The ghosts of its past still haunt Karachi
A graveyard silence hung around Larkana, my hometown in Sindh, in the months and years after former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in the 1979 military coup. In the early '80s, still shocked at the aggression of military rule, I left the city for Karachi to continue my studies.
Before I left, my school friends joked that I might become lost in the glitter of the city. But then I had not imagined that I would witness the famed City Of Lights turn into a place of such darkness, and transform into one of the most dangerous and populous cities in the world.
Once in Karachi, I heard stories. I heard people had distributed sweets during Zia’s military takeover. I saw the city was ruled by right-wingers who endorsed the conservatism of the military regime.
I learned I was seen as a ‘Mohajir,’ a person who had migrated from India to Pakistan after partition in 1947. The title placed me on one of the city’s many fault lines of ethnic conflict.
Karachi was in the throes of Pushtun-Mohajir riots in Orangi Town, where rival groups burnt each other alive after years of being neighbors. I was studying at the century-old DJ college adjacent to Burns Road, where a huge anti-Bhutto rally had led to the overthrow of the government.
But Karachi was too big, too crowded, too chaotic, too contested to allow any one version of reality to take hold.
The metropolis is the only point in Pakistan where all ethnic communities come face to face. Everyone has a claim to the city; the Baloch, Pushtuns, Punjabis, Sindhis, and Kashmiris. All languages mingle, various Muslim sects co-exist. Religious minorities are both part of society and apart from it.
But political battles amid resource scarcity make the diversity a double-edged sword, and I have seen Karachi turn sinister without warning.
The seeds of ethnic strife were sown in the ’70s. Language riots erupted between Sindhis and Mohajirs when the native Sindhi language was declared the province’s official language.
But by the time I moved to Karachi, the axis had changed. Dark shadows lengthened as the Mohajirs formed their political party, MQM, using muscle power and led by Altaf Hussain. Then, a Mohajir college student, Bushra Zaidi, was killed in a road accident by a Pushtun bus driver. The violence and riots paralyzed the city, resulting in dominance by MQM.
With a population of 23 million people, Karachi is paralysed again. This time, it is not the violence but the collapse of its civic system.
Under MQM’s rule by gun, the city’s landscape changed. The grounds where we played cricket became dumping areas for bullet-riddled bodies in gunny bags. Three students were executed against the wall of our gymnasium at the University of Karachi – the bloodstains stayed on the walls for months. The working class re-aligned and moved into ethnically divided neighborhoods.
Subsequently, a military operation was launched. Hundreds of MQM leaders and workers went into hiding. A splinter group emerged, the ‘real MQM’ and scores were killed in the rivalry. Among them, my friend, Shoaib alias Shobi, who loved cricket, music and break-dancing, and who became Altaf Hussain’s bodyguard. He was shot point-blank in the infighting.
I moved into journalism. Cub reporters were assigned to tally daily death counts. Police encounters became the norm. When Karachi was at the center-stage of violence in the mid-’90s, I was working for the Agence France Presse (AFP), and our Asia regional desk informally called The 3K – Kabul, Karachi, Kashmir.
And then came 9/11. Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered in the city. Investigators traced international militants to Karachi, like Al Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Ramzi bin al Shibh. A series of militant attacks followed and Karachi was declared one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
The teeming metropolis is the nerve center of Pakistan’s economy, with roughly 60 percent of national revenues generated here. Parallel to it runs a black economy controlled by underground mafias.
After a 2013 crackdown by the paramilitary Rangers and police, the city has remained relatively free of large-scale violence in recent years.
But, with a population of 23 million people, Karachi is paralysed again. This time, it is not the violence but the collapse of its civic system. Heaps of garbage, a superfluous drainage system, and fly-infested neighborhoods make it one of the world’s least liveable cities, and trigger a political war of words. Recent rains and urban flooding have exposed the city’s battered soul once again.
The paralysis is induced by the ghosts of its past.
The MQM has no muscle left to flex, its militants in disarray, its leadership discredited. However, it still controls the local government.
Imran Khan’s PTI won the majority of parliamentary seats from Karachi but doesn’t have an organizational structure to take administrative control of the city.
Bhutto’s PPP, which runs the Sindh provincial government (of which Karachi is the capital), doesn’t anticipate ever winning Karachi, so they thwart the efforts of political opponents.
I once asked a militant commander what he thought the solution to Karachi’s problems was.
He said: “Lock the city and hand over the key to us.”
The battle for the key rages on.
– Owais Tohid is a leading Pakistani journalist/writer. His email address is [email protected] He tweets @OwaisTohid.