Under the gun: The Shi’ites of Karachi

Violence against minorities in Pakistan

 Sectarian violence in Sindh is spiralling out of control, and it is doctors who are being targetted. Those with the means are emigrating to safer locations, but most among the targetted minorities find a government unable or unwilling to protect them.

violent end awaited Dr Aal-I-Safdar Zaidi, a con-sultant nephrologist, who had returned to Pakistan three months ago after an 11-year stint in the United States, when he left for work at the Karachi Kidney Centre on the morning of 4 March this year. At a traffic signal in the centre of the city two armed men on a motorcycle pulled up alongside his car and sprayed him with bullets. Shot in the head and face, Zaidi collapsed onto the steering wheel. The assailants escaped well before the shocked bystanders could react.

Syed Jawad Ali, 60, ex-manager of Commercial Union Insurance Agency, and Zamarrud Husain, 40, were coming out of the Imambargah Baqayyatullah in Defence Housing Society after Maghrib prayers when two armed men on a motorcycle intercepted them. They opened fire killing Jawad Ali and injuring his friend before escaping.

Professor Syed Azhar Hussain Zaidi, 55, principal of the Superior Science College, Karachi, and his son, Ashar Hussain Zaidi, lecturer in the same college, were more fortunate than Dr Zaidi and Jawad Ali. When their car reached the college gate two armed men opened fire with auto-matic weapons and fled. Fortunately for the injured men, there were college students present who rushed them to the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre. The lives were saved after a marathon effort by doctors.

These are not stray incidents but part of a systematic pattern of violence that once again haunts the port city of Karachi. In the first few months of this year alone, such targetted killings have already claimed 15 lives and left 10 people injured. Of those killed, six were doctors. The city's 6000 practicing doctors now live in constant fear and, according to Dr Habibur Rehman Soomro, a Karachi-based member of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), 30 doctors have fled the country during the first two weeks of March alone and many others are preparing to follow suit. In the last two years, more than 200 doctors have emigrated from Pakistan to escape targeted violence. "Escape can never be a solution to this problem", says Dr Tipu Sultan, president of PMA Karachi. "We are still going strong and believe we will fight it out." Amidst this mayhem, there are some defiant voices.

Sindh Health Minister Ahsan Ahmed said more than 2000 doctors have applied in the past one year to leave because of the security situation and the economic crisis. Since 1994, seventy-seven doctors have been murdered. Of them more than 50 have been killed in the last five years. In 2000, eight doctors were killed. Last year, seven doctors lost their lives. And already this year, six doctors have fallen victim, according to PMA figures.

What is alarming from a long-term perspective is that this wave of violence is selective and sectarian. City police say the majority of the recent victims belong to the Shi'ite sect. At a meeting with PMA office-bearers, the provincial home secretary Mukhtar Ahmed admitted that members of banned jehadi and sectarian outfits might be involved in the recent killings of the doctors. Since 1997, six suspects have been arrested for the murder of six doctors and all the arrested are activists of banned extremist Islamist jehadi parties. "Their aims are obvious. They want to disrupt a smooth life, create chaos so that the brightening prospects of foreign investment could be discouraged," Pakistani interior minister Moinuddin Haider said. This view is echoed by other senior members of the administration. According to the Sindh home secretary, the onslaught on the doctors was targetted at the government's efforts to attract foreign investors to the southern port city. Those arrested had a more sectarian explanation. "We killed the six doctors because they are Shias. They are kafirs, not Muslims," Arif, one of the suspects, said.

Figures compiled by the Citizen-Police Liaison Committee of Karachi (CPLC) show that least 332 people — 190 Shias and 142 Sunnis — have been killed since 1994. The years 1994 and 1995 were the worst with 196 killings, 98 each of Shias and Sunnis. 1996 was the best year, for it saw only one killing. Most observers credit former interior minister Naseerullah Babar for introducing tough measures against lawless elements in Karachi. Since then, however, the figures have gone up, despite the military rule that the country has been under since 1999. The IGP Sindh, Kamal Shah, said as many as 59 people fell victim to sectarian violence in the city during 2001. This included 35 Shias, 20 Deobandis and 4 Brelvis. A total of 35 cases were registered and the police arrested 22 accused.

Recently, a doctor, son of a renowned ENT specialist, was killed in Gulshan-i-Iqbal. The murder prompted his brother, himself a doctor, to wind up years of practice and leave the city. Another doctor, who practiced in the Saddar area of Karachi, shifted to Canada after he received threats. But not everyone can afford to leave. "The doctors who have resources and are fortunate enough to settle easily elsewhere are leaving," says Dr Shershah Syed, secretary general of PMA. "But the large majority is not so lucky and is staying here praying for good fortune." And they are protesting, too. On 13 March, Karachi doctors went on a one-day strike and all major government and private hospitals, with the exception of the emergency facilities, remained closed. "We saw no other way out to attract the attention of the authorities," said Dr Syed. The strike produced a response from the government, which has agreed to issue firearm licences to doctors. The doctors in turn have demanded that the police train them to use the weapons. In the meanwhile, they have demanded the immediate arrest of the killers and speedy trials through anti-terrorism courts.

