronted with an intellectual in uniform who gives the impression of being very friendly, but also of being able to strike very hard. He speaks of the crimes of the last few years, of the numerous victims, and of the police officers who were murdered. He describes rocket attacks on government buildings and police stations. He estimates that one tenth of political murders were caused by clashes between religious zealots, especially between Sunni and Shiite groups. At least three quarters of the violence is exercised by the so-called MQM, the Mohajir Qaumi Movement. That is the party of the Mohajirs. The police chief insists that not the entire population group of the Mohajirs is terrorist, not even all MQM supporters or activists. He estimates that there are 4-5000 dangerous violent criminals from their ranks.

Liaqatabad is to Karachi what Karachi is to Pakistan: a symbol of violence. An estimated 700,000 people live here, mostly poorer people. Over ninety percent of them are mohajirs, five percent punchabis, two or three percent Pashtuns. There are few Sindhis. The local police station, one of 92 in Karachi, was shot at with rockets and badly damaged last year. However, two of the four missiles had missed their target and hit the neighborhood. They met the house of Mohammad Udar: My family was having lunch, it was about a quarter to two. My wife died in the missile attack, and two sons and a grandchild. Four members of our family were injured, and my daughter lost an arm and a couple of toes. It was two missiles. One hit the outside wall, the other hit us while we were eating. The man is only forty, but looks much older and speaks so softly that you can hardly understand him. He is Mohajir himself, but understandably has no sympathy for the violence of the MQM.

The widow of a policeman tells a sickly, screaming child on her lap about the kidnapping of her husband. He was severely tortured, a plastic bag was pulled over his head and he was shot dead. I would strangle the murderers with my own hands if only I could find them. The bitterness can be felt everywhere.

On the outer wall of the Liaqatabad Police Station there has recently been an emblem that reads: We are your servants, not your masters! This is a remarkable concept for Pakistan, which the local police would like to explain to the residents in public events. So far, according to one policeman, the population is still skeptical.

After visiting this police station, there is the opportunity to go on patrol with a police patrol. From up there - and the officer points to the roof of a house while driving - we were often shot at from up there. And from there, too, from these little alleys. Here at this intersection we couldn't even move in armored personnel carriers during some strikes. There were burning roadblocks and heavy fire. At this point alone, eleven cars were once set on fire to deny us entry. It goes a little further through the district, to an area where you can no longer get anywhere with cars. The streets become so narrow and winding that you can only get in on foot. Three police officers armed with Kalashnikovs lead the way, keeping an eye on windows, doorways, flat roofs and other dangerous spots to spot snipers. Three more, also heavily armed police officers secure the group from behind. According to one officer, the police did not venture into these streets just a few months ago. But the population also faces the police differently today: in the past, children and young people had stood guard for low pay and announced the arrival of the police. If they shouted their warnings, the respective street was deserted in a flash. Today, however, passers-by ignore the police. You don't run away from her, you aren't friendly, you act as if she wasn't there.

In another alley, the officer explains: This is the green house, a notorious torture center. It's deserted now, but the terrorists used to be completely safe here because we couldn't get into this area. While walking through the building, he points to a large hole in the concrete floor: We found a couple of bodies there, four or five I think. And over there all kinds of ropes and cables were hanging from the ceiling to tie up the victims.

The MQM is actually responsible for a large part of the terror, and not just the propaganda of its political opponents. But it is not homogeneous, and most MQM politicians have nothing to do with the violence. The party is not banned and is even represented by a number of MPs in the Sindh Provincial Parliament. One of them is Syed Bukhari. He is a qualified attorney at the provincial highest court, a short, somewhat nervous, friendly man with a big mustache. Bukhari belongs to the closest leadership circle of his party. During a conversation at headquarters, his flow of speech can hardly be stopped. He enthusiastically explains the positions of the MQM. A particularly important point of conflict is the discrimination against the Mohajirs when it comes to the allocation of jobs in the public service or university places. In fact, the conflict had originally sparked in the universities and technical colleges.

