OVER the last few years, the people of Karachi have grown accustomed to daily reports of death and destruction, becoming almost immune to the violent turf war between rival militant groups. Nevertheless, the brutal murder of famous social reformer Hakim Said last month came as a bolt from the blue that struck not just the 12 million inhabitants of Karachi, but many more across Pakistan.
Visibly shaken admirers thronged Hakim Said's residence for funeral prayers, convinced that if a great philanthropist could be gunned down in broad daylight, then no one was safe. The consensus appeared to be that the city, scarred by the ethnic strife of the '80s, the intense factional fighting between rival MQM groups in the last few years and the fallout from the criminalisation of such militant movements, is now sliding towards total anarchy. Many feel it's only a matter of time before some other intellectual or social activist is gunned down.
Perhaps the most alarming statement in this connection came from prime minister Nawaz Sharif himself, who for the first time officially acknowledged the existence of a certain "hit list". Such a roster had apparently been provided to the PM by intelligence agencies, and is said to be based on information gathered over several years. Yet no one knows for certain who authored this macabre register, or who really features in it. Various newspapers have drawn up their rolls of would-be victims, and none of these lists has been disputed by the government, an indication perhaps that the lives of many other prominent citizens are at risk. That is, not counting the commoners.
For, official data about violent crime in Karachi during the last 10 months amply demonstrates the state's sheer impotence. More than 600 people have fallen victim in this period to what have come to be known as "politically motivated" killings. Altaf Hussain's Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)—floated after splitting from the rump Mohajir Qaumi Movement (the Haqiqis)—and other MQM factions have claimed some of these victims as their own, and have retaliated to the killings by calling for protest strikes that often end in violence.
Besides political murders, there have been hundreds of incidents of armed robbery and numerous kidnappings for ransom. Cases of car theft have broken all previous records, according to official figures. Moreover, only a minuscule number of the culprits has ever been brought to book.
"No criminal in the world will hesitate to commit a crime if he is convinced that he will never be convicted even if he is actually apprehended," says Jameel Yusuf of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee. "Today, the conviction rate in Karachi is barely one per cent, and crimes are committed repeatedly because the criminals get away with it," he adds. "If these are not clear enough signs of a slide into anarchy," adds a leading industrialist, "what will it take for the government to realise that urgent action is required in Karachi?"
But can this coastal, multi-ethnic city ever be pulled back from the brink? Some take a bleak view of the scenario, considering the way the line between politics and crime has become increasingly blurred, thereby preventing successive governments from cracking down on militant groups, terrorists and even petty criminals.
Hakim Said's murder at least succeeded in shaking the administration in Islamabad, and Sharif was forced to cancel his regular schedule and rush to Karachi, where he spent four days holding meetings with administration and security officials—a flurry of activity that saw the launch of Operation Clean-up. His presence in the metropolis also prompted the police and intelligence agencies to move swiftly in their probe into Hakim Said's death.
Officials are tight-lipped about their progress, but some newspaper reports, quoting intelligence sources, pointed the finger at certain militants of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. Some went a step further, suggesting a possible motive for the murder: Hakim Said's reported allegations that the MQM's political tactics include extortion.
And then came the bombshell. Addressing a press conference at Governor House in Karachi on October 28, Sharif announced that the law enforcement authorities had proof that members of the MQM, including a member of the Provincial Assembly, were involved in the murder. Some of the accused were already in custody, he said, while efforts were being made to convince the MQM to hand over the others. "It is an opportunity for the MQM to clear its name," Sharif said. "Politics or no politics, I won't compromise with terrorists."
Muttahida leaders, of course, strongly deny these charges. A convinced Sharif, however, imposed governor's rule in Sindh, giving sweeping powers to governor Lt. Gen. (retd) Moinuddin Haider. Though the provincial assembly was not dissolved, PML sources confirm that it's on the cards.
POLITICAL analysts believe that fresh elections in Sindh could prove disastrous for Sharif. The MQM has withdrawn support and the PML doesn't have much of a following in the region. Says an analyst: "While the MQM's votebank in urban Sindh is still intact, the PPP's support has significantly increased after the 1996 polls. Unless the government is planning to rig the polls, it will go against Sharif."
MQM supremo Altaf Hussain has already termed Sharif's drive as less an army operation and more an election operation. Sharif seems to be in a catch-22 situation. Any major crackdown in Sindh could lead to a long-drawn-out armed struggle with the city's most potent political force, vitiating the atmosphere further. On the other hand, his biggest supporter, the business community, is telling him that the key hurdle to reviving economic activity and bringing in investment is Karachi's law and order situation. Another, perhaps even more serious problem, involves extortion. Tens of millions of rupees are collected every month by various militant groups, and the racket has assumed the proportions of an industry.
To get rid of these problems, some senior politicians are advocating a Naseerullah Babar-style operation, in itself an indicator of the desperation among certain circles. During the previous Benazir Bhutto government, her interior minister's crackdown in Karachi produced some positive results initially. But later, extra-judicial killings became the order of the day and scores of innocent people fell victim to the wrath of the state along with "known terrorists".
Besides, the Babar operation was clearly aimed at crushing the MQM's militant wing. The party's rival Haqiqi faction, and other smaller militant groups were not targeted as a point of policy. And even the most ardent supporters of a Babar-style operation admit that a crackdown that discriminates between militant groups is bound to fail.
But as several analysts of Karachi politics point out, if the prime minister is sincere in his desire to put an end to the orgy of violence, he will have to rise above petty politics. For instance, analysts say that instead of opting for governor's rule, Sharif should have called a meeting of all the political groups who have a stake in Karachi to work out a strategy—Altaf Hussain's Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Afaq Ahmed's rival Mohajir Qaumi Movement, the Pakistan People's Party, the Jamaat-e-Islami and even Ghinwa Bhutto's Shaheed Bhutto faction, as well as smaller political groups.
Even senior PML leaders privately admit that if Sharif had called a Karachi-specific meeting and tabled a concrete plan to deal with militancy, it would have become difficult for other parties to reject the proposal. As one analyst puts it: "It is a matter of time before things are back to square one. No operation by law-enforcement agencies can bear fruit unless backed by political support and followed up by a political solution."