The death of Raza Haider, a member of parliament and senior leader of the secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party, is the latest and most high-profile in a series of political assassinations that have deepened ethnic tensions in Pakistan’s financial capital. Over 300 people have been assassinated for ethnic or political reasons in Karachi this year. But now, the government claims that militant groups are behind Haider's assassination.
That may be the case, but Pakistani society is seeing a growing degree of both religious and ethnic polarization. There have been attacks by militants on Sufi shrines in other parts of the country. And while retaliation has been limited so far, there were signs of further trouble in the overnight rioting. The MQM represents Karachi's majority Urdu-speaking population and are rivals for political leadership and land ownership with minority Pashtuns who have migrated from northwestern Pakistan seeking employment.
Leaders of the MQM claimed that activists of the Awami National Party (ANP) – who are primarily Pashtuns – were behind the assassination. According to the police, the majority of those killed or injured during retaliatory attacks on Monday night belonged to the Pashtun community.
Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik called Haider’s assassination a “trap to destabilize Pakistan” and accused the banned sectarian groups Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) of organizing the murder to “destabilize Karachi.” Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a police official with the Crime Investigation Department said that three suspects in the killing have confessed ties to the SSP.
MQM leaders say Haider’s death is evidence of cooperation between the ANP, its Pashtun supporters and extremists. “It doesn’t matter whether Haider’s killers were from sectarian groups or with the Taliban; the fact is the terrorists are enjoying the patronage of the ANP and they are now jointly targeting the MQM,” claims Syed Haider Abbas Rizvi, MQM’s deputy parliamentary leader in the National Assembly.
To support his argument Rizvi points to the capture of high-ranking Taliban commanders in Pashtun-dominated areas, among them Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was arrested in Karachi in February. “Militants with commercial interests and Pashtun land mafias have allied on the basis of financial gains,” he says.
Since 2008, Pakistani police and intelligence agencies have claimed that the Taliban raise funds for militants based along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Karachi. The MQM has repeatedly warned of the danger of the "Talibanization" of Karachi’s Pashtun community. Both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban draw most of their members from the Pashtun ethnic group.
The ANP vehemently denies any involvement with extremist or militant groups. “After [the militants] killed our brothers and colleagues by the hundreds in Swat [and other parts of north-west Pakistan], how could we ever join hands with them?” asks Amin Khattak, general secretary of the ANP’s Sindh chapter. Khattak agrees, however, that Haider’s assassination is an attempt to stoke ethnic tensions among Karachi’s political parties. “Rather than play the blame game,” he suggests, “we should identify the culprits and hold them accountable.”
The alleged involvement of sectarian militant groups in Karachi’s ethnic politics is a new development, although these groups have long been present in the city. The SSP and LJ were held responsible for the bombing of a Shiite religious procession in Karachi on Dec. 30 last year.
Since then, dozens of members of the minority Shiite sect have been killed in incidents of sectarian violence.
“The government has always known of the activities of groups such as the SSP in Karachi,” adds Khattak. “If they thought they would target the MQM [which is a coalition partner], they should have clamped down on them by now.”