There is no quota system for ethnic groups in all of Pakistan, except in the Sindh, between the Mohajirs and Sindhis. In principle, the quota system that was introduced during the reign of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of the current Prime Minister, reserves 60 percent of university places and jobs in the public service for the Sindhis and 40 percent for the Mohajirs. Rural Sindhis have far better training and career prospects than highly qualified urban mohadjirs with much lower performance. But Bukhari goes even further in his criticism: If there are ten vacancies, hardly any of them go to our people, and nine go to the rural population. So we are disadvantaged because of our language. We speak urdu. We are discriminated against because we are Mohajirs and even though we chose Pakistan.

This criticism is justified. In fact, the Modhajirs are disadvantaged. But the problems go far beyond the injustices of recruitment. The Mohajirs are clearly in the minority in rural and provincial areas, but in the majority in Karachi and the other cities. The conflict therefore has features of an urban-rural contrast. Although the bloodshed is concentrated in the city, it is actually about the role of the city in the province and the power share of the predominantly urban Mohajirs in provincial politics. Karachi versus the rural areas of Sindh Province, this is a better way of understanding the conflict than just relating it to the city itself.

It is further complicated by the fact that the big cities are politically dominated by the MQM, while the rural districts are dominated by the Pakistani People's Party (PPP) by Prime Minister Benazir Bhuttos. Part of the conflict results from the opposition between these two parties. The power base of the PPP - and thus of the Bhutto government - is in Sindh. And the more the Mohajirs of the big cities, organized in the MQM, demand more rights and more power, the more they want to have a say in the politics of Sindh and the more the PPP feels threatened. In recent years it has lost support in the other provinces, especially in the densely populated Punschab, so that an additional weakening in its home country Sindh would be particularly threatening.

But that's not all. The mohadschirs - especially their leadership ensemble - are strongly middle-class. Lawyers, teachers, employees, shopkeepers, students - these are the groups that make up the management staff. The MQM is basically the party of the urban middle classes. Conversely, the Sindhis, who mostly live in the countryside, are not only influenced by agriculture, but are still controlled by feudal interests. The Sindhis ruling class are feudal landowners - the Bhutto family also come from this group. Agriculture - and thus the feudal lords - are exempt from tax liability in Pakistan, while the Karachis middle class finances the rest of the country with their taxes. The conflict is thus also a class war in which the rising urban middle classes want to shake off the supremacy of the feudalists.

Syed Bukhari from MQM is very aware of this. He puts it this way:

The feudal parties control politics. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or his daughter Benazir were and are themselves feudals. These feudal families rule the country by three means. One brother is in the army, the second a politician, and the third a large landowner. They make up only 2 percent of the population, 98 percent are poor or belong to the lower or more affluent middle class. These landowners never pay any taxes, but we have to pay them.

So the conflict and violence in Karachi are linked to one another ethnic Dimension with the urban-rural contrast, with concrete experiences of discrimination and with a power struggle between middle classes and rural landowners. This complex situation gets its political form from the competition between two parties, the PPP and the MQM.

In the meantime, violence in Karachi has fallen sharply, as reported by the government, police, MQM and the press. The political murders haven't stopped, but there hasn't been any major massacre or terrorist attack in the city for a few months. If you ask the police chief about the causes, he explains it like this:

We have tried to improve our intelligence services, we have tried to better equip and train the police to improve their morale. The results are obvious. In a city where we have not been able to arrest any terrorists even after months of being searched, we have eliminated around 800 terrorists since the beginning of July last year. Most of them were high profile terrorists. More than 600 were arrested and more than 100 were eliminated in clashes.

