Pakistan's Sindis Clash Over Rights

Pitched battles in Bhutto's home province signal deep ethnic tensions and threaten democracy. KARACHI'S URBAN WARFARE

FORTY-two years ago, millions of refugees fled India for Karachi to pursue their dream of a Muslim homeland. But today, these 'emigr'es known as mohajirs, see that vision darkening in this troubled, sprawling city of 8 million people.

Last month, a brewing political confrontation between the Mohajir National Movement (MQM), a refugee party with growing clout, and Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) exploded in vicious urban warfare.

More than 50 people were killed during a one-day general strike Feb. 7 called by the MQM. Armed gangs took over Karachi's deserted streets, battling police and the Army.

The violence capped a week-long spree of abductions by student gangs from both parties. Scores of youths, kidnapped and gruesomely tortured by both sides, were later exchanged only after intervention by the military.

Sind Province and its capital, Karachi, often have been torn by ethnic strife. However, Pakistani observers say that the recent outburst has cast the conflict in a new light and signals a political collapse that could undermine Ms. Bhutto's governments in Sind and at the national level.

``None of us could have conceived that Pakistani politics would degenerate to this level,'' says M.B. Naqvi, a Karachi political commentator and one-time refugee from India.

The battle for Karachi and other Sind cities springs from the deep bitterness between native Sindis and Punjabis, on one hand, and the mohajirs, the force behind the movement to partition British India and create the Muslim nation of Pakistan, on the other.

Part of the tide of 9 million Muslims fleeing predominantly Hindu India for Pakistan in 1947, most of the better educated, Urdu-speaking 'emigr'es settled in Sind and take credit for building the new capital in Karachi.

But the dream began to sour as Karachi's population mushroomed and ethnic quotas were imposed for scarce government jobs and college admissions. The quotas first went into effect in the 1950s, although today many mohajirs blame Bhutto's father, the late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for their stringent enforcement.

Claiming discrimination in jobs and education, the urbanized mohajirs came into conflict with the rural native Sindis and Punjabis, who dominate Pakistan's economy and government bureaucracy.

The MQM, founded in 1978 by students who could not get admitted for pharmacy training, burst on the political scene three years ago when it won municipal elections in Sind. After national and provincial elections in 1988, the MQM threw its crucial support behind Bhutto who came to power nationally and in her home stronghold, Sind.

However, last fall the political partnership floundered as mohajir politicians joined the combined opposition trying to unseat Bhutto.

With an abundance of weapons available in Pakistan, both sides have engaged in an arms buildup that fueled the flare-up this month, Pakistani political observers say.

Recently, at their heavily guarded party headquarters in a Karachi suburb, MQM leaders charged that the prime minister is corrupt, and that her ruling party is sponsoring terrorism.

``It seems the PPP wants to crush the MQM and eliminate the mohajirs from Pakistan,'' says MQM leader Altaf Hussain. ``Right now this government doesn't want to bear the opposition and a difference of opinion. This is not the way of a democratic country.''

Attitudes of local leaders on both sides are hardening. The MQM, which accounts for one-fourth of the 100-seat provincial assembly, is boycotting the legislature, claiming it can't trust the police and the lives of its leaders are in danger.

Under pressure from Pakistan's influential President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Bhutto set up a judicial inquiry into this month's violence and replaced the Sind chief minister in a move to defuse the standoff.

However, local PPP officials say the MQM and its opposition allies remain intent on toppling the provincial and central governments.

``It's a genuine, truthful and tragic fact that PPP members were brutal targets of terrorism by the MQM,'' says Iqbal Haider, a spokesman for the PPP government in Sind. ``Peace is the desperate need of my government. But the other side is keeping disturbances, confrontation and hatred alive.''

Political observers fault leaders on both sides for refusing to tolerate opposition. Altaf Hussain, MQM's charismatic leader, built the party on a growing army of poor unemployed youths and runs it like a personality cult, critics say.

Billboard pictures of Mr. Hussain dot neighborhoods in Karachi which, political observers say, he considers his personal fiefdom.

Recent street battles between the MQM and security forces underscore the party's readiness to assert its supremacy through a growing militancy. In the city's frequent ethnic riots, MQM gangs have clashed with native Sindis as well as Pashtuns, migrants from northwest Pakistan.

Journalists say Hussain took the MQM on an increasingly militant course under pressure from more rabid party dissidents in the Sindi city of Hyderabad. ``MQM wants Karachi on a platter,'' says Ayaz Amir, a political columnist in Islamabad. ``Pakistan has never before seen the street power and fire power of this party. The MQM is not an organization. It's a monster.''

For its part, the PPP, which is supported by native Sindis, is blamed for deepening mohajir resentment. Bhutto's rise to power had raised hopes that she could quiet the ethnic tensions in her home province.

Instead, her provincial government maintains autocratic control over development funds and political patronage in Karachi and other cities.

A swirl of corruption charges against Bhutto's Sindi husband, Asif Ali Zardari, which have been denied by the prime minister, stirred new animosity toward her.

Meanwhile, Karachi, Pakistan's industrial and financial hub, spins downward. Caught in the nexus of gun-running and drug smuggling, the city is a nightmare of festering slums, growing crime, failing services, a collapsing economy, and rampant unemployment.

With the police corrupt and widely discredited, the Army, which in the past has blamed rival India for stirring up troubles in Sind, now plays a decisive role in the province's political battle. Some political observers here say they find that ominous for a country that has spent years under military rule.

``With the breakdown of local government, the Army has become the only mediating force,'' says Naqwi, the Karachi political commentator. ``One has to fear for the future of democracy.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Pakistan's Sindis Clash Over Rights
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today