South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

KARACHI: A wave of ethnic violence pitching Pakhtuns (originally from the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province) against Urdu-speaking people (descendants of people who migrated to Pakistan after Partition in

1947) in Karachi has resulted in at least 34 deaths since May 19.

Both groups are linked to political parties, adding a further complication to the violence, which has taken the form of targeted shootings. Karachi has a population of some 15.5 million people, with Urdu-speaking people considered the largest ethnic group at nearly half of Karachi’s population, followed by Punjabis and Pakhtuns.

Accusations and counter-accusations are traded between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and the Awami National Party, which has its roots in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but commands a vote in Karachi too, mainly from ethnic Pakhtuns, after each bout of violence.

“Our political parties need to behave with far greater responsibility,” IA Rehman, the secretary-general of the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, speaking to the media in Islamabad, blamed the violence on “militants from Swat and the tribal areas who want to destabilise the country”.

“We don’t know what the truth is, but the violence affects us badly and leaves us afraid,” said Jamila Bibi, 40, who lives in a community where Pakhtuns and Urdu-speaking people have frequently clashed.

Poverty a factor: But there is also another dimension to the violence.

Faisal Edhi, trustee of the humanitarian Edhi Foundation charity, told IRIN that poverty, unemployment and political instability were also behind the violence.

“The jobless youth fall into the hands of criminals who use them for their purposes. Some elements in political parties are also involved in such activities,” he said. Commenting on the ethnic nature of the violence, he said: “A criminal has no religion or ethnicity. To fulfil his nefarious designs, he sometimes appears in the garb of religion and sometimes ethnicity.”

Edhi said better economic policies, a reduction in poverty and increase in job opportunities would help to stop such killings and other criminal activities.

The unemployment rate for Pakistan is put at 15.2 percent for 2010 by international organisations compared with 7.40 percent the previous year.

Economists attribute this to low investment levels, due to political instability and militancy.

“There is growing unemployment or under-employment, and with this comes frustration – especially among the young,” local analyst Siikander Hameed Lodhi told IRIN. The competition for jobs is especially fierce in urban centres such as Karachi.

According to a March report by the Crisis States Research Centre entitled The Open City: Social Networks and Violence in Karachi, the conflicts between the Urdu-speaking and Pakhtuns or Urdu-speaking and Sindhis represent economic contests over resources, and these contests are typical within classes that subsist on public resources.

“When people are jobless they can be easily exploited. Both militant groups and other forces have taken advantage of this in the past,”

Muhammad Karam, a volunteer who works with youth in the Orangi area of Karachi, told IRIN. He also said that in the settlement, made up of shantytowns where both Pakhtuns and Urdu-speaking live, “Tension means children are not sent to schools and lives are disrupted.”

Growing fear: The periodic violence has created a growing sense of fear among the minority Pakhtuns, many of whom are involved in the transport industry – the owners or drivers of the colourfully painted buses that ply the roads across Karachi.

“I was born and raised here, but culturally I am a Pakhtun. The idea that I could be killed just because of this is terrifying. For the first time in my life I am wondering if this is a safe place to raise my children,” said Abdul Jalal, 32.

Similar unease exists on the other side of the divide. “We live in an area where there are many Pakhtuns and sometimes we are scared,” said Urdu-speaking Muhammad Imran, 25.

Karachi’s ethnic clashes have brought the paramilitary Rangers on to the streets. But as the experience of the past year has shown, taming the ethnic unrest is no easy matter.

Illegal weapons: The illegal arms in Karachi contribute to the violence, with 16 cases of unlicensed arms possession registered on average each day, according to local media reports. There are believed to be more than 20 million small arms in circulation in the country.

“A programme of de-weaponisation is essential to curb violence,” IA Rehman of the HRCP said. However, in the past such programmes have had little success in Karachi and this adds to the violence creating havoc in the city, say observers.

Source: Daily Times – Site Edition    Monday, May 31, 2010

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