Targeted killings in Karachi

Over the years, Karachi has experienced periodic spasms of uncontrollable violence, marked by brutal targeted killings. The most favoured mode has been the drive-by shootings, with the killers invariably remaining untraced.

According to police record, as many as 249 targeted killings took place in Karachi from January 1 to August 6, 2010, which are indeed disturbing statistics from an economic perspective as well, given the fact that the city accounts for two-thirds of Pakistan’s trade and industry and almost half of its GDP.

Conflicting political, sectarian and linguistic affiliations, marked by intense personal rivalries, are said to be a major cause of the blind murders. The city has yet to recover from the spasms of violence it had suffered in the wake of killings of an MQM parliamentarian and an ANP leader recently. Similarly, the bombing of an Ashura procession last year had sent the city into a prolonged paroxysm of violence marked by murder, arson and rioting, which caused the loss of billions of rupees to the city’s economy.

Karachi seems to have become a point of convergence of different fault lines, which have sharpened the existing divisions and polarisation. Like any other cosmopolitan city, Karachi is bound to experience such problems, which can, however, be mitigated through a policy of greater communal and cross-cultural harmony, backed with strict enforcement of law. There is a perception that a nation-level consensus on controlling political killings will prove largely futile, unless the government institutions, at the local level, are activated to play their role.

It seems that the volatility of Karachi has been steadily on the rise, with many believing that violence there is essentially a socio-ethnic phenomenon, worsened by large-scale weaponization of the city. A draft law is on the anvil to deweaponize the country, by giving sharper teeth to the law enforcement apparatus. Deweaponization campaigns launched in the past have at best produced only mixed results, because of the supply-demand dynamics.

Even before the start of the Afghan war, Durra guns were much in demand across the country, but with the introduction of the deadly assault rifle the Klashnikov as a lethal legacy of the Afghan war, the deterrence of law suffered a serious setback. (Incidentally, there is no shortage of laws; what is needed is their rigorous enforcement.) Secondly, the influx of economic migrants into Karachi, served to further consolidate the phenomenon of group politics in the city, in which the stakes of the ethno-linguistic groups have played a prominent role.

Further, drug cartels and land mafias have also played a role in turning the city into a tinderbox. As one analyst has put it, if state institutions remain unable to deal with the evolving nature of urbanisation in Karachi, violence will continue to be what he has called the “lowest common denominator.” Continued targeted killings have, meanwhile, raised the larger question: what has the government been doing to protect the citizens from roaming bands of assassins?

As a first step towards establishing the genuine rule of law, the administrative machinery in the country will have to be depoliticized. Another critical factor has been the alleged “Talibanization” of Karachi, after their ouster from the tribal belt in the military operation. It is said that Karachi has pockets of adherents of banned outfits, including SSP and TTP, which may be involved in fanning flames of ethnic and sectarian hatred, in order to achieve their larger goal of economic weakening of Pakistan.

Some hostile neighbouring countries, including India, are said to maintain clandestine presence in Karachi, and it is alleged that their agents may well be involved in Karachi’s violence. The downward revision of the GDP growth target, the prevailing recession-like conditions in the country, worsened by the devastating floods, are likely to spell serious economic trouble in the months and years ahead, unless the government tackles these challenges resolutely.

The government needs to evolve, and implement, a comprehensive peace strategy for Karachi by involving all groups, irrespective of their political and other affiliations. Involvement of religious and community leaders can play a role in dousing the flames of strife, and bringing durable peace to the city. Righting some of the past wrongs by giving a fairer deal to the dispossessed and downtrodden communities through equitable distribution of the fruits of growth can go a long way towards allaying grievances.

Secondly, police and intelligence agencies must launch a co-ordinated operation to round up those involved in the mayhem. Bouts of unrest and violence in Karachi have already caused enough harm to the country. The government must act before more harm is inflicted on the economy.