«THE OPEN CITY: SOCIAL NETWORKS AND VIOLENCE IN KARACHI Azmat Ali Budhani, Haris Gazdar, Sobia Ahmad Kaker, Hussain Bux Mallah Collective for Social ...»
The emergence of the MQM from the APMSO meant that the politics of armed cadres left the confines of the campuses and entered the communities. The party had disproportionate support among the Muhajir youth, many of whom were attracted to its militant and macho reputation. The idea that the Muhajirs formed a distinct ethnic group – like the Sindhis, Punjabis, Balochis and the Pashtuns – became a rallying point. The organisation took full advantage of simmering ethnic resentments among the Muhajirs – many of whom felt disenfranchised in ‘their own’ city. In a series of violent encounters with other ethnic groups, particularly the Pashtuns, the MQM established a reputation for militancy (Gayer 2003).
4 The word ‘muhajir’ literally means migrant or refugee, and in the context of Karachi refers to Muslim migrants from India who arrived in the city following the bloody partition of the country at the time of independence in
1947. Latterly, descendents of the original migrants also began to class themselves as muhajir and argued that they formed a distinct ethnic group. The term evokes the Islamic tradition of hijrat, or migration in the face of religious persecution..
4 The first major ethnic confrontations took place over seemingly innocuous issues. A hit and run incident involving a Pashtun-owned bus and a Muhajir schoolgirl led to widespread riots in which large numbers of buses were set alight. Another incident was sparked off by alleged sniper fire on an MQM procession from an Afghan refugee neighbourhood. This also led to large-scale rioting in which many people lost their lives and homes were destroyed. The next to flare up was the working class neighbourhood of Orangi where Muhajirs and Pashtuns lived in close proximity. Automatic weapons were used by both sides, and there were a number of horrific incidents of people being burnt alive in their homes (Karim 1995). These events marked a qualitative shift in the nature and scale of violence in Karachi: during 1985, the Karachi police recorded 608 cases of rioting which claimed 56 lives (Richards 2007).
By 1987 the MQM was ready to contest local elections, and in the national elections that followed in 1988 it emerged as an overwhelming victor in Karachi. Political representation did not lead to an abatement of political violence. On the eve of the 1988 elections there was a massacre of Urdu-speaking Muhajirs in a series of random drive-by shootings in the city of Hyderabad. Extreme Sindhi ethnic nationalist groups were widely suspected of carrying out this crime. There was virtually immediate retaliation against Sindhis in Karachi for which the MQM was blamed. Ethnic tensions between Sindhis and Muhajirs remained high even after the elections, despite the fact that the MQM and the Sindhi-dominated PPP were coalition partners. The MQM left the coalition in 1989 and this was followed by a period of unrelenting political and ethnic violence in Karachi. A new factor in this phase of violence was the abduction of political and ethnic rivals. Parts of the city started to become ‘no-go’ areas for the police and security services, and it was reported that parties operated detention centres where victims would be tortured and even executed (HRCP 1992).
From 1990 onwards there were sporadic attempts on the part of the security services to confront armed ethnic groups in Karachi, particularly the MQM. Police action was launched in 1990 but was aborted after the military backed away (Ziring 1991). Another operation, this time led by the military itself, was started in 1992 under the cover of a bloody split in the ranks of the MQM, but this too got bogged down, apparently due to the lack of good intelligence. From 1993 till 1996 there was an intelligence-led campaign with cooperation between police, paramilitary forces and the army to seriously disable the military capacity of the MQM. The state’s action led to mass arrests of MQM members, supporters and their family members. Large number of youths (estimates range between several hundreds and several thousands) were killed in actual or faked encounters with the security services (HRCP 1992-2007). Many young men escaped and took refuge in rural areas – paradoxically among ethnic communities that had themselves been targets of ethnic violence in Karachi. Others fled abroad to the US, UK, South Africa and Malaysia.
MQM resistance was also fierce. During the early period of the security operations there were retaliatory attacks on state-security personnel and on other ethnic groups. It was common to find trussed up dead bodies in gunny sacks with torture marks. Many of these were alleged police informers (HRCP 1996). The party also retained the ability during that time of calling and enforcing general strikes in the city causing serious economic disruption and losses. Many parts of the city witnessed internal displacement as people from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group were forced to shift to safer neighbourhoods (Khan 2003). It is estimated that hundreds of families of MQM members and supporters – especially those families who had lost a member in a police encounter – were forced to go into hiding. They were unable to return to their homes because of fears of police harassment. There were also 5 demographic shifts within the city as people moved to neighbourhoods in the southern districts of the city that were relatively less disrupted by strikes and riots.
It can be argued that the 1993 to 1996 period marked a peak in ethnic conflict and political violence of certain types in Karachi.5 Chottani, Razak and Luby (2002) estimate the rate of violent injuries to be 23 per 100,000, and the rate of violent deaths to be 13 per 100,000 between 1993 and 1996.6 Since that period the MQM and other ethnic parties have regrouped, rearmed and revived themselves. They have also displayed, very occasionally, the ability to repeat the excesses of the 1990s. The most notable such event was the violence on May 12, 2007, which is discussed below. But there are also important changes. The MQM, for example, formally changed its name from Muhajir Quami Movement to the Muttahida Quami Movement (United National Movement). Dropping the ‘Muhajir’ label was seen as an important act of symbolism because it allowed the party to claim to be a national rather than ethnic party (Richards 2007).
The lowering of ethnic political violence since the late 1990s does not mean that such violence has disappeared altogether. There have been periods when inter-party rivalries have led to targeted assassinations of party cadres and supporters. The link between lower level party cadres and criminal elements has also thrived. Fighting between youth cadres of parties is sometimes indistinguishable from gang warfare.
