Since Mr Nawaz Sharif arrived on the scene early last year, the level of violence and conflict in society has increased significantly. Mr Sharif’s India-policy has resulted in a spate of bomb explosions in Pakistan by RAW trained saboteurs. His soft spot for Sunni militant parties has emboldened them to wage war against their religious opponents. Now his opportunist deals with Mr Altaf Hussain’s MQM are threatening to drown Karachi in a sea of blood all over again.
Last Monday, 25 people lay dead in Karachi as a result of an attack by the MQM on a Haqiqi stronghold. The city was then forced by both sides to close down. A counter attack by the Haqiqi faction, followed by retaliatory rounds of bloodshed, cannot be ruled out.
The seeds of urban terrorism in Karachi were laid eight years ago when Mr Sharif and General Aslam Beg conspired with Mr Altaf Hussain to destabilise and get rid of the first Benazir Bhutto government in 1990. After Mr Sharif became prime minister, he manipulated Jam Sadiq Ali into the chief ministership of Sindh so that he could crush the PPP. In exchange for the MQM’s help in propping up his government, Jam Sahib allowed Mr Altaf Hussain to terrorise and plunder Karachi at will.
By the time Jam Sahib died in 1992, the MQM had laid Karachi low and rural Sindh was in the grip of anarchy. Mr Sharif was now compelled to seek the army’s help to clean-up the province. But the army’s crackdown on the MQM led to serious strains in Mr Sharif’s relations with Mr Hussain and a quick halt was called to Operation Clean-Up. An uneasy truce followed until Ms Bhutto returned to power in 1993 and pulled the army out of Karachi in October 1994. Then all hell broke loose. The MQM went on the warpath, forcing Ms Bhutto to launch a paramilitary operation to break the back of the terrorists. By 1996 Ms Bhutto had succeeded in her objective and Karachi was relatively peaceful again. But the crackdown alienated significant sections of the Mohajir community because many innocent people were caught in the crossfire between the terrorists and the paramilitary forces. The government’s resort to “extra-judicial killings”, in particular, created an unhappy and unacceptable situation. But Ms Bhutto’s exit in 1996 and Mr Sharif’s re-entry in 1997 has made matters potentially worse. In order to keep Ms Bhutto out of power in Sindh, and in order to retain the MQM’s support for his constitutional amendments, Mr Sharif has found it expedient once again to empower the MQM. Once again, the results are bound to be disastrous.
The stage was set for a resurgence of terrorism in Karachi when Mr Sharif agreed some months ago to release scores of MQM terrorists from prison, withdraw criminal cases against many (including Altaf Hussain) as well as pay tens of crores in “compensation” to them. The MQM has used the money to buy weapons and beef up its armed wings. It is now demanding that the Haqiqi group be destroyed so that its own terrorists can stamp their operational writ over all areas of Karachi. The killings last Monday are a foretaste of more violence to come.
The MQM has given an ultimatum to Mr Sharif. Help us knock out the Haqiqis, they say, or we will withdraw from our alliance with you in the provincial government. Mr Sharif is therefore on the horns of a dilemma. If he gives in to the MQM, we can all kiss Karachi goodbye. If he doesn’t, the PML-MQM government in Sindh may fall. Meanwhile, the country’s largest city, main port and most important financial centre remains hostage to armed gangs. What should the prime minister do?
Mr Sharif has tried to stall matters. He has made promises and then backtracked. But there is not much mileage left in this tactic any more. Matters came to head last week when Mr Hussain gave Islamabad a 48-hour ultimatum, prompting Mr Sharif to despatch Senator Saif ur Rehman to Karachi and cool down the MQM. The ultimatum was withdrawn. But the cost may turn out to be prohibitive. Shortly after, MQM terrorists swept into a Haqiqi stronghold and opened fire. Their message is clear enough. What should the prime minister do?
Sit tight. Refuse to be blackmailed. Tell Altaf Hussain to go fly a kite. The MQM would be mad to abandon its alliance with the PML because an alliance with the PPP would be even more disastrous. But if the MQM carries out its threat, Mr Sharif should get cracking and impose Governor’s rule on the province with the objective of restoring the writ of the state in Karachi. Gangsters and terrorists, whether from the MQM-Altaf or from the MQM-Haqiqi, should lose the protection they now enjoy in the ruling coalition and be disarmed. There is no other way out. God knows how desperately Sindh wants a restoration of law and order, stability and peace. The people of Karachi particularly need a respite from violence. Mr Sharif should be wise enough to give it to them.