Karachi slum riots shake Bhutto's hold on power

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PAKISTANI troops have restored calm in Karachi, after a week of riots and drive-by shootings paralysed parts of the large southern city. But the Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, still confronts the worst crisis of her eight-month-old government.

Over 24 people were killed and 109 suffered gunshot wounds, when a simmering ethnic conflict erupted in the bustling port. It pitted the large and heavily-armed community of Mohajirs - Indian Muslims who moved to Karachi after the 1947 partition - against the security forces and Sindis, the original natives of southern Pakistan. Riots began when gunmen on motorcycles, believed to be Mohajirs, raced through Karachi's streets, opening fire on passers-by.

Fighting blazed through the teeming slums. Bus drivers were dragged out of their vehicles and murderered. When police shot into a mob, the Mohajirs shot back. Faced with the escalating violence, Ms Bhutto sent in the army.

The crackdown was brutal, but temporarily effective. Leaders of the Mohajir's party, the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), were arrested. The authorities believe that the revolt was stirred up by the Mohajir's extremist leader, Altaf Hussain, who exiled himself to London several years ago to escape criminal charges.

Mohajir grievances have long festered. Nearly half a century after Britain partitioned the sub-continent, they claim they are treated like unwanted interlopers in Pakistan. In Sind province, where Mohajirs comprise nearly half the population, the MQM has a strong showing in the local assembly. Instead of reaching a settlement with moderate Mohajir elements, Ms Bhutto rebuffed them. She failed to deliver promised job and social improvement schemes to Karachi, which would benefit Mohajirs.

Mohajir militants triggered the uprising, according to Sherry Rehman, editor of Herald News magazine. 'They wanted to show Benazir that they could hold Karachi to ransom,' she said. Ms Bhutto, the President of Pakistan, Farooq Leghari, and the army chief, General Abdul Waheed, met last Saturday to defuse the unrest. Ms Bhutto proposed an economic relief plan for Karachi. It was rejected by the Mohajirs. Ms Bhutto is under pressure to find a political solution with moderate MQM leaders. But the exiled Mr Hussain has a reputation for dealing brutally with challengers to his authority in his party.

Ms Bhutto may have no choice but to deal directly with the absent Mohajir leader. However, the army does not want Ms Bhutto to go soft on the MQM. During a 1992 crackdown against the Mohajirs in Karachi and Hyderabad, the army found several MQM arsenals and torture chambers that were bloody with use.