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Karachi violence stokes renewed ethnic tension

[Paksitan] Security was beefed up in the capital, Islamabad, on Monday in the wake of political violence in Karachi over the weekend which left over 40 dead and over a hundred injured. [Date picture taken: 15/05/2007]
(David Swanson/IRIN)

The Brussels-based NGO International Crisis Group (ICG) 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 ICG in Pakistan, said in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. “The seeds of ethnic conflict have been sown,” Ahmed said.

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 (MQM), which runs the city.

The MQM 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 MQM against each other, raising the spectre of ethnic fighting that plagued Karachi - capital of Sindh province - in the 1980s and 1990s.

''It’s not a risk of ethnic tension – it’s already happened. The seeds of ethnic conflict have been sown.''

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, MQM militants rounded up people simply because they looked Pashtun or Punjabi, and tried to execute them.

Most clashes between members of the opposition and MQM 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 MQM on one side, with the opposition on the other.

Musharraf suspended the nation’s top judge in March for alleged 'misuse of authority' – a move which has galvanised many in this nation of 158 million people into demanding an end to military rule.

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.

“This was a preplanned assault on civil society,” Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 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 MQM 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 MQM 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,” she claimed.

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 MQM, 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 MQM.

“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 authorised paramilitary troops to shoot anyone involved in serious violence in Karachi, which has a long history of bloody feuding between ethnic-based political factions.


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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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