On 12 May, Karachi relapsed into chaos, recalling the dark days of the early 1990s, when armed gangs affiliated with ethnic political parties could openly threaten, beat, kidnap, torture and kill dissenters. Law and order remained problematic but Pakistan’s largest city and commercial hub had regained some normalcy over the past decade. It was once more a brash, lively megalopolis with shops and eateries open till the wee hours, despite a few ‘no-go areas’ that cabbies would refuse to enter at night and a high crime rate marked by muggings, phone snatchings, car-jackings and armed robberies.
Then, on ‘Black Saturday’, armed members of opposing political parties converted the streets of Karachi into a battle zone. Almost 50 were dead by the end of the carnage and hundreds wounded. The Karachi killings became a sideshow in the running battle of nerves between General Pervez Musharraf and Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice he is attempting to oust. A lawyer-led mass movement has emerged against the president, with the chief justice as an icon and rallying point. Despite heavy-handed police action against lawyers’ demonstrations and fundamentalist-engineered diversions, the tide of support for Chaudhry has not slowed.
As the secular political movement around the chief-justice issue gained momentum, the government seemed to have decided that enough was enough. The administration warned Chaudhry against going to Karachi, where he had been invited by the Sindh High Court bar, on the grounds that doing so would create security problems: the Islamabad government’s coalition partner in Sindh, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), had a pro-Musharraf rally planned for the same day. Following the Karachi killings, the government and the MQM have assigned responsibility for the violence to Chaudhry and his supporters.
Out on the streets, Karachi witnessed what many term as orchestrated mayhem. Live television cameras captured the situation for all to see: government tankers blocking routes from the airport to prevent Chaudhry from reaching the lawyers’ meeting and the police and Rangers, mostly stripped of their arms the day before, standing by idly if not participating in the onslaught perpetuated by hordes of armed men. The security plans chalked out for the day were abandoned overnight. Rangers abandoned key positions on the flyovers on the main airport road; instead, armed men in civilian clothes took up these positions, firing into the crowds headed out to welcome the chief justice.
Those who had missed the television reports could view them soon afterwards on the Internet. A segment that quickly made the rounds was Aaj TV’s coverage of a normally bustling, now deserted chowk: men brandishing weapons and exchanging gunfire with unseen opponents, the tri-colour MQM flag clearly visible on motorcycles parked around them. Gunmen objecting to the live coverage then fired at the Aaj office for several hours and destroyed journalists’ vehicles parked outside. Reporters crouched behind desks along with anchor Talat Hussain, who provided a live account of the situation by phone between volleys of gunfire.
Aaj TV’s refusal to stop its coverage emboldened the new breed of ‘citizen journalists’ that has emerged with the spread of new technologies. “My faith in independent media was restored, and I was confident that I am not alone,” wrote one blogger, posting a doctor’s testimony of a murder in his hospital when armed MQM activists came to finish off an injured rival. Blogs buzzed with eye-witness accounts, links and photos. Such visuals and accounts have subsequently kept the outrage alive.
The events in Karachi not only overshadowed Gen Musharraf’s simultaneous rally in Islamabad (see accompanying story, “12 May, the bloodshed and watershed”), but also the 14 May murder of Hamad Raza, Additional Registrar of the Supreme Court and a key witness in the case surrounding Iftikhar Chaudhry. Raza’s family and Choudhry’s supporters allege that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies are behind this murder.
The Karachi administration belatedly banned public gatherings, and issued shoot-on-sight orders to the Rangers. When the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) opposed these orders and also called for the MQM to be disarmed, the MQM responded by threatening to “expose” the “wrongdoings” of HRCP chairperson, Asma Jahangir.
For his part, Gen Musharraf’s response to Karachi’s tragedy has been nothing less than flippant. At a meeting with some 150 ruling-party parliamentarians on 14 May, the general brushed away criticism over the Karachi situation. In an interview with Aaj TV four days later, he dismissed the happenings in Karachi as “the political activity” of a political party.
Journalists in Islamabad expressed their protest in an unprecedented manner – sitting on the floor during an MQM press conference and refusing to accept refreshments. They could do that in the relative safety of Islamabad. Back in Karachi, their colleagues are unlikely to get away with such defiance.
Karachi’s tragedy has highlighted General Musharraf’s increasing distance from ground reality. The general has otherwise been a deft handler of the opposition. But even the smartest dictator cannot keep together a society in ferment; sooner or later the grip will slip. The obvious misjudgement on the chief justice issue and the killings of Karachi, point to the need for General Musharraf to rapidly begin the process of handing back power to political parties. How best and quickly to do this should be foremost in the minds of all politicians and all other Southasians who wish Pakistanis well.