Karachi continues to bleed

Karachi needs democratisation of power and robust accountability mechanisms

Karachi’s mayhem in the past few days has exposed, once again, the primary issue of the megapolis – a weak, encroached state. The city has grown in numbers and is now home to millions of Pakistanis of all varieties. Its cosmopolitanism and centrality to Pakistan’s economy means that Pakistan cannot remain unaffected if its largest city is not functioning well.

July has been a bloody month. However, this is not the first time when the city has been subjected to ethnic-bloodbaths. A week ago, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) walked out of the federal and provincial governments and this was a signal to all and sundry that the tenuous and uneasy peace between the various power-brokers in Karachi would be affected or at the worst torn asunder.

This is precisely what happened. A strike followed the decision and over 100 people were killed in various low-income settlements comprising mohajirs (migrants), Pakhtuns and others. Public transport remained at a standstill and innocent citizens were targeted by death squads of major political parties which mobilise people around ethnic and linguistic identities. The underlying class-divides among major ethnic groups is also an issue to be explored. The biggest city alas is also the most under-researched region of Pakistan.

When the events of early July settled the uneasy truce between MQM and Government was shaken after the firebrand Sindhi nationalist representative of the PPP, Zulfiqar Mirza lashed out against Altaf Hussain, the leader of MQM living in exile far away from the turbulence of Karachi. Calling Mr Hussain a bigger criminal than the leaders of MQM’s breakaway faction, Mirza also made some sweeping, ill-informed remarks against the mohajirs who arrived in Karachi after the partition.

The media once again emerged as a major influence in shaping the public opinion in Karachi and elsewhere. The statement of Mirza, which now has been officially denounced by PPP (along with an apology by him), was repeated ad nauseam to indicate how the PPP had initiated an ‘ethnic conflict’. The ethnic conflict has been there for decades and even during the PPP-MQM alliance the phenomena of target killing: has continued. More people have died in Karachi due to target killings than incidents of terrorism in the city.

A dying patient: The state in Karachi has been on retreat and successive federal and provincial governments due to their short-term goal of holding power have allowed the governance crises to deepen. Instead of reform, institution-building, the political parties have entered into alliances with the mafias in Karachi for short term peace. But the results have been disastrous. The bureaucracy is divided along ethnic lines with each party and its loyalists in positions of power. The police force, recruited on political lines and not merit, is weak, untrained and unprofessional to handle the challenges of governance and worsening law and order.

Whither local governance: During Musharraf years, Karachi’s local governance arrangements were improved. To give credit to an unrepresentative military regime, the local government system showed some positive results in terms of service delivery and the citizen-state relations. The MQM ruled the towns of Karachi under the new local governance framework which led to noticeable infrastructure improvement. In the larger political context, Musharraf viewed the MQM and Karachi as his constituency of sorts. Therefore, additional financing for Karachi’s development were injected into the central and provincial budgets. However, major reform such as finalisation of the Karachi Master Plan, introduction of Mass Transit and improvement in security apparatus were not delivered largely due to the federal government’s desire to control the city. The posting of Rangers in Karachi is mind-boggling given that border security forces are ill-trained to manage urban law and order. The recent killing of a young man in a public park by the Rangers demonstrates this syndrome.

Mafia vs mafia: Such is the governance culture since the emergence of MQM that ethnic mobilisation and armed wings of political parties are informally accepted modes of transacting power and citizen interest. In recent years, the Pashtun in-migration into Karachi has added a new powerful player in Karachi. The Awami National Party (ANP), therefore, is a stakeholder in Karachi’s politics beyond its domains in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and perhaps parts of Balochsitan. Since 2008, reports suggest that a third power-group in the form of Lyari Aman Committee (LAC) has emerged with a militant wing. Therefore, Karachi has also witnessed the fragmentation of MQM’s traditional ‘control’ and sole-representative status in the city. The three power groups, i.e. MQM and ANP’s militant cadres and LAC now operate in Karachi as the ‘real’ state as the revenue raising authority and influencing policy and development.

It is also an established fact that much of Karachi’s business – of all varieties – pay rents to these mafias for their protection and ‘security’ as the state seems to have lost or willingly ‘subcontracted’ that function to private actors. There are Pathan areas; and there are Mohajir areas and other settlements, which through a complex network of middlemen, touts and strongmen pay money also known as ‘bhatta’. Therefore, the political economy of Karachi’s violence is far more complicated than is painted or discussed.

Back to the colonial era: The response of the federal government to return to 1861 Police Act as a means to improve Karachi’s situation is unfortunate and untimely. First of all, the Police Order has certain pre-requisites such as district magistrates’ revival of which may not be feasible given the potential conflict with the judiciary on separation of powers. Secondly, urban policing was never the strong point of 1861 law as it was largely designed to exercise colonial control over a largely spread rural population. In any case, restoration of an old law will only lead to further chaos and confusion. In addition, the court battles will erode whatever little impact it may have in the short term. The government will have to think of more contemporary solutions, including community policing.

And a Commissioner, once again: Along with the revival of old police system the institution of the Commissioner has also been revived. The Commissioner has no executive powers, especially with regard to law and order as it is a land administration and coordinating office. The larger aim is to revert to the old districts that existed in the pre-2001 administrative landscape. The revival of districts and the local government system of 1979 is an attempt to dilute the city-control and subdivide it as per the demands of non-Muhajir communities living in Karachi. The MQM bitterly opposes this move and it will prove to a contentious issue.

Is the MQM isolated? With the unofficial alliance of all non-Muhajir representatives and MQM’s breakaway factions operating under the guise of Sunni Tehreek, there is a greater likelihood of street battles erupting and getting out of control. True that PPP controls the federal agencies such as the Rangers and FC but further escalation of violence and tension will have an adverse impact on the democratic and consensual decision-making. Zulfiqar Mirza’s bravado and PPP’s risk-taking is, therefore, a game of chance that may work or simply backfire with unfortunate consequences. Given the current configuration, MQM is rightly worried about being pushed into a corner. But then it cannot totally absolve itself of the responsibility as it was and remains a major actor in Karachi’s politics and governance. Karachi’s economy cannot function without the inclusion of other communities given the interdependence of economic and social forces. The transport business is largely operated by the Pathans so they simply cannot be isolated from the power matrix and decision-making. As the second largest community, they also have a right to claim their share.

As always, Karachi needs democratization of power; and robust accountability mechanisms and strengthening of the state as the mediating agent between diverse interests and lobbies. There can be no other alternative to a responsive local government, a municipal police and effective law-enforcement agencies. The notions of cosmetic, brutal ‘clean-up’ operations are recipes for failure for they cannot change underlying imbalances in the state and society. The democratic option is clear. The major political parties will have to agree on a common agenda for reform and negotiate it. In the absence of such a political compact the dwindling central state will intervene to ‘fix’ things or the jihadis united under the broad umbrella of Al-Qaeda worldview may emerge as the winners.

An army intervention has never resulted in systemic changes. Karachi is no exception. Similarly, the reported hideouts of jihadis in Karachi can only flourish under a situation of permanent chaos. Karachi is Pakistan’s only port city; it is also the NATO supply line route and the financial nerve centre. Above all, it belongs to its resilient, inventive citizens who want peace, security and opportunities. Ending violence in Karachi and creating equitable opportunities should, therefore, become a top priority of political parties. Otherwise, they may fail us once again.

First published in The News on Sunday, July 17 issue
The writer is a policy adviser based in Lahore. His writings are archived at www.razarumi.com. Follow him on Twitter: @razarumi

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