The fourth day of protests and clashes with the police and other law enforcement agencies in Lyari, Karachi, on Friday virtually turned the area into a battlefield. Shops and businesses were closed, and the clashes turned more and more violent, with gunshots punctuating the atmosphere and petrol bombs fast becoming the weapon of choice for the protestors. The operation to arrest gangsters and criminals accused of extortionist activity amongst other crimes launched by the police on Thursday evoked a violent reaction from local residents, led by the banned People’s Amn Committee (PAC). The PAC’s grouse centres round the claim that innocent people are being targeted in the operation, with some of their leaders being unnecessarily involved in the killing of a local leader, Abdul Rasheed Kutchi of the Kutchi Rabita Committee in Kalri locality of Karachi on Sunday night. Police have arrested about 12-20 protestors and shifted them to an unknown location, presumably for interrogation, which could raise concerns about their treatment in custody.
The interesting aspect of the Lyari operation is that it was launched almost immediately after the MQM’s agitation against ‘extortionists’ in Karachi. MQM, the party that gave Karachi’s lexicon the word ‘bhatta’ (extortion) seemed peeved at the entry of ‘new’ extortionists in the field, perhaps causing disruption in the smooth operations of the MQM. In their usual style, when MQM put pressure on the PPP, President Asif Ali Zardari despatched Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik to mollify the MQM and take steps that would satisfy their ardour against extortion (new). The choice of Lyari to begin the operation raised complaints by local residents of the area that while they were not against the operation against criminals, extortionist and other criminal activity was going on all over the city, and a comprehensive operation should have been launched instead of singling out Lyari.
While MQM may be pleased with the choice of Lyari as the first target of the operation since it was from Lyari that, with the support of the PAC, former Sindh Home Minister Zulfiqar Mirza had launched his diatribe against MQM. Mirza may have gone into hibernation after his party leadership decided his violent outbursts and theatrics were not conducive to maintaining the coalition with the MQM in Sindh (and thereby in the Centre), but to say that anti-MQM sentiment does not persist in the ranks of the PPP, especially its members from Lyari, is to simply shut one’s eyes to the truth and ground realities. Nabil Gabol, one of the longstanding and prominent leaders of the PPP from Lyari, is perceived to be also distant from the PPP leadership because of his anti-MQM stance. His take on the situation in Lyari throws an interesting sidelight on exactly what is going on there. He says the PPP is very concerned it may lose its traditional support base in Lyari if the criminal gangs that seem to dominate the area are not taken out. In the run up to the general elections later this year or early next, PPP can hardly afford to miss out in its strongest and oldest constituency in Karachi, from which the party desires its young Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to stand for a seat in the next elections. However, while the operation may bring smiles of satisfaction to the MQM, there is a risk that if the operation is badly handled, the apprehension of loss of support in the area may become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the PPP. Crime must of course be uprooted, but there should ne no deviation from offering all those arrested due process under the laws of the land so that no innocents suffer (the very claim leading to the protests led by the PAC). Also, to mollify the angry people of Lyari, the operation against criminals must be extended to the whole city, without fear or discrimination. That may help to calm the anger at perceived singling out of the people of Lyari.