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Karachi rocked by ethnic power struggle

There was an uneasy peace on Friday as Karachi slowly inched towards normalcy after a week of violence which left 80 people dead and several more injured.

world Updated: Aug 07, 2010, 00:05 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad
Imtiaz Ahmad
Hindustan Times

There was an uneasy peace on Friday as Karachi slowly inched towards normalcy after a week of violence which left 80 people dead and several more injured.

Houses, businesses and vehicles were torched and people killed, some in targeted shootings while others in random acts of violence, ever since a member of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement was shot dead on Monday by unidentified assailants.

Katti Pahari — the cut mountain — is an area which saw the most violence, is now licking its wounds. Its residents say that their houses were attacked by people “coming from the outside,” in the words of Muhammad Ilyas, a resident of Qazba Town, which is in the vicinity.

On one side of Kati Pahari reside the Mohajirs — immigrants from what is now India, and who form the majority of Karachi’s population. On the other side is another sizeable community, the Pathans — originally from the North West Frontier Province and the tribal areas, now settled in Karachi.

On the nights following the Monday murder, Pathans and Mohajirs took pot shots at each other. Houses in this area were burned and people targeted for their ethnicity.

The MQM blames the Pathans, particularly the Awami National Party (ANP), for the violence. The ANP says it is not part of the killings. For its part, the government has blamed militant groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), an extremist Sunni organisation, and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

Interior minister Rehman Malik said that the MQM member of state legislature was killed because he was a Shia.

But the MQM says it is not as simple as that. “The MQM stands for sectarian harmony and that is why we are being targeted,” says MQM spokesman Faisal Sabzwari, who adds that this is a conspiracy to ruin Karachi, the country’s commercial capital.

Monday onwards, most businesses have been shut and almost all petrol stations and provision stories were also closed out of fear that they would be attacked.

While tempers have settled, the greater danger remains.

The MQM accuses the ANP and the Pathans of trying to Talibanise, Karachi, which is Pakistan’s most liberal and open city. There are reports that in some areas where the Pathan community lives, women are not allowed to leave their house without the burqa and men are encouraged to grow beards.

The Pathans deny this.

Analysts say that the bigger issue is the clash for power in Karachi. “The MQM is the biggest force in Karachi but the problem is that the Pathans are the second largest community here and they want a slice of the action,” says local journalist Rafat Saeed. While the government is bringing the ANP and the MQM to the negotiating table, there are fears that if talks break down between the two parties “all hell could break lose in Pakistan’s largest city.” That is not a prospect many people look forward to in this city of 14 million.

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