Troubled north-west comes to town

Kunwari Colony in Karachi has become a hotbed of Taliban militants. Photo courtesy Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Kunwari Colony in Karachi has become a hotbed of Taliban militants. Photo courtesy Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

On a mid-November day, factory worker Ghulam Shabbir was shot dead on the road adjacent to Manghopir Hills in north-western Karachi. The motorcycle he was riding had POLICE written on its registration plate. A day earlier, a Mohammad Ejaz was murdered in Kunwari Colony in the same part of the city. He was sporting a military haircut in anticipation of his departure for joining the military, related one of his relatives.

These could be seen, and ignored, as routine stories from Karachi — a city where targeted killings and deadly violence have become a way of life in many localities. Yet something is starkly different about the two murders: They were carried out by militants whom local residents, police officials and political activists recognise as the Taliban. The second difference is that both were targeted for the same reason — for being seen as belonging to the law enforcement and security agencies.

In a large part of Karachi – spread between Orangi in the west and the northern edge of North Nazimabad – such targeting of real or imagined security personnel at the hands of the Taliban has become quite common. The militants have also turned localities such as Manghopir, Sultanabad, Pakhtunabad, Kunwari Colony and Pirabad, into no-go areas for the police and outsiders. It is almost impossible to travel to these places unless someone living there is able to get clearance from both the law-enforcement agencies, mainly operating on the outer parts of these neighbourhoods, and the Taliban militants holding sway in the inner parts.

“The militants have either scared police personnel, informers and intelligence moles out of these localities or killed those who refused to leave,” says Nasir Mahmood, the station house officer at Manghopir police station. “The police and other law-enforcement agency personnel find it next to impossible to enter the inner streets of Kunwari Colony, Pakhtunabad and Sultanabad, especially when they need to go there to perform medico-legal duties or to remove a corpse from there,” he says. “The law enforcers, therefore, are clueless about what is actually happening there,” he adds.

Mahmood says the bodies of most people killed by the Taliban are dumped along the Manghopir Road — a risky area for the police to operate in as its patrol vans have often come under fire there, he says. The Herald could note the anxiety among policemen as they were retrieving Shabbir’s body. “The police and other law enforcers are routinely fired upon from the hills [overlooking where they were working],” an alert police constable explained.

Inside Kunwari Colony, the Taliban’s writ is so severe that people do not even venture out of their houses if the militants do not approve of it. When Bakht Khan, a resident of the colony, was killed by militants while they were exchanging fire with the police and Rangers on October 12, no one came out of his house to collect his body even 24 hours after his killing. Nearly 50 men were present in the house at the time to see off a member of his family for Hajj but none of them dared to step out, fearing this may upset the militants.

The Taliban are so dominant in the area that they are no longer operating secretly. “Just walk across the street and you will meet the people you are looking for.” This is how a constable posted at the entrance to Manghopir police station responds when the Herald asks him about the Taliban’s presence. Pasted inside a mosque in Sultanabad, a flier advises local shopkeepers and businessmen to contact Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Karachi Chapter, should the workers of any political group demand protection money from them. The flier carries a satellite phone number for traders to get in touch with the Taliban.

Elsewhere, the militants are themselves demanding and collecting protection money through what they call the Pakhtun Aman Jirga. An office of the jirga can be seen behind Malik Agha Hotel near al-Asif Square in Sohrab Goth. Altaf Khan, who rents out heavy machinery from a shop in Sohrab Goth, says the business community in his area is receiving, and complying with demands for money by the Taliban. “The militants are minting money from us under the garb of providing protection,” he says.

The Awami National Party (ANP), which until recently was the dominant political party in these neighbourhoods, seems to have accepted that it cannot compete with the Taliban. Its flags and other symbols have disappeared from the Pakhtun areas lying between Orangi and the Matric Board Office in Nazimabad.

Umer Farooq, a resident of Mohammad Khan Goth locality near Sohrab Goth, tells the Herald that TTP operatives sent a message to the ANP’s local leaders a few months ago. The message instructed them to remove their party’s flags and its graffiti, he says. The missive also told them to hand over their arms to the TTP representatives in their respective neighbourhoods, Farooq adds.

Initially, the ANP did try to resist these orders. But it gave up after the TTP started killing its main activists, forcing many of its leaders to leave those areas. Bashir Jan, ANP Sindh’s general secretary, says the Taliban have killed nearly 70 activists belonging to his party during the past few months. But he then adds that some of them were killed by “elements posing as Taliban”. Jan believes the killings are part of a conspiracy being hatched against the ANP in order to uproot it from Karachi.

Copyright DAWN GIS

A map of Karachi’s localities. Copyright DAWN GIS

His party’s workers on the ground, however, are certain about where the threat is coming from. Rehmat Khan Achakzai, president of ANP in Janjar Goth, located near Afghan Camp at the Super Highway, tells the Herald that the Taliban can target the party’s workers anywhere and at any time. He says the ANP’s members and activists do not have enough support in Pakhtun areas to withstand the Taliban.

