The threat to two of Karachi’s landmarks makes stark the choice between ‘Quaid-e-Azam’s Pakistan’ and ‘Taliban’s Pakistan’

The shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi sits on a small hill overlooking the Arabian Sea. There was a time when there was a finality to its location, for beyond it were only the windblown sands of desolate beaches and boats hung with the drying nets of sun darkened fishermen. The small Karachi that sat sedately behind the shrine disappeared long ago; the city, growing like a wild fungus, engulfed the shrine within its fecundity. Thus digested, the shrine now sits strung with electric lights and flagged by metal detectors across from a mall, and on the way to the city’s elite seaside addresses. Those who drive by the shrine seldom stop or go inside, its dome and blue and white tiles just another busy intersection to be plied on the way to some other location.

The throngs of poor still come however, pouring out of painted buses and hiccupping rickshaws from the sweaty slums inland. They still need the hope that Abdullah Shah Ghazi can bestow on the supplicant — the hope that grows from laying flowers on his grave — or the free meal that can be had around the perimeter. The first week of November is a special one for the shrine: November 6, 7 and 8 mark the annual Sufi festival of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, his spiritual powers and his centuries-long protection of the city and its inhabitants.

It was at the same festival two years ago that two suicide bombers exploded their belts at the shrine killing 35 people and injuring nearly 60. Little in the city has changed since then. On November 3, the Supreme Court of Pakistan said “not enough was being done” by the government to provide security in the city. The judicial directive came in response to a petition that asserted that 7,000 to 8,000 members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban had infiltrated the city and were planning attacks against various targets.

Referendum

The Supreme Court’s words gave impetus to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the party that has long ruled Karachi and has complained of the problem of Talibanisation time and again. At the end of the five-day Supreme Court hearing, the MQM announced it would be holding a referendum all over Pakistan. The question for participants would be to choose between a modern, democratic, progressive “Quaid-e-Azam’s Pakistan” and the retrogressive, barbaric, schoolgirl-shooting “Taliban’s Pakistan”. The MQM said the referendum would be held on Thursday, November 8.

But the question did not come before Pakistanis, not on that day anyhow, as within 24 hours of the referendum’s announcement a petition against it was filed in the Sind High Court. The petitioner, a man named Haji Gul whose political affiliations remain unclear, argued that holding a referendum was the sole prerogative of a Prime Minister, after approval from Parliament. In response, the MQM leadership announced that they would put off the referendum till November 14. In the time between the announcement of the referendum on November 4 and its postponement on November 7, 25 people were killed in Karachi in the continuing spate of targeted killings that has claimed nearly 2,000 lives this year alone.

No stopping hope

The ancient tomb of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the Sufi saint who came to Karachi before it was Karachi, has for the length of its existence been considered the city’s protector, a mystical armour that could ward off cyclones from the warming ocean beyond and catastrophes in the teeming city from within. Two years ago, it could not protect itself from the virulent, explosive-laden bodies of men who wanted to wreak death and destruction on those coming to pray. They will still come this year, throngs of those whose wishes for babies, for health and for prosperity are stronger than their fear of the Taliban, which has denounced worship at Sufi shrines as heresy.

On the morning of November 6, the first day of the urs of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, at the other end of Karachi a bomb was found outside another tomb. It weighed over two kg and sat outside the black metal grille of Gate No. 2 of the white domed memorial to Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The Quaid’s tomb was lucky and the bomb was defused by the Karachi bomb disposal squad just a few hours after it was found. Its finding commanded just a shred of the day’s news on Pakistan’s constantly squawking news channels. Most chose not to do a live report of the incident, preferring to focus on the targeted killing of a man on one of the city’s bypasses or on the most recent impasse between the Army Chief and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

So stand the tombs of two men who loved Karachi, each in his own way a protector and visionary but with legacies suddenly questionable and uncertain before the reality of the Karachi that now encircles their memorials.

(Rafia Zakaria is a PhD candidate in Political Theory/Comparative Politics at Indiana University, Bloomington. E-mail: rafia.zakaria@gmail.com)

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