Karachi Violence Stokes Renewed Ethnic Tension

Security was beefed up in the capital, Islamabad, on Monday in the wake of political violence in Karachi over the weekend that left over 40 dead and over a hundred injured. (Photo: David Swanson/IRIN)

The Brussels-based N.G.O. International Crisis Group (I.C.G.) on Monday warned of further ethnic tension in Pakistan following a wave of political violence over the weekend in the southern city of Karachi.

"It's not a risk of ethnic tension—it's already happened," Samina Ahmed, head of the I.C.G. in Pakistan, said in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. "The seeds of ethnic conflict have been sown."

Her comments follow the worst political fighting in Pakistan in two decades, when more than 40 people were killed and scores more injured over two days in the country's largest metropolis, resulting in a nationwide day of mourning and commercial shutdown on Monday, and a major security crackdown.

On Saturday at least 34 people were killed and over 130 injured after ousted Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry attempted to deliver a speech at the Sindh High Court bar association—but was blocked from doing so at Karachi's airport by members of the pro-government Muttahida Qaumi Movement (M.Q.M.), which runs the city.

The M.Q.M. is made up largely of ethnic Muhajirs who immigrated to Pakistan from India following partition in 1947.

Seven more people were killed and another two dozen injured on Sunday as fresh street fighting pitted members of the political opposition and the M.Q.M. against each other, raising the specter of ethnic fighting that plagued Karachi—capital of Sindh province—in the 1980's and 1990's.

Pakistan is comprised of at least five principle ethnic groups. The vast majority of the country's 158 million inhabitants are Punjabi, who dominate the country's military. They are followed by Pashtuns, Sindhis, Muhajirs, Seraikis, and Balochis—many of whom have come to blows with each other in the past.

Muhajirs make up nearly half of Karachi's population, with Punjabis and Pashtuns also having sizable communities in the city.

According to eyewitnesses on the ground, M.Q.M. militants rounded up people simply because they looked Pashtun or Punjabi, and tried to execute them.

Most clashes between members of the opposition and M.Q.M. over the weekend occurred in areas dominated by Pashtuns.

"Battle Lines Drawn"

"The political battle lines are now drawn," Ahmed said, referring to Musharraf's ruling political party and M.Q.M. on one side, with the opposition on the other.

Muhajirs in Pakistan

The Muhajirs migrated to Pakistan in 1947 from present-day India. They are united by many socio-cultural elements, including speaking Urdu as their mother tongue.

Muhajirs are scattered throughout Pakistan, with large concentrations in the country's urban areas.

Most Muhajirs who immigrated to Pakistan were more educated and skilled than their rural middle class counterparts.

Despite having better academic qualifications and professional skills, some Muhajirs felt they were discriminated against.

The president of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, and the governor of Sindh are both Muhajirs.

Musharraf suspended the nation's top judge in March for alleged "misuse of authority"—a move that has galvanized many in this nation of 158 million people into demanding an end to military rule.

"This was a preplanned assault on civil society," Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told IRIN from the Punjab city of Lahore, placing responsibility for this weekend's violence squarely at the doorstep of Pakistan's top military leader who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1991, as well as members of the M.Q.M. and the country's provincial Sindh government.

"It was a militant act to deny people their freedom of expression and opposition," Jahangir said. "The blocking of roads, the arming of M.Q.M. militants who took up positions at strategic roadblocks, and the ignoring of the orders of the Sindh High Court were all carried out by the government."

Commenting on the mass rally of support for Musharraf held in Islamabad on Saturday, Jahangir, said, "Only a callous, irresponsible and unrepresentative government could have celebrated in Islamabad while Karachi burnt."

"The events in Karachi indicate that the government, in collusion with the M.Q.M., wants to return Karachi to a state of ethnic hostilities and use the politics of prejudice to achieve its ends," she said, calling on the government to respect people's rights of freedom of movement and association, and disarm all political parties, including the M.Q.M.

"I'm not hopeful because I think they [the government] are desperate," Jahangir, who also serves as the United Nations' special rappoteur on freedom of religion, said.

On Sunday, the government authorized paramilitary troops to shoot anyone involved in serious violence in Karachi, which has a long history of bloody feuding between ethnic-based political factions. @ IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.