Dispatch From Karachi

Did Pakistan’s president provoke an ethnic war last weekend?

Police amid the billowing tear gas. Click image to expand.
Police in Karachi on May 13

Last Sunday, in the seaside metropolis of Karachi, I ducked behind a khaki-colored armored personnel carrier that was parked on an abandoned street littered with broken glass, stones, and spent bullet casings. Around me, police and paramilitary Rangers fired tear gas at oncoming rioters. The mob chucked stones that fell at our feet while gunfire popped in the background. Sunday marked the second day of violence between rival political groups in Karachi that left more than 40 people dead. After an hour of dodging rocks, I retreated from the front line to speak with a senior police officer, who had just arrived in a white Land Cruiser. He shook his head in disgust as he rehashed the weekend, from the arrival of Pakistan’s chief justice in Karachi at noon on Saturday, to the 12 hours of anarchy that pitched ethnic-based political parties against one another in bloody street battles. Referring to President Pervez Musharraf’s suspension of the chief justice on March 9, the police chief suggested that what began as a judicial dispute had quickly become a political one. “Now, it’s an ethnic problem,” he said.

Pakistan is a mishmash of ethnicities, and they all converge in Karachi. Prior to the creation of Pakistan, the city was inhabited primarily by Baluchis, Sindhis, and Hindus. When Pakistan was formed in August 1947, most of the Hindus migrated to India. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Muslims from India, otherwise known as mohajirs, moved to Pakistan and settled in Karachi. (Urdu, the language spoken by mohajirs, was declared the national language.) In the following decades, Pashtuns from the North West Frontier Province also relocated here. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, some mohajirs began to feel that Karachi’s identity as a “mohajir city” was being diluted by the arrival of other ethnic groups. To counter this trend, Altaf Hussein, who had been driving taxis in Chicago, moved back to Karachi and formed a political party, the Mohajir Quami Movement. Shortly after Hussein inaugurated the party in 1986, ethnic riots broke out across Karachi, pitting mohajirs against Pashtuns. More than 90 people died in the unrest.

The MQM has always maintained street power in Karachi. (In a matter of hours, Hussein can raise a crowd of 100,000 people, even though he has been living in exile in London since 1992.) But since Musharraf seized power in October 1999, the party has also inherited key posts in Karachi’s city government, the Sindh provincial government, and even the federal government. And though Hussein and Musharraf have differed on a few issues, he and his party have stuck with the president throughout the crisis involving the chief justice. Some even argue that Musharraf, who is himself a mohajir, supports the MQM—and vice versa—because of ethnic, rather than political, allegiances.

In early March, Musharraf suspended the chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, on flimsy charges of nepotism. The suspension turned the chief justice into an overnight hero, galvanized a lawyers’ movement against Musharraf, and united various factions of the anti-Musharraf opposition. Thousands of supporters now trail Chaudhry wherever he goes. The first week of May, when he drove from Islamabad to Lahore to address the Lahore High Court, admirers lined the roads, tossing rose petals on his car, beating drums, and chanting, “Musharraf is a dog!” The trip, which usually takes four hours, took almost 24.

Chaudhry was expected to receive a similar welcome in Karachi on May 12, when he was scheduled to address the Sindh High Court Bar Association. But last week, the MQM announced that it planned to hold a counter-rally to demonstrate people’s support for Musharraf in Karachi. The routes of the MQM march and the chief justice’s procession were to cross at several points. On May 10, a former prime minister urged the government to postpone the MQM rally, citing the risk of a “civil-warlike situation.” Still, people assumed that there would at least be riot police and Rangers present to limit the violence. No one imagined that the law-enforcement agencies would simply disappear and turn the city over to well-armed and embittered political enemies. But that’s just what happened. Because so long as the roads were blocked and people were dying in the streets, Musharraf and the MQM knew that the only way the chief justice could address the Sindh High Court was to go there on foot—through the crossfire. “The government wanted all of this to happen,” said Shahi Syed, the Sindh president of the Awami National Party, a Pashtun organization.

