Irrelevance of innocence

From Nepali Times, ISSUE #646 (08 March 2013 – 14 MARCH 2013)

Karachi has become a microcosm of Pakistan’s politico-ethnic rivalries

Rabia Flower is an apartment block in the Abbas Town neighbourhood of Karachi, on the road named Isphahani after an associate of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The twin-blasts on 3 March, just as the evening prayers were coming to a close in this Shia residential locality, was the result of a ‘triggered IED’. More than 150 kg of high explosives were detonated as shoppers filled the market below and families took in the evening sea breeze in the upper storey balconies. Fifty died and many times that were maimed. Water from broken mains mixed with the blood of innocents.

Local youth and ambulances swung to the rescue, while security personnel took their time to arrive, probably late because the mass-murderers have taken to setting off explosions in sequence, killing those who respond to the emergency – local youth, journalists, firefighters, police, and rangers. Or they were late because they had to provide security to a VIP wedding in the city that day.

Karachi has become a microcosm of the bloodletting in Pakistan and earlier politico-ethnic rivalries have transmogrified into deeper cross-cutting complexities. The city today harbours a frightening brew of militancy, involving drug, arms, and real estate mafiosi placed on top of additional layers of communal polarisations. Class-based secular politics, for which Sindh and its capital were celebrated, has its back to the wall.

Beyond the tension between the political parties representing the Urdu-speaking Mohajir and the Sindhi indigenes, there are now those claiming to represent Punjabi, Baloch, and Pashto interests. In terms of sectarian targeting, the sense of vulnerability now goes beyond the Christians, Hindu or Ahmadiya.

What has taken Pakistan by deathly storm is the attacks on the Shia, a somewhat larger minority. There has been Shia-targetting in all parts of the country, from Gilgit-Baltistan, Lahore to Quetta in the north, east, and west. And now Karachi in the south.

For a while, other issues are forgotten as television brings live reports of the hospital emergency intakes, the family members in shock, and excavators digging into the debris.

The nervous wait for the upcoming national and provincial elections slated for May, the fears of how the departure of NATO forces will buffet Pakistan, the threat of US sanctions if Islamabad insists on importing desperately needed natural gas from Iran, the debate over the handing over development of Gwadar port to Chinese contractors – all are forgotten momentarily as all eyes are glued on the upper storey of Rabiya Flower that continues to burn.

Karachi is a massive city of nearly 20 million and regular preoccupations take over as evening turns to night. Other localities, from the violence-prone Lyari township to the humongous ‘informal settlement’ of Orangi, to the posh and secure colonies of Defence and Clifton, go back to their interrupted lives. The wedding reception of up-and-coming Sindh politician Sharmila Farooqi proceeds as planned. Other than in Abbas Town and the nearby Patel and Agha Khan hospitals, the sound of sirens indicates not the arriving ambulance but the ubiquitous signal of ‘VIP movement’.

A well-regarded journalist had told me on Sunday afternoon just before the bomb, “The killings in Karachi are now more targeted. Unlike in the past, there are fewer mob killings or random blasts.”

The mass killing of citizens is a continuous exercise and the sense of fatalism is such that instead of demands for accountability and justice, there is simply the sad wait for the next mayhem. Last month it was Quetta, next month it will be someplace else. Says one IT engineer: “Religion should be a warm cloak, but it has become a shining badge of certitude.”

Across the breadth of the subcontinent, in Bangladesh, the perpetrators of 1971 are being brought to book four decades after their crimes. The masterminds of the mayhem at Abbas Town may at least feel threatened if they knew that the sturdy arm of justice will follow them years and decades from now and hold them accountable for drawing the blood of innocents.

This piece first appeared in The Hindu on 5 March

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