Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Karachi paradox

In recent headlines pertaining to Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) related violence across Pakistan's major metropolitan centers, Karachi seems to be missing. And I'm not the only one who has noticed this. In fact both Nadeem Paracha (Dawn Blogs) and Ahsan (Five rupees) have both commented on what I'd like to call the Karachi paradox.

Being a former Karachiite, I can tell you that Karachi is by no means peaceful. In fact, since the late 70's/early 80's it has always been characterized by a combination of ethnic, political and religious violence. Actually, I would argue that the main ongoing tensions in the city are in fact all political, with religious (Sunni vs. Shiite) and ethnic overtones (Sindhi vs. Mohajir, Pashtun vs. Mohajir). The only purely political violence would be the power struggles between Altaf's MQM and MQM Haqiqi (a breakaway group) in the late 80's/early 90's at the height of which sacks filled with the mutilated bodies of young men were found everywhere.

Karachi is also Pakistan's largest city with an estimated population of 12-19 million as compared to Lahore (6-10 milllion), Rawalpindi (1-3million) and Peshawar(1-2million) as well. It is also Pakistan's commercial capital. So why has Pakistan's most violent, populous and economically important city been ignored in this recent string of violence? (not that I want it to be targeted).

Both Nadeem and Ahsan have provided several hypotheses for this. According to Nadeem, the relative calm is a product of its ethnic and religious plurality. While I would prefer this explanation for the recent calm, just as I would prefer that people opt for singing Kumbaya while holding hands instead of killing each other over disagreements, the cynic in me has trouble accepting this. Ahsan on the other hand, attributes this phenomenon to a number of possible reasons from the shift of focus of the TTP from civilian to state actors,  to  increased vigilance on the part of security forces and the recognition of the Taliban as a "bad" entity on part of MQM resulting in action against burgeoning militant groups.

In my opinion (once again I'm not an expert), the combination of all three factors that Ahsan  mentioned  has contributed to this calm. While Karachi is the most populous and economically important city in Pakistan, it is not the seat of political and military power.In this sense Punjab is very important. When Pakistan under Musharaf, agreed to cooperate with the United States to act against Taliban and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, there was a major shift in military policy. Instead of ignoring and abeting these groups as had previously been done, the military took combative action. This meant that the Pakistani army was no longer an ignorable entity for these groups. Thus the attacks on army posts and personnel in NWFP and the recent attack on the GHQ. In addition, Punjab is also the headquaters of state apparatus making it key for anyone who wants to gain control of the country.According to this hypothesis it makes sense that recent violence has hit heavily in this region and Karachi like the rest of Sindh has been ignored.

The second important factor is the MQM. The MQM exerts a political hegemony in Karachi and has on many occasion wrestled with the political aspiration of other ethnic groups; in recent times this has been the Pashtuns and their Awami National Party (ANP). The most recent examples of this would be the excluding Swat refugees from entering Karachi as it would upset the Pashtun-Mohajir demography by increasing the number of Pashtuns in the city  resulting  in an increased power base for the ANP. This would have threatened MQM's political dominance in the city. Ahsan is correct in identifying the hyper-vigilance of the MQM as a reason for the comparative calm in Karachi. However, I would disagree with his assertion that this is somewhat due to the secular nature of the party (as well as anti-pashtun). In fact, MQM has on occasion worked with radical islamic groups in the past, specifically Jamat-Ulama-Islam (JUI) which espouses values similar to the TTP. I would base this hyper-vigilance specifically on its xenophobic attitude towards the Pashtuns which is based on maintaining its political hegemony in Karachi.

As for the increased vigilance on part of the security forces, this once again falls into the domain of the MQM. Being the ruling party in Karachi, MQM has the ability to use security forces to maintain its policies. In my opinion this hypothesis is an extension of Ahsan's second argument and the least important out the three.

On a less serious note, I've dedicated this version of Kumbaya to all of you who bother to read my posts. I hope you enjoy it.

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