Senior police officials, as well as government representatives, were equally dismissive when the Herald pointed out that four years ago Taliban sympathisers and militants fleeing military operation in the tribal agencies and in Swat were thronging Karachi’s Pakhtun localities, such as Sultanabad and Pakhtunabad. Since then, the militants have spread to several adjoining localities. The situation is so grave in most of these areas that people have completely given in to the Taliban’s writ. Four years ago, the residents of Sultanabad successfully defied the newcomers when they tried to impose their control in the area. But intelligence agency officials tell the Herald that no one dares defy the Taliban’s orders any more in Sultanabad and in other areas beyond it.

One reason why the Taliban have been able to instill such fear in the hearts of locals is because they carry and wield sophisticated arms and ammunition that no one can match — not even the law enforcers, according to local police and intelligence sources. Evidence collected from the site where sub-inspector Mohammad Ilyas was shot dead on September 21 this year, while he was manning a traffic police kiosk in the Manghopir area, suggests that he was attacked with a sniper’s rifle, fired from a hilltop. Intelligence officials say Ilyas was hit late in the evening when visibility was extremely low — this suggests that the militants who targeted him were probably using night-vision goggles, the officials add.

he other reason for the Taliban’s dominance going unchallenged is their ruthlessness. “The militants do not tolerate the slightest disobedience even from their staunch supporters,” says Farooq. He tells the Herald how a local prayer leader, who was also a supporter of the Taliban, was killed only because he talked to a stranger about their presence. Farooq says the Taliban later declared the prayer leader a martyr whose sacrifice, they said, was necessary to further their cause.

Javed Odho, Deputy Inspector General of Police in Karachi’s West Zone where the Taliban-infested localities lie, says police officials posted before him in the area did not take the threat seriously and did not strictly monitor the massive influx of displaced people from Khyper Pakhtunkhwa, tribal agencies and Swat. “Dozens of informal housing settlements and shanty towns have sprung up in Gadap Town along the Super Highway and on the outskirts of Manghopir and Landhi [where these displaced people now live],” he says and adds that the Taliban militants have been present in these settlements and slums from the beginning but they were not connected to each other until recently. Now there exists a proper TTP network in the city, Odho says.

The police’s failure to take them head-on before they could organise is a major reason why they have gained strength in the areas under their control. “The TTP militants became strong because nobody confronted them earlier,” Odho acknowledges. “Now when action against them is being taken, they are resisting,” he tells the Herald.

Odho, however, does not see the Taliban’s presence posing as big a problem as is seen by his subordinates or by local residents. He acknowledges that taking police action in some areas is challenging but hastens to add that attacks on police patrol vans have indeed decreased in many areas and that the collapsed intelligence network is being revived. “The Taliban are on the run now,” Odho adds.

Professor Fateh Mohammad Barfat, former head of the criminology department at Karachi University links Talbanisation of Karachi to unregulated residential settlements and slums. “60 per cent of Karachi’s population is living in slums, dividing it along ethnic and sectarian lines,” he says. The government, he explains, should make a policy for repatriating those who come to Karachi after being displaced by natural disasters and conflicts. “There is no other way of saving Karachi from a looming civil war,” adds Barfat.

Sect in stone

It is important to speak of sectarian conflicts – rather than one sectarian conflict – when looking at the complex phenomenon of sectarianism in Pakistan. Sectarian violence, as well as sectarian conflicts, in the country exists in a complex web of interrelated and mutually reinforcing forms of violence and militancy, often making it difficult to separate these intertwined factors.

Keeping the complex contexts and interrelated forms of violence in mind, any analysis of sectarian violence should carefully avoid monocausal explanations. Sectarian violence, indeed, consists of several levels: criminal activities, competition between sectarian groups and violence to put pressure on political and law enforcement bodies, for example, are all now part of this enterprise.

Another mistake would be to see sectarian violence as being targeted against just one side of the divide. Despite the obvious asymmetry – the vast majority of those being killed are Shias – it is important to note that Sunnis are also being targeted. There is a steady stream of target killings, particularly against Sunni activists in Karachi, which is sometimes lost amidst news about striking acts of violence against Shias.

The recent growth in sectarian violence is better explained by the reinforcement of elements and factors which have enabled and supported sectarianism and sectarian violence in the past. Violent sectarian groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi extended their network outside their traditional strongholds in south Punjab long before the recent surge in violence, and their connections with other militant groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban are also not established recently. This is reflected in the gradual change in the focus of violence which has moved away from Punjab, the hub of such violence particularly in 1990s, to locations such as Quetta and Gilgit which, though not new venues of sectarian conflicts, are where the most striking violent incidents have taken place recently.