Indeed, when Police Chief Muhammad Suddle took office in July 1995, the police began a new tactic in the fight against terrorism of the MQM. Around 200 police officers had been murdered the previous year and the government and police leadership decided to hit back hard now. Since then, the police seem to shoot first and only then ask questions. The country's newspapers repeatedly report allegedly suspects or prisoners who died in police custody Heart attackalthough there are demonstrable cases in which the victims show signs of torture or gunshot wounds. Zaigham Khan is a journalist at Herald, one of the two major political magazines. He has no sympathy for the MQM, he considers the party to be fascist. Regarding police practices, he says:

The government has now found a way to keep MQM under control. She achieves this through so-called extrajudicial killings. She made a list of people, mostly criminals or murderers, who murdered hundreds of people. And there seems to have been a silent decision to kill them in bogus clashes. There are clashes that have been made. The police found a way to get rid of these people. That is why Karachi is peaceful right now.

Whether the police actually have death lists cannot be proven, but the practice of faked or alleged gunfire and other forms of state killings are the order of the day. Police killed around 200 MQM members in nine months, a number that does include actual shootings and police murders. Syed Bukhari of the MQM leadership admits in an interview that the police measures have put the party on the defensive. But he also thinks that the repression will ultimately benefit her. Today it is difficult for us to move freely. We have to be very careful about our safety. We have also instructed our political activists to go into hiding to avoid such arrests and killings. On the other hand, this persecution has made the MQM even more popular. Everyone knows that. It has strengthened us, not weakened us.

Indeed, the current calm in the city may well not be permanent. The reduction of violence is not the result of a political solution, a reconciliation of interests, the elimination of the causes of the conflict, understanding or reconciliation, but the result of mere repression. It is hardly surprising that bitterness has increased in the ranks of the MQM.As police brutality abates or gets used to it, a new round of violence and terrorism could begin at any time. In a confidential conversation, senior police officers realize that they have only gained time - but that the problem of violence in Karachi can only be solved politically. The sharp repression and the extrajudicial killings gave the government respite, but - although the governor denies this - resolved nothing. The crucial question will be whether the government - and the MQM - are ready to seek and bring about a political solution now. But there are doubts: both sides know that they have to talk to each other, and after a long hesitation they have already done so. But the willingness to enter into a real and lasting compromise - that is, to end the discrimination against the Mohajirs by the government and the terror by the MQM - does not yet seem to exist on either side.

The end of Kalashnikov culture in Karachi is of great importance for all of Pakistan. The country's economic development opportunities also depend on its economic center being able to break out of the vortex of violence. As recently as last year, foreign business people in one of the large luxury hotels found notes from the management in their rooms that said Security issues when leaving the hotel. In such circumstances, it is difficult to attract foreign investors.

The normalization in Karachi is also crucial for Pakistan, because otherwise the city could become a source of general instability. This is especially true in the event that the current conflict between the state and the Mohajirs actually turns into one between the population groups of the Mohajirs and Sindhis on a broad basis, and if such a conflict then also the other ethnic groups of the city - especially the Pashtuns and Pundjabis - would be drawn into it. Especially among the Pashtuns, the aversion to the MQM has already grown significantly. An extension of violent forms of politics and ethnic conflict to the rest of the country would be devastating. In the past few months there has been a series of mysterious, bloody bomb attacks near the city of Lahore - in the province of Punjab - and the election campaign in the Pakistani part of Kashmir also resulted in deaths. In the northwestern province with its Pashtun tribal areas and the city of Peshawar, violence and terrorism flare up again and again. In this overall context, it is crucial whether Karachi can once again become a peaceful metropolis and the country's economic engine, or whether the bloody conflicts there spread to other cities and regions or whether they connect with them. The key to a solution today rests in the hands of the Sindh government and the Bhutto government in Islamabad. Both are dominated by the PPP, so they are themselves parties to the conflict. If they have the size to jump over the shadow of their usual selfish party politics - then the conflict in Karachi could be resolved relatively soon. If, from the current calm, they come to the conclusion that they no longer need an understanding with the MQM, then there is a great danger that the next round of violence is still to come.

Copyright 1996 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung