Weekly Friday Times , July 15-21, 2011

Karachi’s system of governance has long ignored mass migration and settlement patterns that resulted in a serious societal breakdown

Karachi is in the throes of violence yet again. More than 120 people have been killed and dozens others injured in the recent spate of violence that began on July 5. In addition, around 1,138 people have been killed between January and June 2011, of which 490 were target killed on political, ethnic and sectarian basis, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) recent statistics revealed. Observers say Karachi is becoming another Mogadishu.

Karachi is not only the largest metropolis of Pakistan and its commercial hub, it is also known as a ‘mini-Pakistan’ because of the ethnic and religious diversity of its population. The city has a history of urban ethnic and sectarian violence and there has increased since 2007. Now, conflicts in Karachi generally erupt over ethnic issues and the struggle for power and resources in the city. Relations between Mohajirs (Urdu speaking community that migrated at the time of Partition) and other ethnic communities (including Pashtuns, Sindhis and the Baloch) have remained tense.

Some analysts have said the recent violence in Karachi is a result of clashes between gangs involved in drug trade, land grabbing, extortion and gunrunning, under cover of political parties. But there are clear signs it is being fuelled by ethnic and sectarian tensions, political fragmentation, economic disparity, mass migration that rapidly changes the demography of the city, and bad governance.

During the last 10 years, mass influx of Pashtuns and Sindhis to Karachi owing to military operations and the recent flooding has changed the political realities in the city. Farrukh Saleem, an Islamabad-based political analyst, thinks Karachi’s system of governance has long ignored mass migration and settlement patterns which resulted in a serious societal breakdown, leading to even more serious conflict.

With a Pashtun population ranging from 4 to 5 million according to an estimate, Karachi is now considered the world’s Pashtun capital. After 50 years of economic migration from Khyber Pakhtukhwa and FATA, there was a new wave of displaced Pashtuns moving into Karachi particularly after military operations in the north. That has changed the demographic equation.

Pashtuns are about 25% of Karachi’s population and around 15% of the entire population of Sindh. Karachi’s Mohajir population stands somewhere between 7 and 9 million – about 45% of the total population of the city, and about 23% of the population of Sindh.

Of the 168 seats in Sindh Assembly, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), representing the Mohajir population, has 50. The Awami National Party (ANP), representing the Pashtun population, has only two seats. “Based on demographics, the Pasthuns of Karachi could have up to 25 seats in the provincial assembly, but they have only two,” Saleem wrote in The News.

According to Ismail Mehsud, an ANP leader in Karachi, Pashtuns are politically underrepresented and have been deliberately kept backwards by the district government run by the MQM. They had now started fighting for their rights, he said.

Sindhi nationalist parties have their own fears. They have expressed concerns that large-scale migration of IDPs would alter the already disturbed ethnic balance of the city.

“Sindh has become an international orphanage where refugees not only from within the country but also from the neighbouring countries including India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Burma are coming to settle. Because of that, Sindhis are on the verge of turning into a minority in their own province,” said a leader of Jeay Sindh Mahaz.

In 1947 Sindhis were 60% of Karachi’s population, but today they are no more than seven percent, he said.

The Baloch, who are among the indigenous population of Karachi, express similar fears. Lyari, one of the 18 towns of Karachi, is a Baloch majority area. It is considered one of the most neglected in terms of state-funded development in education, health, sanitation and employment, residents complain.

“From the beginning, the establishment’s policy is to keep the Baloch of Lyari hooked on drugs and other criminal activities because the residents of the area are staunch supporters of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP),” said Habib Jan Baloch, a PPP leader from Lyari. The radicalisation of these ethnic grievances is the cause of violence in the city, he said.

In a proxy war over control of Lyari, the PPP and the MQM are said to support armed gangs of criminals – the People’s Aman Committee (PAC) and the Arshad Pappu Group. This has often caused Baloch-Mohajir ethnic clashes, according to police officials in Lyari.

The MQM accuses the government of supporting criminals who target its supporters. “We are not afraid of any demographic changes happening due to the mass influx of IDPs in Karachi. Our party is now also becoming popular among Pashtun and Baloch people,” said an MQM legislator.

The PPP government’s recent move to revive the old commissionerate system has also angered the MQM as it will lose control not only of Karachi but also Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas. “The local bodies system was introduced during Pervez Musharaf’s dictatorship at the MQM’s behest, to weaken the PPP,” Habib Jan Baloch said. “There was immense pressure on the PPP leadership by the people of Sindh to abolish the system.”

The move has also resulted in renewed calls for making Karachi a province of Mohajirs. “The PPP’s one-sided move has created ethnic divisions in the city,” MQM leader Waseem Aftab told reporters. “These measures are forcing people to call for making Karachi a Mohajir province where they could get their rights.”

Analysts say the ghettoisation of Karachi along ethnic lines is the main reason behind the increase in violence in the city. It will be impossible to bring peace in the city without strengthening the administrative capacity of the government to deal with the change in the demographics and addressing the fears it gives rise to.

Zia Ur Rehman is a journalist and a researcher based in Karachi