Even though ethnic violence might have abated for now, other forms of violence have emerged in recent years. Between 1994 and 2006, extremist Sunni militants waged a campaign of bomb attacks and assassinations against the city’s Shia minority (Abbas 2001).
A number of mosques and congregations were bombed. There was a systematic campaign to target educated professionals within the Shia community – presumably in the expectation that this would lower the community’s morale and encourage its members to seek emigration (Korejo 2002). It is estimated that 26 doctors were assassinated.7 The recent pattern of sectarian violence is very different from the Shia-Sunni violence that occurred up until the 1980s, when rival religious processions might break out into mob attacks and riots.
There is known to be much overlap between groups that target Shias and those who have undertaken or supported terrorist attacks on foreign and national targets since 2001. Targeted assassinations thought to be carried out by jihadi groups actually predate 9/11 and the US-led war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Militant Sunni organisations such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are known to have had close ideological and operational links with jihadi groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad (Rana 2004).
The war in Afghanistan and the Pakistan government’s support for the US-led coalition produced an angry response in some of the religious circles in Karachi. There were calls for recruitment for jihad and many young men – mostly but not exclusively from ethnic Pashtun localities – volunteered to fight alongside the Taliban. A new dimension was added to the pattern of violence in the city, with attacks on foreign and national high value targets. US 5 According to the authors’ calculations from HRCP annual reports, 4,642 people were killed in shootings, encounters and political violence between 1994 and 1996 (see Annex 1).
6 The authors also determine the nature of violence as being ethnic and politically motivated through gathering data from ambulance service logbooks. They found that the number of casualties and injuries increased during periods of strikes. Moreover, they discovered that casualties were disproportionately high (in contrast with population) in Korangi (22% of all homicides), Malir (8%), Nazimabad (8%) and Orangi (8%). Urdu speakers are a majority in Orangi and Nazimabad, while Malir and Korangi are multi-ethnic.
7 Authors calculations from HRCP annual reports 6 consular personnel and premises were targeted on several occasions by suicide bombers.
There was a suicide bomb attack on French naval engineers that killed over a dozen people (Rana 2004). There were unsuccessful assassination attempts on important Pakistani officials, such as President Musharraf and the army commander of Karachi.
There were also major bomb attacks on public rallies that claimed the lives of hundreds of people. The first was an explosion at a Barelvi Sunni religious gathering in April 2006 that eliminated the entire leadership of the Sunni Tehreek (Sunni Movement). This organisation claims to represent the Barelvi Sunnis who distinguish themselves from the Deobandi Sunnis.
The former focus on ritual and devotion in contrast with the latter who are highly doctrinaire.
While the Sunni Tehreek is a militant organisation – with armed cadres – it opposes and is opposed by the jihadi groups who are mostly Deobandi Sunni (Rana 2004). On the streets the Sunni Tehreek’s main rivalry, however, is not with the jihadi groups but with the nominally secular MQM. This is because many of the Sunni Tehreek cadres are former MQM members who split off or were expelled due to infighting (Shah 2003). The vendetta has been carried over into the new organisation. There were no claims of responsibility on the Sunni Tehreek rally, but there was a war of words between the MQM and the supporters of jihadi groups, with each shifting the blame on the other.
In October 2007 the public reception for Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan from her tenyear exile was the target of a major bomb attack. The attack on Bhutto’s rally, which she survived, killed over 130 people and maimed several hundred others. The attack was blamed variously on jihadi groups, Al-Qaeda, Taliban and elements within Pakistan’s security apparatus opposed to her policies (Dawn News, October 19, 2007). In this case too there was no admission of responsibility. After a lull of some two years, a Shia religious processions were bombed in December 2009 and February 2010, claiming over sixty lives. These attacks on Shia Muslims were claimed by spokespersons for the Pakistani Taliban.
Summary of trends and patterns It is useful to summarise the main trends and patterns of conflict and violence in Karachi.
The above review has shown that the mid-1980s marked a turning point both in terms of the extent and the nature of political violence. Whereas before, political violence had been exceptional and connected to specific policies and actions, now it became widespread and systemic. Political organisations and entire communities became militarised. Ethnicity was a salient line of division, but so was party-political and religious affiliation. There was a blurring of boundaries between political cadres and protection rackets, with the consequence that criminal and political violence became indistinguishable. Organisations acquired the capacity to enforce city-wide shut-downs and strikes, and state-security agencies lost their overwhelming superiority in the exercise of coercive power.
There are inter-connections between the three broad sources of violence identified above:
ethnic/party-political conflict, criminal violence and the jihadi threat. But there are also distinctive features. The jihadi violence has recently consisted of sectarian or high profile targeted assassinations, and bomb attacks including suicide bombs. Ethnic/party-political conflicts sometimes take the form of targeted killings but do not involve bomb attacks. These conflicts can and do involve ‘mass’ actions such as shut-downs and strikes, mob violence and even territorial battles. The jihadi violence does not include ‘mass’ or open action, but it can include sporadic attempts at enforcing Taliban-style restrictions on music and dress codes in selected pockets of the city.
7 This paper takes that view that although jihadi violence is a more urgent threat to state security and stability, ethnic/party political and criminal violence, which are inter-connected, are more important sources of insecurity and the danger of breakdown in Karachi. The arming of the city, the emergence of identity-based politics, and the weakening of state institutions are key shifts since the mid-1980s. Some of these conditions are the same ones that also make Karachi vulnerable to jihadi violence.