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Priority in Pakistan: New Push to Fight 'Lawlessness'

The prime minister ordered federal rule in the Sindh province, calming violence. But some charge deeper problems remain.

Mushtaq Khan still recalls the advice he received from friends after he completed graduate studies and came home to Karachi.

"When I came from the US five years ago, I was told not to stop at red lights, because my car could be snatched," says Mr. Khan, chief economist for the Dutch bank ABN-Amro. Khan just is one of many in Pakistan's largest city whose lives have been disrupted by worsening violence over the past decade. Government officials say that more than 700 people have died in fighting in Karachi so far this year, nearly twice the 400 killed in 1997.

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So last month, many of Karachi's 12 million citizens had reason to breathe a sigh of relief when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif imposed direct federal rule in the southern province of Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital, suspending the democratically elected provincial legislature and putting more paramilitary troops on the streets.

Suddenly, the number of motorists out at night rose and shops began staying open later. For Sajid Ahmed, a waiter at a five-star hotel, it brought an immediate rise in income. "When gunmen roamed freely near my house, they would take away my tips from dinner every night. Lawlessness was everywhere so the direct federal rule has been welcomed by many people," he says.

Individuals like Mr. Ahmed are convinced that the number of killings in Karachi, along with street battles between rival armed gangs and political parties, may begin to decline.

Mr. Sharif's government has indefinitely banned public meetings by political groups and promised to clamp down on criminals. Officials say many alleged offenders had ties to influential political groups and escaped arrest due to patronage from within the province's elected government.

But Sharif's move is criticized by many analysts as not necessarily resolving Karachi's troubles and threatening democracy. The city is home to Pakistan's fastest-growing slums, many drug addicts, and an increasing number of unemployed who turn to crime. "Karachi is increasingly becoming congested and the infrastructure is nowhere near what is needed," says Khan. That has only made the security problems worse."

Before the imposition of federal rule, Sharif accused activists with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) of involvement in the October killing of Hakim Muhammad Saeed, a former governor of Sindh who was known for helping the poor. The MQM has denied the allegation. The group represents Urdu-speaking Indian migrants and seeks more political and economic rights. Fighting between the MQM and its breakaway Haqeeqi faction are blamed for gun battles which periodically have forced parts of the city to shut down. Sharif's claim ended a 20-month ruling alliance in Sindh between the MQM and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League.

Sharif's recent announcement of a 24 billion rupee ($522 million) grant for development of Karachi has also been the subject of criticism. Almost one-third of the money is due to go toward building a six-lane highway from Karachi to Hyderabad, the second largest city in Sindh.

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"What Karachi needs more urgently are things like clean water or improvements in its police, where corruption is a major problem," says Ikram Sehgal, a political affairs commentator. "Instead, a large chunk of the money could go on wasteful ventures."

Mr. Sehgal says that unless the federal rule attempts to deal with long-term problems, the city may face rampant lawlessness again. Referring to allegations of MQM activists being involved in street fights, he warns: "The government has only stopped the MQM from acting like a political party.

"The choice for the MQM now is either to play dead or react violently from underground. Unless the government can put the political process back in place very fast, there could be urban guerrilla warfare."

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