Karachi stands in danger of turning into another Beirut of the 1970s and 1980s if the government of Pakistan does not wake up in time to the implications of the unending clashes between the Mohajirs and the Pashtuns, between the Barelvis and the Deobandis and between the Shias and the Sunnis.
Since the late 1980s, these animosities have led to periodic spells of ethnic and sectarian violence--almost amounting to a civil war. In the past, the situation was further aggravated by the ethnic animosity between the Mohajirs and the Sindhis. This animosity has since died down after the Pakistan People’s Party, which is largely of mainstream Sindhis, took the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the party of the Mohajirs, into the ruling federal coalition in Islamabad and the provincial coalition in Karachi after the elections of 2008.
The ethnic animosities have been compounded by sectarian animosities arising from the fact that the Mohajirs and the Sindhis largely belong to the more tolerant Barelvi sect of sub-continental Sunni Islam whereas the Pashtuns are largely the followers of the more intolerant Deobandi-Wahabi sects. The fact that many of the Mohajirs, who are the migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat provinces of India, have a large number of highly educated and prosperous Shias in their community has made the problem more complex by making them frequent targets of the extremist Sunni elements belonging to organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Lashkar-eJhangvi.
The animosities of the past arising from ethnic and sectarian factors have been aggravated by fears of a change in the demographic composition of Karachi. Before 1947, Karachi was a Sindhi city. After Pakistan was formed in 1947, it turned into a Mohajir city, due to the large influx of Barelvis and Shias from India. Mohajir means refugees. These are the refugees from India.
Since 1947, Karachi has been a city of refugees. Initially, it is the refugees from India (the Mohajirs) who dominated the politics and economy of the city, gradually reducing the Sindhis to an urban minority.
Since the trouble erupted in Afghanistan in the 1980s, there has been a continuous influx of Pashtun refugees into Karachi-- initially from Afghanistan as the fighting between the Afghan Mujahideen and the Soviet troops gathered momentum and subsequently after 9/11 from Pakistan’s Pashtun belt in the Khyber-Pakhtoonkwa (KP) Province and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as Al Qaeda and Taliban set up their safehaven in the Pashtun belt.
As a result of this steady Pashtun influx, there is a danger of Karachi one day turning into a Pashtun city. There has been no official census of the different ethnic groups in Karachi. It is believed that the Mohajirs are still the largest single ethnic group in the city, but as the number of Pashtun refugees increases, the Mohajirs fear they may be reduced to a minority in the years to come. Karachi is already the largest Pashtun city in Pakistan, with even more Pashtun population than Peshawar, the capital of the KP province.
It is the fear of an eventual Pashtunisation and Wahabisation of Karachi that has made the Mohajirs take to violence to stop the flow of more Pashtuns from the Pashtun belt and to counter their growing hold on the Karachi economy. The Pashtuns, who migrated before 9/11, are largely the supporters of the moderate Awami National Party (ANP), which is in power in the KP province and is a member of the ruling coalition in Islamabad. The MQM alleges that many of the Pashtuns, who have been migrating since 9/11, have sympathies with the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans. Despite this, the ANP has been taking up their cause because of the ethnic affinity.
This has added a political dimension to the violence with the MQM trying to counter the presence and influence of the ANP in Karachi, despite its reputation as a party of moderate Pashtuns.
Karachi has been seeing eruptions of ethnic and sectarian violence from time to time for over two decades now. It has taken a disturbingly virulent form since last year.
According to the “Daily Times” of Lahore of January 1,2011, during 2010, at least 705 people, including 488 political and religious leaders and activists, fell prey to targeted killings in Karachi. In addition,74 others died in explosions all over Karachi during the year. As against 779 people who died due to ethnic and sectarian violence in Karachi during 2010, only 427 people died due to the acts of suicide terrorism by the Pakistani Taliban in the entire non-Pashtun belt of Pakistan and 797 in the Pashtun belt. This would give an indication of the seriousness of the situation in Karachi, which is considered the economic capital of Pakistan. The situation in Karachi has been as serious as that in the Pashtun belt and much more serious than that in the non-Pashtun belt.
This virulence has aggravated further this year resulting in over 1000 deaths since the beginning of this year, with over 100 deaths in the last five days. From targeted killings of each other by different ethnic and sectarian groups, it has degenerated into a Beirut-like situation with the use of more and more sophisticated weapons by the fighting groups and attacks on infrastructure such as electric transformers and electricity supply lines. Whereas in the past, mainly individuals were targeted and killed, now there are group clashes in different areas which have resulted in many internally displaced persons moving from one area to another seeking protection.
The situation has serious implications because of the fact that Karachi is the economic capital of Pakistan and has the only satisfactorily functioning major international port catering to the external trade of Pakistan. The continued flow of logistic supplies, which come by sea, to the NATO forces in Afghanistan, would depend on a satisfactory internal security situation in this city. Moreover, Karachi has the only major naval base of Pakistan.
Despite these factors, the government of Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani has been ineffective in restoring law and order despite the fact that the MQM and the ANP were its coalition partners till now. Recently, there have been unconfirmed reports of the MQM having left the coalition due to the postponement of elections to the Assembly of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir from the Kashmiri refugee constituency in Karachi. Mr.Gilani has, however, denied that the MQM has carried out its threat to leave the coalition.
Some analysts in Pakistan look upon the recent spurt in violence in Karachi as an attempt by the MQM to intimidate the federal government into conceding its demands. Whatever may be the truth, the fact is that the situation in Karachi has been going from bad to worse. If this continues unchecked and unattended, the two Talibans may be the ultimate beneficiaries.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.