Bombay and Karachi. once acclaimed as the two most cosmopolitan and dynamic commercial centres of South Asia, have been reduced to clusters of warring, sectarian ghettoes. Violent political goons, extortionists and hired killers have thrown a pall of medieval fear and gloom over the two cities that were glittering showpieces of vitality and progress.

Two sectarian organisations and their violent cadres arc the main culprits responsible for the steep decline of Bombay (arbitrarily renamed Mumbai) and Karachi. Tightly controlled by their dictatorial chieftains. Bal Thackeray and Altaf Hussain; the Shiv Sena in Bombay and the MQM (Muttabida Qaumi Movement) in Karachi have used a mix of terror and parochial rhetoric over more than two decades to gain political dominance in South Asia's leading port cities. This dominance, although now diminishing, was made possible only due to the connivance and encouragement of the major political parties and other important interests in India and Pakistan.

In Bombay, the Shiv Sena was set up in 1966 with the initial support and funding of the city's then-powerful textile mill-owners to counter the communist trade unions. The mill workers and their aspiring children, who were largely Marathi-speaking were wooed by the Shiv Sena's fiery rhetoric about Bombay being taken over by outsiders, especially South Indians, and about the local Maharashtrians having become deprived people in their own homeland. These appeals also attracted the Maharashtrian middle class. By the I 980s, the outbursts against South Indians had been transformed by the Shiv Sena into a hate campaign against 'anti-national' Muslims. culminating in the mass killings of Muslims in Bombay in January 1993.

Over a period of 29 years, successive Congress governments displayed a soft corner for the Shiv Sena and no firm action was taken against the organisation and its leader. Bal Thackeray, for continuously making a mockery of the law. In March 1995, the Shiv Sena. in alliance with the 13naratiya Janata Party, was elected to power in the state of Maharashtra, of which Bombay is the capital.

Due to its massive mis-governance over the past four years. the Shiv Sena-hit government has become increasingly unpopular. Having unleashed lawlessness, the Shiv Sena now finds itself unable to control a general breakdown of law and order. with freelance hitmen and extortionists stalking the streets of Bombay. The Bombay police force has become ineffective and undisciplined, having been infiltrated and politicised by the Shiv Sena,

In a vain attempt to divert attention from their misrule. The Shiv Sena and Thackeray are again cranking up their parochial hate campaigns which could once more lead to attacks on Muslims. Just in the past month of December, a controversy over Fire, a pioneering film about a lesbian relationship in an Indian family, has been twisted into a communal, Hindu-Muslim issue by the Shiv Sena.

In Karachi. the MQM built its support on the twin bases of targeted killings of opponents and hysterical cries about the discrimination faced by the Mohajir community of Urdu-speaking immigrants from India who make up the largest segment of the city's population. A series of federal governments in Islamabad and provincial governments in Sindh have blown hot and cold in their responses to the MQM.

Draconian crackdowns in Karachi by the army or by the Para-military Rangers—which have victimised innocents rather than the violent activists of the MQM have been interspersed by political agreements to keep precarious coalition governments in Islamabad and in Sindh in power with the help of the MQM.

During the periods of truce. the MQM has continued with its murderous vendettas against prominent local figures in Karachi whom it considered hostile and against individual police officers who had acted against it in earlier crackdowns. (The last two crackdowns in Karachi were in 1992 and 1995.)

Upon his return to power in February 1997, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif found it expedient to reach agreement with the MQM to holster a shaky coalition government in Sindh. The provincial coalition was led by Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML). The agreement between the PML and the MQM unravelled soon after a revered philanthropist and former governor of Sindh. Hakim Mohammad Saeed was assassinated in Karachi on 17 October 1998. Holding the MQM responsible for the killing, Sharif dismissed the provincial government and instituted federal rule in Sindh. of which Karachi is die largest city.

Another crackdown followed in Karachi in November and December of 1998, with special military courts trying alleged offenders and handing out death sentences. The cycle of violence and counter-violence continues in Karachi. wrecking vet another potential urban star of South Asia.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian