The recent spurt of violence in Karachi, which killed more than 75 people in just four days was not the first episode of politically-motivated mayhem in recent years or months. Such killings have been occurring with bewildering regularity. So far this year, more than 1,100 people have been killed in what is being labelled in journalistic jargon as "target killings" and this number continues to rise. In 2009, more than 800 people were killed mostly in hit-and-run attacks. A vast majority of these murders were brushed under the official carpet without the slightest whimper in the corridors of power. But then there are days, when the city receives a bumper-dose of bodies in one go as it happened at the Kabari Market on October 19 where gunmen shot dead more than a dozen civilians – mostly shopkeepers – in cold blood.
What followed after this usual, cyclic bout of violence also remains a routine – a media frenzy, melodramatic posturing by the mainstream political parties, a blame-game, a barrage of statements by politicians expressing anger and anguish and, of course, the official announcements that peace will be restored and those responsible taken to task. There were demands, reports and rumours of Karachi being handed over to the army, the imposition of curfew and a campaign to clear the city of unlicensed weapons.
Doesn't it all sound familiar? The president, the prime minister, the interior minister, official this and official that – all had something to say and promises to make. Then, reports appeared that curfew and the army were not being seen as options, but yes, action to recover illegal weapons and selective operations against the bad guys remained on the cards. The coalition partners, who appeared edgy and estranged after the Kabari Market incident, apparently managed to iron out differences and announced to work together for peace in the city. This too also sounds familiar. We have been witness to many such announcements in the recent past. Given this government's record, its ineffectiveness, indifference and lack of will, is it difficult to predict what would the fate be of all these high-sounding announcements?
The promises of change are unlikely to change anything under the polluted grey sky of Karachi. The mega-city appears like a volcano all set to explode given its myriad unresolved ethnic and political contradictions and tensions as well as critical social, infrastructure and development issues. It is not just innate cynicism or pessimism. The writing is on the wall. But those in power prefer not to read it.
The failure of the state to establish rule of law and resolve contradictions among its various ethnic, political, economic and other interest groups or keep them at a manageable level – is bound to worsen the situation. In fact, bringing sustainable peace in Karachi does not appear on the government's agenda. It prefers to bank on short-term, firefighting solutions and political wheelings and dealings whenever violence escalates. With all the major political parties, including those in the ruling coalition, harbouring criminals in their ranks, politics of expediency appears the key reason behind the government's inaction. Yes, crime and politics now feed off each other in Karachi. Politics has been criminalised and criminals easily politicise crimes. This harsh fact is both publicly and privately acknowledged by many senior police officers.
It is an open secret that zealots of major political parties are involved in most killings, which carry shades of ethnic, sectarian or religious rivalry. Militants belonging to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement(MQM), the Awami National Party(ANP), the pro-Pakistan Peoples' Party(PPP) Aman Committee of Lyari and rival factions of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement are primarily responsible for the continued bloodletting in Pakistan's largest city and industrial hub. The sectarian and religious organisations and Sindhi nationalist groups also remain marginal players in this game of death.
One doesn't find any heroes in this bloody conflict, championing the cause of peace and the people. It is villains pitted against villains, while civilians, especially belonging to the lower income groups, remain the ultimate victims. It is a tussle among political parties – all working to establish or sustain their hegemony over the city or parts of it. This has resulted in an unending turf-war in which land encroachers, drug mafias, transporters and all sorts of legal and illegal interest groups are pitching in their bit by waving the flag of this political party or that.
The conflict carries strong ethnic undertones, which means that this low-key violence has all the potential to explode into something far graver. And there is enough at stake, which encourages political parties and their militants to keep upping the ante. Karachi, not just contributes more than 60 per cent of all the revenues to the national exchequer in terms of direct, indirect taxes and duties, but also sustains political parties, militant groups and mafias, all of whom have huge economic stakes in the city.
In a nutshell, criminalisation of politics remains the top issue, which is responsible for the present plight of the city and for affecting every walk of life in it. And this issue becomes more complex and grave because state institutions do not have the capacity and the will to establish supremacy of the law.
For it is not enough to say that the top leadership of every political party should take steps to get rid of criminals in their ranks. Yes, this is also important, but more important is the fact that state institutions do their job in a fair, efficient and responsible manner.
State institutions, including the police, the paramilitary rangers and other law enforcing institutions, should not function by compromising and conceding power. They should enforce the law – starting from traffic rules that are flouted all the time in Karachi, to dealing with bigger law-breakers. And the elected government should empower, help and facilitate these institutions rather than playing dirty for its narrow vested-interests by allowing land encroachers and drug peddlers to exist and thrive.
Politicising the police and law enforcing institutions remains the biggest obstacle in establishing the rule of the law. So is the issue of quick and speedy dispensation of justice through courts where cases keep dragging on and in a majority of instances the accused remains unpunished because of loopholes in investigations and lack of witnesses.
The situation in Karachi calls for action and not empty verbosity from government stalwarts. The government should act to establish the writ of the state before it is too late. In the current situation, even harsh laws would be better than the present lawlessness prevailing across Pakistan in general and Karachi in particular.
The writer is business editor, The News. Email: [email protected]