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Karachi Blues Turn into Reds

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Karachi is the financial hub of Pakistan, the country's largest city and its only port. Violence is nothing new to the city of 15 million people, as it saw some of the worst ethnic rioting and state brutalities during the 1990s. Karachi is a truly cosmopolitan city with representation of each ethnic group of Pakistan. Immigrants from India, known as Mohajirs, comprise just over half of the total population followed by Pashtuns and Punjabis. Karachi is the capital of Sindh province but Sindhis are around 5% of the total population. Karachi also hosts hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Burma and is practically bursting at its seams.

Karachi was the first capital of Pakistan before the military dictator General Ayub Khan decided to move it up north to Islamabad. Karachi maintained its federal status and was not made a part of Sindh until 1971. There was significant opposition to the inclusion of Karachi into Sindh -- it was historically part of the province before 1947 -- as demographics and social indicators had changed during 24 years of Karachi's status as federally administered area. Sindhis were no longer a majority as immigrants from India and migrant workers from the Punjab and NWFP had poured into Karachi in large numbers.

Peace became a rare commodity in Karachi ever since the integration. It started with the language riots perpetrated by the ethnic-based policies of Bhutto. General Zia fanned the ethnic hatred for his political gains and this further created rifts in this polarized city.

The worst rioting took place in late 1980s and early 1990s. Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a secular party of the Mohajirs, emerged as their sole representative. The party was involved in violence but also had massive public support that ultimately transpired into significant electoral success. MQM was later declared as a security threat by the Inter Services Intelligence on charges of hatching a plot to secede Karachi from Pakistan (the conspiracy later proved to be untrue). A massive operation ensued and Altaf Hussain, the head of MQM, fled to the United Kingdom; he has never returned and has acquired British nationality.

Military operation was brutal and resulted in hundreds of deaths, albeit in extra judicial killings. Army was recalled after two years and amid reports of excessive use of force. Benazir Bhutto later started a paramilitary operation that was even brutal than the army offensive. Thousands more died, majority of them Mohajirs.

Benazir's government was sacked by a President that was of her own party over charges of corruption and unconstitutional killings in Karachi. Peace returned to Karachi but with intermittent clashes that continues to this day. The recent spate of violence has claimed around 40 lives and the figure is expected to rise in the coming days if the violence is not contained. Troops have been deployed just recently to contain violence and this might bring the much needed peace.

So what is so wrong with Karachi that results in frequent bloodshed? Answers are not that difficult to find. Karachi's position as the financial center of Pakistan attracts hundreds of thousands of fortune seekers from other parts of the country. The lack of housing and ethno-centered politics of the city force them to encroach upon public lands, often paying huge bribes to city officials. These encroachments are also supported by different ethnic parties, except MQM as its political and ethnic clout is mostly centered within Karachi.

Of late, majority of people coming to Karachi are from the tribal areas of Pakistan, the ethnic Pashtuns. There is a concern among MQM and liberal groups of the city that many Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives are ensconced within the ranks of these immigrants. This assumption is no further from the truth as there have been reports of Taliban operating in Karachi. They currently use Karachi as their funding ground, through bank robberies and kidnappings. Another breed of Taliban has become involved in more violent crime and also terrorism. Karachi rocked with suicide attacks after a hiatus of two years and there was another explosion where the perpetrators failed to carry out their mission.

These militant factions, along with the larger Pashtun population of Karachi, are now at odds with MQM for raising its voice against the rising militancy. The latter is no saint either but has emerged as the most liberal political party of Pakistan in recent years. Karachi's mayor is from MQM and has implemented numerous works of infrastructure development. The party, though still involved in some highhandedness, is transforming into a major liberal force to reckon with. It is the only staunch opponent of extremism and Islamic fascism when other parties, including relatively moderate ones, are afraid to say anything on this contentious issue.

Critics say that MQM is also afraid of the rising population of Pashtuns and other ethnic groups. Changing dynamics of ethnicity impact the vote banks of different parties and MQM is resisting this trend, according to them. They say that MQM is taking advantage of its liberal face to eliminate its rival factions while MQM accuses other parties of killing its workers. Pakistan People's Party, the ruling party at the center and Sindh, is also involved in the recent violence with some allegations of its ministers supporting gang leaders.

Karachi has come to a virtual standstill for the last four days. Violence might soon end due to political compromises, albeit temporary ones. A permanent solution to this problem, as of now, is only a distant aspiration of common people of Karachi. They want peace and prosperity but political maneuvering and militancy has made this dream a near impossibility.