March 29, 2020
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Penalty For Love

An inter-community love saga highlights Karachi's ethnic divide

Penalty For Love

MAKING their lives a living hell was not punishment enough. Only the death sentence would do. When Riffat Afridi, a Pakhtun girl, dared to elope with,and subsequently marry Kunwar Ahsan, a young Mohajir man, the happy ending was nowhere in sight.

On March 4, eight gunmen, said to include the father and brother of the bride,opened fire on Ahsan as he entered a magistrate's office inside the Karachi City Courts building in the custody of the police. He was rushed to a nearby civil hospital, where he was admitted in a critical condition with bullets in his chest, abdomen and leg. At the time of writing, he was said to be in a stable condition at the Civil Hospital's intensive care unit, but doctors at the heavily-guarded hospital appealed for more blood. More than 70 policemen ringed the emergency ward,whose steel gates were locked shut to protect the doctors.

Among the seven people arrested in connection with the shooting were the bride's father, Jabbar Afridi, her mother Abbass Afridi, and Niazat Khan, who the parents claim is the girl's first husband. A pistol was reportedly recovered from their possession.

 The shooting came just when a case of alleged kidnapping against Ahsan seemed to be nearing its end and the controversial marriage seemed to have defied the seemingly insurmountable odds.

The saga began when Riffat Afridi disappeared from her parents' North Nazi-mabad residence. This otherwise minor incident soon flared up to affect the city, when her family, influenced by Tariq Khan, a local PML(N) leader, filed a case of kidnapping against Kunwar Ahsan in the first week of February.

Tariq Khan's hitherto unknown organisation, the Pakhtun Amn Jirga, then set about blowing the incident out of all proportion. Since Kunwar Ahsan was a close relative of a prominent MQM leader, MNA Kunwar Khalid Yunus, the Jirga was successful in its attempt to portray the alleged kidnapping as an insult to Pakhtun sentiments. The guilty party, of course, in the Jirga's mind was the entire Mohajir community.

"The tribal jirga sits waiting to give a verdict, blackmailing the government and creating panic, terrorising an already vulnerable city. It has no regard that this girl, or any for that matter, has some rights over her life," said Najma Ahmed, a human rights activist. "After 50 years, we do not need jirgas to provide law and justice. We have a code of laws provided by the constitution.. until the government does not establish this it will remain weak and will always be held up to blackmail."

The tragic love affair has provoked several people to ask several questions, but the crucial one—about how Riffat felt, knowing that she would never be accepted by her family, and the punishment that awaited her if she was forced to go back to them—will not be answered till she decides to talk about her travails herself.

THE Mohajirs and Pakhtuns living in Karachi had clashed violently in 1985, when a bus driven by a Pakhtun ran over and killed Bushra Zaidi, a Mohajir girl. The "Bushra Zaidi" incident, as the accident was later dubbed in reference to the girl who was killed, is now regarded by many as a turning point in Karachi's turbulent history. It was the first expression of the anger and frustration that were to shape the course of Karachi's future politics.

During the following 13 years, Karachi has weathered pitched battles, sniper attacks, and more. The city is relatively calm at present, but most people remember the accident and the riots which followed, as the beginning of Karachi's troubles.

"We used to run a literacy centre for poor women since 1977 and it was mostly Pathan, Baluch and Punjabi women who came. As the ethnic rift deepened, however, those women became scared and stopped coming to us. There was so much trouble in those days, curfews, riots, that we had to shut down the centre," said Mrs Rehana Mughni, a lecturer in political science. Many feared that a similar kind of situation would arise out of the marriage of Riffat and Ahsan.

However, given the cordial relationship between the MQM and the ANP, the representative parties of the Mohajirs and Pakhtuns respectively, that seemed unlikely. While Tariq Khan and other PML leaders sought to upset the peaceful status quo, they ultimately failed due to the responsible stands taken by both the MQM and the ANP.

For one day, though, the Pakhtun Amn (peace) Jirga rampaged through Karachi. During its strikes, two people died and many others were injured, including two doctors who received severe burns when their car was set ablaze near Jinnah Hospital. The Jirga's demand: the two lovers should be apprehended wherever they might be and brought to Karachi.

Ahsan was arrested by the police in the Punjab and Riffat too was later produced before a court. The Pakhtun Amn Jirga had meanwhile split into two factions, one of which was willing to abide by the court's decision. The other, more extremist group led by Tariq Khan, demanded the girl be handed over immediately to her family, which would have been akin to a death sentence.

Tariq Khan and some of Riffat's male relatives also conjured up a man who they claimed was Riffat's "first husband", explaining that since they were married in accordance with tribal customs, the event was never legally documented. If this could be proved, under Pakistani law Afridi could also have been charged with adultery.

 Kunwar and Riffat, meanwhile, produced relevant affidavits and a nikahnama (marriage certificate), which were handed over to the court for further scrutiny. Riffat also maintained that she had left her parents' home and married Ahsan of her own free will. On February 26, after she was taken to a court in an armoured personnel carrier, she categorically said she had left her parents' house and married Kunwar Ahsan of her own free will.

In Ahsan's case, the court was about to decide whether or not he should continue to remain in police custody. But then the shots rang out.

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