One week of the latest round of violence, leaving over a hundred dead. Videos doing the rounds of the net, if believed, show a level of bestiality that is shocking. People are being tortured, sexually humiliated and abused, and probably later killed. The gunny bags and chopped up bodies have reappeared.
Rwanda? No. It’s Karachi, the financial hub and largest city of Pakistan.
Now, everyone wants the army to come and restore order. The hated, incompetent, responsible-for-all-the-troubles-of-Pakistan army, we are told, is the solution, the only organised force that can succeed where the politicians, the civil administration, the political parties, and the interior ministry have failed.
Will it, if the army were to be deployed to Karachi? Depends on how one defines success. If it means a visible drop in violence, it might work for some time. But if success means resolving the issues that have led to violence, the army has no means of ensuring that. The violence is political and is a contest between the defender of the status quo and the challengers. The army is not a party to this conflict. Nor should it become one.
But that is not the only reason for keeping the army away from the current mess. The most important reason for not embroiling the army is that the political parties know what is going on and who the killers are. They should, because every contestant is playing this bloody game. Let it be said plainly that we are not dealing with ghosts. And since the parties involved in the contest, the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement and the Awami National Party, are together responsible for the current bloodshed, the civil administration and the police too know what’s happening, why and by whom.
Why should the army then be pulled in and to what end when the violence can be ended by the political parties? As I wrote elsewhere, the MQM knows it is losing control of the city. The demographics of Karachi are changing with the continuing influx of the Pashtun, and to some extent, since last year’s floods, by the Sindhis. That worries the MQM. But the MQM’s fear factor goes beyond having more Pashtun in Karachi. The party’s real concern is that it is convinced that the ruling PPP is embarked on a plan to reduce political space for it in urban Sindh.
The foremost issue in that context relates to the local government. The Musharraf devolution plan worked greatly to the MQM’s advantage. It gave the party the plinth on which to place the other two levels — provincial and national — of its vote. With that system gone, one of the major bones of contention is the shape and configuration of the local government system. Until that is worked out to the satisfaction of all the parties, especially the MQM, the violence will not ebb. Local government, and the manner in which the MQM plugs it into its two higher tiers of governance to aggregate interests, is the lynchpin of the party’s politics in Karachi. It is also the device through which it retains control of the city.
If the MQM were to concede ground on this score, it would mean the party’s vote disaggregation over time. The setback won’t just be at the local level but will also manifest itself at the provincial and national levels.
The PPP’s natural ally, given the nature of the contest, is the Awami National Party. The ANP justifiably wants a share in the city’s resources, including capturing the Pashtun vote. Its revisionism fits in with the PPP’s plan. In this trilateral struggle, the PPP and the ANP are loosely affiliated against the MQM and the next elections will definitely see seat adjustment between the two to try and capture at least two to three more NA seats in Karachi. The MQM fears just that. It also knows losing those seats could ultimately mean a downslide in its political fortunes.
The PPP has also brought the MQM under pressure, not just by aligning with the ANP and raising the spectre of the Haqiqi faction, but also by getting the British government (and the US administration) to put pressure on the party. This was helped in no small measure by Altaf Hussain’s anti-West and anti-US statements, though there is also a sense in London and Washington that the current government, for all its flaws, must complete its tenure.
The citizens, the traders, the MQM and the ANP may want the army to come in and cleanse Karachi but the government doesn’t want to make that call. It knows it can control the situation because it has a plan. True, those in the federal government are concerned about spiralling violence but they also have to bow to the wishes of elements within the party who are contesting for space in the local arena (that is one reason for the bitter exchanges between Zulfikar Mirza and Rehman Malik).
The problem is that like all plans, this one too could be the casualty of increasing violence. Into the melee have now also come criminal gangs, the land mafia and other vested interests that thrive on violence and instability. Business losses are increasing; productivity has declined tremendously. Most of all, there is great despondency.
But to think that any of this will make the contestants relent would be naive. The MQM is struggling for its unilateral control of the city; the others are pushing hard to make space for themselves. For the citizen, who is also the voter, there are no alternatives. Short of seeing a citizens’ movement, Karachi will remain mired in violence until one of the contestants emerges victorious or all agree on some rules of the game.
One argument in favour of army deployment is that at least it will quell the current violence. That may be true but the issue is not about mopping the floor, it is about turning off the tap. That can only be done by the contestants. In fact, this is the biggest irony: the very parties that are part of the government are also locked in a deadly embrace. This fact makes the current situation different from the nineties. It also accounts for the supposed ineffectiveness of the government.
The last time the army came to Karachi the situation was bad. The operation only created more problems. Then, too, everyone thought it best to pull in the army. Soon enough, everyone regretted the decision. There is nothing to suggest that the army deployment this time round would be different or give better results.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 25th, 2011.