May 30, 2020
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Battle Rejoined

The army and the MQM face off as violence in Karachi escalates

Battle Rejoined

JUNE 1997 was by far the bloodiest month Karachi has seen in nearly two years. Bomb blasts shook the city and attacks on the homes and offices of political rivals occurred with alarming regularity. Those gunned down included supporters of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), its breakaway faction the Haqiqis, and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML), as well as personnel from the law enforcement agencies. The battle for Karachi has begun once again. And it's bloodier than the last time, a couple of years back. The two main players on the city's battered stage, the MQM and the army, haven't changed their perceptions. While the former blames the "federal intelligence agencies" for the current situation, the latter reaffirms that the MQM is an anti-State organisation supported by an 'enemy country'. The major difference in the crisis this time is that the present government is in the awkward position of having to depend on MQM support in Sindh despite being in no position to deliver many of the party's key demands.

Two gory incidents underlined the ferocity of the battle. The most shocking: a mafia-style execution on June 25. Five young men were rounded up from different parts of the city, taken to Orangi, in western Karachi, lined up against a wall and shot in front of terrified witnesses. According to a high-ranking police official, the faceless youths were informers.

Nine days earlier, five workers of the MQM were gunned down in Ranchore Lines, south Karachi. The city ground to a halt for three days. Gangs roamed the city forcing shopkeepers in major commercial areas to pull down their shutters. Officially, the MQM denies having anything to do with the shutdown. It does, however, accuse the Haqiqis and government intelligence agencies of being involved in the killings of its workers. The party's opponents claim that it is the MQM that's responsible for the violence.

It's been almost eight months since the dismissal of Benazir Bhutto's government on charges, among others, of extra-judicial killings in Karachi—a charge validated by the Supreme Court. But no law enforcement personnel has yet been tried for the military's role in the crackdown on the MQM. And this March, Major General Mohammad Akram, former director general of the Rangers, was even awarded the Hilal-e-Shujaat for "liberating (the city) from terrorism...and bringing peace to Karachi".

For, within the law enforcement agencies there is a growing paranoia that militants of the MQM are regrouping with each passing day. The work put into dismantling the MQM's communications and support network during the last operation, they fear, is gradually coming to naught.

"The police and the intelligence agencies feel that despite bringing peace to Karachi after so many killings, the forces have not been able to break the entire terrorist network," says a senior police official. "The hardcore of the party is still intact. And we have reports every day of arms being transferred in official vehicles, of the MQM militants regrouping and reorganising. A number of our informers have been killed in the last couple of months. We cannot afford to let this happen." On the insistence of the MQM, a judicial commission was recently established by the government to probe extra-judicial killings. But observers say this is merely an eyewash. Unlike the terms of reference of the Murtaza Bhutto tribunal—which had been specifically directed "to fix responsibility identifying the individuals/group of individuals allegedly involved in the incident and to recommend further course of legal action"—the new commission has been asked merely "to inquire into and investigate the cases of extrajudicial Karachi and the other urban areas of Sindh and to make recommendations, legal and/or administrative". Without the power to fix responsibility, political analysts fear, the commission's recommendations may end up on dusty shelves.

Moreover, the commission's terms of reference cover only Benazir Bhutto's tenure in office. This glosses over the first 16 months of the army's operation clean-up, which began on June 19, '92, during the first tenure of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

"That was when there were reports of torture and abuse of power by the infamous Field Intelligence Team," says one analyst. "And it proves that little is actually going to come out of this. The army does not want any of its own men to be punished."

Highly-placed sources in Islamabad concur with this assessment. "When President Farooq Leghari dismissed Benazir's government, he was advised by aides to include the clause on extra-judicial killings in his dismissal order, since it was the only substantially new element compared to Ghulam Ishaq Khan's dismissal order of Sharif," says one senior official. "Its inclusion would thus add weight to his case if Bhutto went to court. But this clause was not appreciated by general headquarters. In fact, it led to the distancing of the armed forces from Leghari. And no police officer or official of the law enforcement agencies was even touched."

Another point on which the military has refused to budge is on the withdrawal of the Rangers from Karachi. The issue has been one of the foremost demands of the MQM since it came to power in Sindh following the February 3 polls. It also happens to be one of the main points in its accord with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). Instead, the presence of the Rangers has been revalidated by its allies in the federal government.

 "The Rangers will continue to stay as long as the government wants them to," thundered the Rangers' Major General Imtiaz at a recent press conference. Others take a more realistic view. "It is not for the government, federal or provincial, to decide whether the Rangers will stay in Karachi or not," points out a senior bureaucrat close to the present government. "It may be like that officially, but the real decisions regarding Sindh are taken elsewhere."

 How little say the civilian governments have in policy-making regarding Sindh—particularly with regard to Karachi and Hyderabad—was clearly visible in the government's futile stand on the issue of the appointment of the Sindh governor. Despite the federal government's assurances that the MQM would have its choice of governor, in the end General Moeenuddin Haider, was installed in office.

For its part, the MQM has been repeatedly attempting to evict the Haqiqis from their small pockets of influence in Landhi, Korangi and the Lines area. Its rhetoric against the State agencies too is ceaseless. In a letter to the prime minister on April 30, Isht-iaq Azhar, convenor of MQM's central coordination committee, dubbed two letters sent by the director general, Rangers, to the inspector general police of Sindh and the deputy inspector general, Karachi, as anti-MQM in tone and substance.

AZHAR wrote: "Since the MQM has again won the general elections and is now a coalition partner in the government of Sindh province and has an agreement with you at the federal level, it might seem and why the State agencies would conspire against it.

On 19 June, '92, the (army) operation was commenced. That time also, the MQM was a coalition partner with your Muslim League both at the provincial and federal level and was even in a better position with regard to (the) power-sharing setup. But the operation was commenced and was intensified with every passing day.... Since the commencement of Operation Clean-up in June '92, till date, seven governments have changed. But the State's policy against the MQM and Mohajirs remained in execution in a persistent manner though with varying spikes of intensity..." MQM supremo Altaf Hussain recently went a step further. "Behind all these acts of violence and brutality," said Hussain, "are our own State agencies and not any enemy country. These agencies have their agents in all the political and religious parties and through these they carry out killings and brutalities." While Altaf Hussain didn't specify the intelligence agencies involved—over half-a-dozen outfits operate in the port city—Dr Farooq Sattar, MQM's senior minister in the Sindh cabinet, hinted to the Herald that the Inter-Services Intelligence was to blame. But the MQM has levelled similar charges against the Rangers too. "The MQM's main target now is the intelligence agencies and the army's perception of the MQM as run by anti-State elements is unchanged; there seems to be no hope of a compromise in the short term," says a retired army officer.

Meanwhile, the battle for Karachi rages on—either as a turf war between the Haqiqis and the MQM or between various government lobbies. But unless the MQM and the army are willing to suspend their distrust of each other, an escalation of violence seems inevitable in the war-torn city.

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