The violence in Karachi has crossed all bounds. On August 19, there were 21 more deaths in various parts of the doomed city while, in Korangi, the police itself came under fire from a dozen motorbike-riders who killed four policemen and injured 25. The police itself is now being ambushed with impunity and those doing the evil deed have yet to be even formally identified. Senior police officials of the city have been declaring that they have some target killers in their custody but they have yet to be presented in a court of law for prosecution, only if to mollify a very frustrated and angry general public. In fact, on August 20, the Sindh home minister was quoted by a television channel as saying that a “hundred target killers” have been arrested, but one hopes this will not become yet another in a series of empty meaningless statements. Given the gory events of this year, most analysts are agreed that the ethnic war in the city is being fought by the three ruling political, parties — the MQM, the PPP and the ANP — after converting themselves into narrow ethnic-based entities.
Given this situation of total helplessness, the demand for ‘army action’ seems to be gaining ground. The industrialists of Karachi, who provide the economic backbone to Pakistan, have joined other citizens in calling for ‘army intervention’. The President of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry has formally said: “Given the grave circumstances where civil law-enforcement agencies have failed in restoring peace in Karachi, which has now become a hub of bloodshed, the army must be called in as it is the last resort to enforce peace in the city.” Of course, senior police officers are still making reassuring noises in the wake of the most shocking ambush against their men, but the truth is that the people of Karachi have lost all faith in the civilian law-enforcing elements even though they are reinforced with paramilitary forces.
It is all very well to talk about calling in the military but it is important to first carefully scrutinise the situation that it will be required to handle and how the ‘interventions’ of the past that happened in the early 1990s could be repeated successfully in the Karachi of today. It is crucial to study the sociology of a city where ethnic warriors are actually representing two entities, the ethnic group they pretend to represent and the political party that has encouraged the development of a frozen ethnic vote and which provides them refuge from the arm of the law. Also to be kept in mind would be the financial aspect of the current war: no matter who is doing the fighting, using expensive sophisticated weapons requires money; therefore the army will not only be confronted with bhatta-extorting mafias but also well-armed terrorists. The army will, sooner or later, find itself in a situation where it will have to confront the people themselves. This will happen eventually given the state of the city and with dozens of people being killed every day, with no semblance of government and with public anger and frustration because of this inaction running high. Remember the city is engulfed in no ordinary disorder; and will the army officer in charge of the situation order the opening of fire on these citizens?
The last time the military was asked to step in, the then army chief refused and presented an awkward conditionality: I will have to set up my own courts manned by my own mid-level officers; and the punishments they hand down will not be struck down by reviewing judges already swooning with fear. When this situation arose, the elected government recalled periods in national life when martial laws were imposed on the nation and military courts dished out unfair penalties to persons perceived by the generals as ‘enemies of the state’. In addition to this scary jurisprudence of ‘assistance to civilian rule’, there is another question to consider. The Pakistan Army is busy fighting the terrorists in the tribal areas in battles that remain inconclusive because of their non-military nature. It is also standing up to the rest of the world in the political interpretation of what the intra-state conflict in Pakistan is all about. It may be unwise to ask it to embroil itself in the conflict of Karachi. This is something that the political parties need to sort out themselves because, as much as they contribute to the problem, the solutions lies with them.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 21st, 2011.