In the carnage in Karachi, lies a maimed city where the boundaries between resilience and a deliberate and necessary heartlessness no longer exist.
Life goes on, the smog-smeared and heat weary stalwarts of Karachi will tell you again and again. You will hear the mantra muttered proudly in wedding halls packed with biryani craving hundreds, on the lips of the McDonalds delivery man bearing MacArabias at your bidding, in the chatty afterthoughts of the legless beggar after he has cornered his daily, even in the purposefully accented Urdu of a Chanel infused society begum. Repetition is the key to denial: and at least in the collective exercise of pushing ahead with their plans Karachites are united. But like so much else in Pakistan, the obsessive performance of normalcy is an illusion. In recent months, no fewer than several thousand of this city's residents have been felled in a bloodthirsty political rivalry between Muhajirs who settled here after Partition and the continuous stream of Pashtuns pouring into the city from the drone weary villages of Pakistan's North West. The former control the land and the latter transportation; without one there is nowhere to go and without the other no way of getting there. In perpetually smouldering Karachi, tracking the daily smoke plumes to stores or buses reveals which migrants new or old have inched ahead in an interminable conflict that devotedly demands funeral congregations at dusk.
It takes a bit to stun a city so wracked with violence and so dutiful in its commitment to remaining unaffected by catastrophe. The waxing hours of the weekend of May 20 proved that it could be done. In the late evening, barely freed from the clutches of an infernal weekend, which saw at 46°Celsius the hottest day in 30 years, a band of men scaled a few walls, skipped across a dry river bed and managed to destroy planes worth millions. The battle between the terrorists and naval commandoes at PNS Mehran lasted all night, the shots and blasts could be heard in houses all around, familiar sounds now housed in a new location. Sounds of the fighting echoed around families snatching shreds of rest in makeshift beds on sun baked roofs. Most had been without power for over a week, already victimised by a strike by Karachi Electric Supply Corporation.
In the morning, there were questions. The base was a familiar landmark, located on Sharea Faisal, passed by all those on the way to Jinnah International Airport. It was believed to have good security, a conclusion erected on the flanks of the official looking burgundy lettering fanning the arched entrance, the solemn duo of guards stuck to its sides. Unlike other naval bases in the city that have thrown their lawns open for valimas and Iftars, PNS Mehran has remained off limits to upstart Karachiites always on the hunt for cheaply rented party venues. But on this Monday morning the well nurtured mystery portending a secret strength beyond its walls was wrested from the inhabitants of a city that has never had much to believe in. Battling the paranoia that doggedly pursues those sweating out muggy nights, Karachiites discovered that they were not the only ones without power.
Of course, Karachi's interchanges with the military have not been limited to party rentals and convenient landmarks. Darker dialogues date back decades, in 1992 when democracy was even newer than now and military rangers were first brought in for “Operation Clean Up.” At the time, migrants from India had only recently been politically organised into the Muhajir Qaumi Movement; they wanted to govern their own city, wanted representation in the tight ethnic quota system where only four ethnicities, Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi and Pashtun were recognised. Tanks patrolled the streets and curfews regulated movement, troops caught and killed many and as things go in Pakistan, no one that disappeared was ever accounted for, the blood dried up on sidewalks and life went on.
But those were the afflictions of bygone days, when the ethnic lines in the city were drawn between Muhajirs and indigenous Sindhis and mediated by a largely Punjabi Army. Those demographics are no more; the rapid incursion of Pashtuns fleeing fighting on the Pakistan-Afghan border imposing new unwieldy realities and exacting a cost in young lives.
In this new conglomeration, the exposition of the mediating military as weak, even hapless at the hands of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan is ominous. With this new revelation, the military imagined as a watchful parent tolerating ever ready to step in and disperse the errant games of Muhajirs and Pashtuns is transformed to that of a force whose power maybe just as questionable as the electric supply. Newly emboldened by this revelation, Karachi's murderously naughty children can now plan their next rout with even greater audacity.
The attack on PNS Mehran was a blow to the Pakistani military, but it also reveals how the war against terrorism thought to be territorially limited in Pakistan's northwest is now able to take on an ethnic garb. In the days after the attack, Altaf Hussain, the leader of the Mottahida Qaumi Movement (the party was newly rechristened in the late 1990s in an attempt to shed the burden of an ethnic genesis) decried the attack calling the war on terrorism Pakistan's own war and saluted the sacrifices of the Pakistani military in their quest to exterminate radical elements. His message to Karachiites was clear: the military must be supported, especially if it is Pushtuns that are attacking it. It's a messy calculation; on the other side of the ethnic equation Pashtuns in the city may similarly believe that they must support the Tehreek-e-Taliban.
Life has always been precarious in Karachi; dacoits regularly enter homes and loot families at gunpoint, kidnappings for ransom are a burgeoning business, jihadi outfits openly recruit in its streets; and the police watches and never does anything. Plagued by this morbid array of ills, Karachi needs something to believe in, the possibility of order, even if mythic a crucial crutch against a rabid reality that daily descends to new depths. The takeover of PNS Mehran eviscerated this possibility, the dream that there could be a return to order even if it was an imposition. In the carnage lies a maimed city where the boundaries between resilience and a deliberate and necessary heartlessness no longer exist.
(Rafia Zakaria is a PhD candidate in Political Theory/Comparative Politics, Indiana University, Bloomington, columnist, Dawn Pakistan and General Secretary, Board of Directors, Amnesty International USA.)