Categorized | Asian Top Stories

Political parties in turf war over Karachi

Posted on 13 July 2011 by admin

After four days of ethnic bloodletting that claimed more than 90 lives last week, a semblance of calm has returned to Karachi, Pakistan’s business capital and biggest metropolis.

Yet, as the Pakistani Rangers – who have orders to shoot on sight – maintain a tight vigil over the city, fresh tensions are rising between President Asif Ali Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the locally influential Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).

At a press conference held early yesterday (July 11) morning, MQM leaders accused the government of conspiring against the party by opening negotiations with a breakaway faction and using pressure tactics, including cutting off phone lines to its party office and even planning an attack on its premises.

“We will take the war to the streets,” warned Anis Qaimkhani, deputy convenor of the MQM. “Do not push us against the wall.”

The drawing of new battle lines is bad news for Pakistan and its most vital metropolis, which contributes two-thirds of government revenue. It has the headquarters of the nation’s biggest banks and companies, in addition to being the country’s No. 1 port and naval base.

At the heart of the conflict is a tussle between the two parties for influence in Karachi, the capital of Sind province.

The PPP controls the Sind hinterland and holds power in the national government.

The MQM has its origins in a group consisting of Urdu-speaking immigrants who left India during the bloody partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Its power base is urban Karachi and its leader has lived in self-exile in London for decades.

Sindhis, who feel overrun by the immigrant Mohajirs, who are the core of the MQM, have always resented their presence in their main city.

The worst years of the tension were in 1992 and 1995, when the military-backed government took on the Mohajirs. Thousands were killed in clashes in and around Karachi.

New complications have arisen in the past two decades, resulting from a huge influx of Pashtun refugees from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan, where conditions are tough, especially since the United States-led war on terror erupted after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

Today, more Pashtuns live in Karachi than in Peshawar, capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is believed that an increasing number of Pashtuns are sympathetic towards the Taleban operating on both sides of the Durand Line that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan. This grates on both the PPP and its opponent, the MQM.

Such suspicions and antipathy have led to targeted killings of individuals, and at times, attacks on groups of people.

Alongside the influx of refugees, Karachi has witnessed migrations across the city itself, as Pashtuns seek out areas where they feel safer and Sindhis keep a wary eye on their Mohajir brothers.

Nearly 800 people were killed in Karachi in targeted killings and bombings last year. There have been as many deaths, if not more, in the first six months of the year alone.

Analysts say the main Pashtun party, the Awami National Party (ANP), is a moderate force, but is compelled by ethnic loyalties to lend support to Pashtun hotheads.

An uneasy MQM, trying to defend its own interests, has begun to attack the ANP in recent months, adding one more corner in the fight.

Mr Imtiaz Gul, a respected Pakistani commentator, calls it ‘a turf war between the MQM, ANP and PPP, for territory and political space in this big city’.

Both the ANP and the MQM are coalition partners of the ruling PPP. Although MQM-PPP ties have ruptured, the ruling party has reportedly refused to discuss a parting of ways.

Meanwhile, the ground situation is worsening, as killings continue and key infrastructural facilities are destroyed.

Warned counterterrorism expert B. Raman, India’s best-known analyst on Pakistan: “Karachi stands in danger of turning into another Beirut of the 1970s and 1980s if the government does not wake up to the implications of the unending clashes.”

“The situation in the city is as serious as that in the Pashtun belt.”

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