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Karachi groans under escalating violence

Zafar Bangash

Last month witnessed some highly unusual developments even by Pakistani standards where political events can take a sudden and unexpected turn. It started with an October 5 pronouncement by then army chief of staff, general Jahangir Karamat, about the dismal performance of the Nawaz Sharif government which he said was creating uncertainty in the country. While the opposition parties pounced on it as their window of opportunity to banish Sharif from power, the resulting furore led to the resignation of the army chief two days later.

Then on October 17, two prominent figures were shot dead: the imam of Lal Masjid in Islamabad and Hakim Muhammad Said in Karachi. Twelve days later, the provincial government was dismissed and governor’s rule imposed in the province in Sind. In-between, there was the three-day Jama’at rally - from October 23-25 - in Islamabad while the entire cabinet, including the prime minister, abandoned the capital.

It is the resignation of the army chief and the murder of Hakim Said that have had the most dramatic impact on Pakistan’s political landscape. In a country which has witnessed numerous military coups since 1947, the voluntary (or involuntary) resignation of a serving army chief is rare indeed. While this was being hotly discussed by the rumour-prone print media, Hakim Said’s murder rocked the country.

An elderly man - he was 78 - who had dedicated his life to serving the masses through herbal medicines as well as helping in promoting literacy through education, he was gunned down in coldblood. As was his habit, Hakim Said had prayed Fajr in Tayyub Masjid at Shikarpur Colony and just arrived at his clinic in Aram Bagh in the heart of Karachi when gunmen in a 12-seater jeep opened fire killing him and two others - Hakim Abdul Qadir Qureshi and caretaker Wali Mohammed. Two other persons were wounded.

Who are the killers is the subject of much speculation. The government has accused the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) while the latter blames the government. People in Karachi are divided although most observers hold the MQM responsible. It may be a moot point; ultimately the government is responsible for the safety and security of the people.

Fasih Ahmed alias Jugnoo, an MQM supporter, arrested in connection with the murder, reportedly blurted out the names of his accomplices, if the police are to be believed, but two days later he was found dead in his cell. The MQM alleges that he was murdered; the police say he committed suicide. A judicial inquiry has now been ordered. Another MQM member, Aamirullah, also under arrest for the murder, has refused to divulge any information.

Prime minister Nawaz Sharif risked alienating his coalition partners in Sind by publicly demanding on October 28 that MQM hand over the killers of Hakim Said. When the latter rejected the demand, accusing instead the government of complicity, the provincial government was dismissed and governor’s rule imposed on October 29.

Karachi has been in the grip of a killing spree long before the latest murders. More than 800 persons have already died this year. The government also announced widespread changes in the police force and gave vast new powers to Rangers to deal with the situation.

Hundreds of people have been rounded up in Karachi, most of them MQM supporters. There is massive police and rangers’ presence in the streets giving the impression of martial law. Even so, gunfire crackles at night in the sprawling metropolis.

Why Hakim Said, a non-political and largely non-controversial figure, was murdered is still a mystery. One body of opinion holds that he had started to criticise government corruption and the grip of feudal lords on the country; others opine that he had refused to support the MQM’s ethnic politics. The fact is that he is dead and the true identity of his murderers, like so many previous cases, may never be known.

The killings in Karachi have been going on for nearly a decade. And there appears no end in sight to such mayhem. Karachi represents the larger dilemma facing Pakistan: political and economic bankruptcy. The ruling elite have no clue as to how to solve the country’s myriad problems beyond issuing pious claims of turning Pakistan into an ‘Islamic State’ or making it another ‘Switzerland.’ Successive bouts of Islamization have bred deep cynicism among the populace who see such prouncements as mere slogans.

Karachi also represents another facet of Pakistani life, at least of its elite: obsession with everything western. Two years ago, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) had opened a number of outlets in the city. That rubbery stuff is now followed by McDonald’s greasy hamburgers. The line-ups at such places have to be seen to be believed. Why parents and children abandon wholesome Pakistani cuisine to eat American-brand junk food is unfathomable.

Amid this obsession with things western, there is the other, more unpleasant side of life as well. At every street corner, there is an army of beggars: children with broken limbs, women carrying emaciated children in their arms, and blind or crippled old men begging for money. The sight is heartbreaking.

There is, however, another side to this sad saga. The beggars are controlled by a mafia. The municipality awards contract for collecting toll at various points in the city to the highest bidder. This also includes collection through begging. A number of children and women are controlled by this mafia which forces them to beg. Pakistani papers reported last year that one contractor had paid Rs 450 million (nearly US$90 million) to win the contract!

The contrast in lifestyles between the rich and poor is horrendous. Why the poor tolerate such disparities? The simple answer is that there is nobody to lead them. All political parties are dominated by the feudals who are the direct beneficiaries of this exploitative system. Even the most apolitical people now admit that the deepening social divide in Pakistan is heading for an explosion - an Iran-style revolution.

This, however, is a misrepresentation of Pakistan’s reality. There is no Islamic Movement nor is there a leader of Imam Khomeini’s stature who can inspire people to rise up against the tyranny and injustice. The Jama’at rally in Islamabad is reflective of this situation. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Amir of the Jama’at-e Islami, proclaimed that he is a ‘liberal and that the Jama’at is not fundamentalist.’ Who was he trying to impress with his moderation: the Americans or the Saudis?

While the Jama’at put up a credible display of its organisational skills by bringing together nearly 200,000 people to Islamabad, it may not be able to do much with it. With its commitment to electoral politics, the Jama’at cannot defeat the feudal lords at their game. They control more than 70 percent of the population that resides in the rural areas. The Jama’at can have as many rallies as it wants but it will have little or no impact on the political landscape.

Pakistan’s tragedy is that while the prevalent system is rotten to the core, there is no Islamic Movement to overthrow it in order to establish an Islamic government.

Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 18

Rajab 26, 14191998-11-16

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