I arrived in Karachi at 2 a.m. on Saturday. The MQM had blocked every possible exit and entry point to the airport using shipping containers, buses, and water tankers. There were no taxis. People were sleeping in the terminal, and babies screamed. Food and water supplies at the airport were already running low, 10 hours before the chief justice was expected to land. It seemed entirely possible that these people would be marooned at the airport for a day or two. Fearing that I would be stuck there, too, I shouldered my luggage and headed in the direction of the main road. On the way, a security guard warned me that there was gunfire and burning tires just outside the airport. Karachi is not a city that you walk around on a good day; the prospect of negotiating through an obstacle course of burning tires and armed MQM activists made it seem all the more absurd, but the longer I waited, the tighter the blockade would be. Fortunately, I met a mustachioed man in his 40s along the road who happened to be a police officer. He said he had a jeep, with an armed guard, waiting on the other side of two layers of MQM-arranged cordons. After a few minutes, we reached the jeep and began navigating through back alleys and roads still under construction—any path that the MQM might not yet have blocked. There were no vehicles on the streets other than the commandeered tankers and buses, most of which flew the MQM’s tricolor flag. The trip from the airport to the hotel where I was staying typically takes about 15 minutes. I finally checked in at 4:30 a.m.

As expected, the worst of Saturday’s violence didn’t break out until after Chaudhry touched down in Karachi. With the MQM in command of every intersection, roundabout, and flyover, any attempt by the opposition parties to greet the chief justice was destined for confrontation. Syed, the Pashtun politician, was trapped, along with a caravan of his party’s supporters, beneath a flyover on the main road leading to and from the airport. As gunfire broke out between ANP and MQM activists around 1 p.m., a well-aimed shot, taken from the overpass, smashed the windshield of a red Toyota Land Cruiser Prado with ANP plates, immediately killing a man sitting in the back seat. “They thought I was there,” Syed told me two days later. He showed me the bullet recovered from the back seat of the Prado, the same kind of bullet used in the Heckler Koch G3 assault rifle. While Kalashnikovs are common in Pakistani homes, the G3 is not. Shahi said the only people with access to such weapons are the army and intelligence agencies.

Curiously, however, the army, the Rangers, and the police completely ignored their commitment to maintaining law and order on Saturday. I spent most of that afternoon driving to different parts of the city and saw only 10 Rangers: five guarding a Kentucky Fried Chicken and five guarding a girls’ Montessori school. In both instances, rival groups were clashing down the street. It took police more than six hours to reach a private TV channel that came under fire. The channel, AAJ TV, continued broadcasting while technicians in the newsroom crouched under their desks to avoid being shot. When I returned to my hotel at dusk, I watched a white Kia SUV roll slowly down an otherwise-empty eight-lane road that cuts through the center of the city. A man in the back seat pointed a rifle barrel out the window and opened fire on a handful of innocent people walking a few hundred yards away. On Sunday, I asked a police officer if he had received an official order not to intervene in Saturday’s street battles. His face bore a shameful expression, and he replied, “No comment.”

By late Saturday night, with the chief justice on a flight heading back to Islamabad and with no chance of him speaking at the Sindh High Court (he never left the airport lounge), the Rangers patrolled the streets, and the containers and tankers were cleared from the intersections. But while a forklift can clear a road within minutes, ethnic tensions are not so easily soothed. In Quetta, a mostly Baluchi and Pashtun city near the Afghan border, 415 miles from Karachi, unknown arsonists torched the MQM office. And on Sunday, Pashtun-dominated areas of Karachi turned into battlegrounds between mobs and the police. Syed claimed that Pashtuns suffered more casualties than anyone else on Saturday. Now they wanted revenge. “If the MQM accepts their mistakes and apologizes, then there is no problem for my culture. We have big hearts,” Syed said. “But if they don’t accept their mistakes, then we will take our revenge.”

On Monday, May 14, the opposition parties called for a nationwide strike. It marked the third straight day in which businesses remained closed; shopkeepers didn’t dare lift the metal shutters protecting their stores from vandalism. The three days of strikes and violence amounted to roughly $400 million in lost national income, not to mention an incalculable loss of confidence by foreign investors. On Tuesday morning, I returned once again to the roundabout where rioters had clashed with the police all day on Sunday. There, I spoke with a pudgy, middle-aged journalist named Rafiq. He told me, “On May 12, the nexus between Musharraf and the MQM was fully exposed. On the other side are the lawyers, journalists, students, traders, Pashtuns, Baluchis, Punjabis, Sindhis, secular parties, religious parties, and nationalist parties. The battle lines are drawn. Who knows where it will end.”