Sectarian violence has increased because of a clear expansion of operational spaces for violent sectarian groups to function within. Methods used in the recent sectarian violence incidents show that the groups operate with confidence and without fear of being caught. Targeting Shias on buses and other passenger vehicles, although not a new method, has become the favoured modus operandi of militant sectarian groups. Taking time to drag passengers out of the targeted vehicles, identifying Shias and shooting them differs significantly from targeted killings conducted swiftly by usually two gunmen on motorcycles from a safe distance, with the possibility of disappearing as soon as the shooting is over. Such ease of operations could have ensued from the fact that the police and the courts don’t have the capacity to investigate, prosecute and convict sectarian killers.

The groups perpetrating violence can also rely on the fact that before the upcoming general election next year no serious action will be taken against them. Instead, political parties are engaging with several sectarian leaders and reaching out to all possible constituencies for political support. The symbols of banned groups are openly displayed in political rallies, and party leaders are arguing over what actually constitutes the fine line between talking to and engaging with the leaders of the banned groups. Thus, as has become customary, the actions by the government and political parties are confined to ritual condemnations of sectarian killings and referring to international intelligence agencies and ‘foreign hands’ as being behind them. Sectarian violence would not be possible without such a permissive and enabling environment.

This increase in violence is also coupled with the strengthening of exclusivist sectarian discourse which exists and thrives in an environment where the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer was assassinated in 2011 by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri who believed Taseer had committed blasphemy. The reaction to the killing was highly polarised in Pakistan: on the one hand there was strong condemnation of the brutal-violent act, on the other hand it was celebrated, with rose petals showered on Qadri after the incident.

Sectarian discourse flourishes in an environment where an unknown malang (vagabond) was killed this July in Bahawalpur by a group of people unrelated to any militant group after they accused him of insulting the sanctity of the Quran. This discourse is not removed from but inherently linked to the idea of defending religion (as defined by the perpetrators of violence) and acting against the elements threatening the sanctity of what is considered true Islam. Who is considered a blasphemer in a particular case may vary, but the logic in these incidents is the same. It allows the use of instant justice by self-appointed judges and executioners against those who profess different interpretations of Islam or against those who are seen to threaten a particular interpretation of the religion. It is impossible to draw the line to separate these cases, permitting and justifying one without implicitly allowing others. Sectarian discourse – with sectarian violence – is thus an integral part of – as well as forcing – the ongoing debate of who is ‘really’ a Muslim and what their status is in Pakistani society.

The increase in sectarian violence perhaps has had the inadvertent effect of sectarianism being discussed and thought of in the context of ‘securing minorities’ in Pakistan. It is true that Shias make up perhaps 15 per cent of the Pakistani population (the exact percentage is unknown and debated) but the concept of ‘minority’ in this case is essentially different to ‘what is less in numbers’. In fact, Shias in Pakistan have fought against Sunni demands of labelling them as a (religious) minority, this is understandable in a country whose national identity is centred on religious majoritarianism.

Branding a community particularly as a religious minority in Pakistan carries with it the processes of exclusion from the Muslim majority, legal consequences, institutional segregation as well as stigma and marginalisation. The categorisation of Shias as a (religious) minority, often heard both in national and international media, can be seen as a step towards change in the perception of Shia communities and as a success of the sectarian exclusivist discourse.

Sectarian violence has also produced demands to protect the Shia communities. It is impossible, of course, to secure entire communities but the security measures recently announced because of the recent violent incidents (such as the extra funds reportedly allocated for the security of the Karakoram Highway, or the police and the Frontier Corps escorts for buses in Quetta) are nevertheless showing that some concrete measures are being taken to improve the situation, however limited their factual effect would be.

These new security measures, though, should be looked at in the context of those already in place. It is astounding to realise that providing security for the Muharram processions and gatherings is the largest annual police operation in Pakistan, requiring substantial amounts of resources every year. Incidents of sectarian violence through the years have resulted in systematising and institutionalising the practice of securing certain religious places and practices and most worryingly this is now normalised in the Pakistani society. It highlights the damaging effect of sectarian discourse enforced with protracted violence and underscores how public spaces are increasingly used for contesting and limiting religious plurality of Pakistani society. Rather than eliminating Shias, sectarian violence has managed to limit the public space for them to practice their religion and function as a community. This must seem like a success for those who perpetrate sectarian violence, encouraging that violence to continue.

With political will to limit the operational spaces for violent sectarian groups to function, it is possible to change the trend of increasing sectarian violence. But it needs a parallel change in appreciating and valuing religious plurality in Pakistan, both at the national and local levels, and particularly in public spaces. This would make the exclusivist sectarian discourse much harder to find resonance and survive in the Pakistani society. n

— Katja Riikonen is a PhD candidate and an associate in Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU) at the University of Bradford, UK. Her PhD research focuses on sectarian violence in Pakistan