VIEW POINT: Karachi situation

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As the death toll from targeted killings in Karachi rose to 40 in just three days so rose tempers on Monday of two contenders for the city's control, the MQM and ANP, who in the first place are responsible for causing unremitting conflict and chaos, in which a variety of sectarian outfits have jumped in to add sectarian strife and violence.

For the past several months, people in the nation's commercial capital have been dying in targeted killings (a euphemism for politically-motivated murder) at the average rate of ten a day. Yet the Sindh government continues to remain in denial. Even as his coalition partners were crying out aloud about the targeted killings of their activists, Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah tried to play down the horror, telling reporters that out of a dozen or so killed that day only one was a case of targeted killing and rest the result of personal feuds. Thus he seemed to suggest that one targeted killing is nothing to worry about. Treating killings as mere statistics speaks volumes for the callous attitude this government has towards human life.

Things have reached near breaking point. While various ANP legislators traded accusations with the MQM, ANP Senator Ilyas Bilour iterated his party's demand for a military operation. The MQM staged walkouts from both houses of Parliament threatening to continue to boycott the proceedings if the government did not take emergency measures to restore normality, also urging the Army to do something about it. Leading the walkout from the upper house on Tuesday, Senator Mustafa Kamal lamented that first businessmen started fleeing the city because they couldn't pay huge amounts of money to extortionists, and now even common people are following suit.

Until not long ago, the MQM used to react angrily to anyone expressing concern over the deteriorating law and order situation, claiming that things were not any better in Punjab (ruled by its old antagonist, PML-N) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the home base of ANP, its main rival in Karachi). And its leaders bristled at any suggestion of Army operation in Karachi. So what has changed now? The party's detractors, of course, will say it has lost the dominant status and hence is anxious to have its challengers sorted out.

To impartial observers, the city looks more and more like a runaway train whose driver has no clue how to press the brakes and is reluctant to call for emergency support to take control. Those riding it are not only the familiar squabbling passengers but also all sorts of extremists. As many as 35 religious outfits, including banned ones with sectarian agendas and links to the Taliban, reportedly are active in the city. Needless to say, not all religious organisations engage in sectarian violence. Some of them, backed either by foreign players or the Taliban, do have agendas aimed at promoting sectarian divisions in society through violent means. They have been wreaking havoc in all parts of the country. Karachi has experienced some of the worst sectarian violence in recent times.

Such elements love chaos, and like to create it if it does not exist. It should not be surprising, therefore, if the Taliban have arrived in Karachi. It remains a moot question, however, whether they have been using the city as a safe haven or as part of a political agenda. Unfortunately, there are other people with hidden agendas trying to exploit the situation for the furtherance of their own purposes. One prominent pro-American journalist, for instance, who runs his own TV talk show, while pushing the Taliban-have-taken-over-Karachi line argued that an army operation is necessary but in North Waziristan, not in Karachi because they will keep coming from there. Common sense suggests that such an operation, aside from triggering a huge backlash all over the country, could encourage the Taliban to come even in greater numbers to Karachi to seek refuge in its lawlessness. In order for the city to have its peace back, the key political players in it must learn to coexist peacefully.

As things stand, the daily killings, and a general reign of terror in which citizens are kidnapped for ransom and businesses subjected to extortion are not only tolerated by the provincial government but freely allowed. The Supreme Court bench hearing the Karachi law and order situation last year had pointed out in its verdict, quoting intelligence agencies reports, that criminal groups operating in the city not only enjoyed political backing but had become part of political parties. Furthermore, the reports said, those involved in extortion activities, included the Sindh ruling alliance's three partners, namely the PPP, the MQM and the ANP, as well as the Jamaat-e- Islami and some banned organisations. The court had recommended several measures for the government to take for restoration of normality, which of course were completely ignored by the government.

The facts, as established by the Supreme Court findings and other evidence show that the dysfunctional Sindh movement is part of the problem rather than solution. As noted earlier, political influence has constantly been used to protect killers, extortionists and abductors. Even when it wants to control, it lacks the will to do the right thing because its coalition partners are its Achilles' heel, too. The fear that they might withdraw support in the assemblies impels the leadership to make unsavoury compromises rather than risk confrontations.

Since all coalition partners have been patronising their respective armed wings and the criminal activities they engage in, the law enforcement agencies find their hands tied. The provincial police chief said as much when he informed the Chief Justice during last year's proceedings of the Karachi case that 40 percent of the police officials had been recruited on political grounds, hence, he was reluctant to act decisively.

So what is the way forward? Those well conversant with the goings-on such as the Supreme Court bench hearing the Karachi case do not think army action is necessary. Even the Rangers, who have been trying to end violence for nearly a decade, albeit unsuccessfully due to political inference, are not needed. The police can do the job provided it has the freedom and the resources to perform without let or hindrance. Karachi has suffered enough. It is time the Sindh government stands aside, giving the police a free hand to deal with all criminal elements.

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