There are at least 7000 doctors practicing in Karachi. Of them, more than 6000 are general practitioners (GPs) who are exposed to very high levels of danger as they offer easy targets. "We have very limited resources and manpower," a senior police official said. "It is very difficult to provide security to such a large number of doctors operating in every nook and corner of the city". The Karachi Police is 30,000 strong. A large number of policemen are deputed outside mosques, imambargahs and holy places of the minority communities. And police officials have asked PMA to prepare a list of doctors working in sensitive localities where more protection may be needed. This proposal of the police may not solve the problem, sources say, since the recent murders have taken place in all parts of the city, from slums to posh neighbourhoods. The doctors in various sensitive areas have shut down shop and most of them are reluctant to resume practice despite assurances by the PMA and the police. "I don't think I am safe", says a frightened GP operating a clinic in the Landhi area of Karachi. "It is better to stop earning than to stop living."

Sectarian Police

The recent spate of violence has made it clear to the police and administrative authorities that the ban on terrorist outfits ordered by General Pervez Musharraf needs to be followed up with tough measures on the ground to curb the sectarian menace. Deputy Inspector General (Operations) Karachi, Tariq Jamil, claimed that three sectarian organisations are responsible for the violence, but declined to name them for fear of alerting their activists. The DIG also said the police had identified the killers of at least three doctors murdered in separate incidents in different parts of Karachi but refused to give their names. But there is another angle to the story as well which can be a serious source of worry to the provincial and national establishments. There are indications that some elements within the police force might have colluded with the killers in carrying out the attacks and escaping the police net. "They have some accomplices in the police force too," DIG Jamil concluded. He went so far as to hint at the involvement of a police officer, and cited him as one of the suspects. According to sources, this particular officer is known to have sectarian leanings. Such police involvement in sectarian strife may not be restricted to isolated individuals, particularly given the activities of religious preachers. A police constable, who was recently arrested, said he joined an extremist sectarian group after coming under the influence of a prayer leader. The protection of the uniform enables such individuals to participate in the violence and evade suspicion. "By the time we got to him he had killed eight persons, including three Shi'ite doctors", a senior police official said

The police have also come across a new phenomenon. "Some of the killings may involve professional hitmen. Hired killers are involved in the killing of people of both sects. They are also used by rival ethnic groups," says a senior police official. Police officers say it is very difficult to penetrate the network of hired assassins because most of them operate independently or in very small groups and disperse immediately after the task is accomplished. This seems plausible since most religious activists have either gone underground or have been arrested in recent crackdowns. "It makes sense for them to employ hired killers to do sectarian cleansing", says a security official.

The sectarian strife in Karachi has roots in the Punjab. Violence has claimed hundreds of lives in Punjab's various central cities, particularly Jhang. Homicide experts in the Sindh Police believe a number of sectarian gangsters hailing from Punjab are now in Karachi. "They are rigid in their beliefs they carried from Jhang and the neighbourhood towns and kill people belonging to rival sects as they did in their native towns", a senior police officer said.

Before the 11 September attacks on America, the main force behind sectarian extremism was considered to be the proliferating jehadi organisations. These outfits were supposed to have had training camps in Afghanistan and the disputed territory of Kashmir. And neighbouring Iran was seen to be the training ground for Shia militants till recently. After the war in Afghanistan, a shift in the government's policy towards the jehadi outfits led to the banning of four Sunni and two Shia organisations. It was thought that this would bring some respite from the cycle of religious extremism. Instead, things have got a lot worse despite that fact that the remaining outfits have been asked to confine their activities inside Kashmir.

Government officials have steadfastly avoided giving an answer as to why they have failed to control the situation, even though there is no longer the threat from Taliban- and Kashmir-oriented sectarian organisations. "We have controlled the mob psyche but organised crime like that is still a far cry", Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said. According to him, the government had been launching de-weaponisation campaigns from time to time and succeeded in controlling the smuggling of weapons from upcountry to Karachi. "We have controlled it to a great extent but much still remains to be done," he said.

These much-publicised deweaponisation campaigns have had a chequered history in Pakistan. It was launched back in 1986, when General Zia ul Haq was ruling the country. Since then five such campaigns have been undertaken, with negligible success. Not more than 5000 weapons have been retrieved by the government in all these years. When Moinuddin Haider became the Governor of Sindh five years ago, there was a great deal of talk on the de-weaponisation of Karachi. However, the plan did not see the light of day due to the "political exigencies" of the rulers of the time. Today, the law and order situation in Karachi has taken a turn for the worse. As a matter of law on paper, the Pakistan government promulgated an antiweaponisation law on 15 February 2001 prescribing harsh punishments for those who are in possession of illegal weapons or involved in their sale and transaction. In practical terms, this law has not yet been implemented. Since its promulgation, no one has yet been punished under its terms.

Meanwhile, the killings go on and among the sectarian groups themselves, there are conflicting views on the violence. The president of the banned Shia outfit, Tehrik-I-Jafaria Pakistan Sindh Chapter, Hasan Turabi said that the number of Shia Muslims killed showed that it was a one-sided affair. "I have been saying that Sunni extremist elements are behind these murders. They are involved too in the murder of those Sunnis who they deem unfit in their narrow criterion of Islam", he said. On the other hand, Qari Usman, Information Secretary of the pro-Taliban Jamiat-I-Ulema Islam Sindh, believed that neither Shia nor Sunni activists are involved in the ongoing murders. According to him, "This is a conspiracy against Islam and the killings are sponsored by the US and Indian intelligence agencies".

The Jamaat-I-Islami's Professor Ghafoor Ahmed expressed similar views. And Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, one of the moving forces behind the anti-US rallies during the war on Afghanistan, had this to say, "The military government has outlawed all organisations it believes are involved in terrorism. They have imposed curbs on madaris (seminaries) and even female madaris have not been excluded. Musharraf should inform the people as to who is killing innocent people now."

Loading content, please wait...

Related Stories

No stories found.
Himal Southasian