It wasn’t quite the Battle of the Camel, but the pitched battle at Karachi’s Numaish Chowrangi on Sunday was seemingly from the same trend: a Muslim versus Muslim battle, fought between followers of Ali and Aisha. Except that it was not. This was a battle manufactured through the stupidity of the provincial home minister, and the provincial government’s reluctance to take on a banned extremist outfit.
For the first time in a long time, security agencies had visibly carried out some action on information they were in possession of. Activists of militant Shii outfits, for example, were picked up by Chaudhry Aslam’s group – the same Chaudhry Aslam who is known as an encounter specialist in Karachi, and the man who is most effective at producing counter-terrorism results. Aslam’s involvement in the matter meant that many were willing to trust that the matter was a serious one, and that even the security apparatus in Karachi was alert to the situation. Most of these operations were swift: one arrest was followed by quick interrogation and further arrests – till entire cells of militants were busted. What did not happen, though, was informing families of those arrested of the detainees’ fate.
Not that the Shia extremists were the only ones to be busted. Activists of the banned Sipah Sahaba Pakistan, which now operates under the rebranded Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat, were also arrested from a mosque in Nagan Chowrangi, and a huge cache of arms recovered. Despite the arrests and arms recovery, scenes broadcast of a rocket being launched from within the compound of a mosque were disturbing, not simply because a mosque’s sanctity was being flouted but also because of the extent to which a Sunni extremist group had weaponised itself.
Add to this the element of bank heists in broad daylight – Karachi witnessed at least 20 robberies in the past month alone – and one realises that there is no shortage of cash to carry out more pitched battles in the heart of the city.
Sectarian conflict is not new in Karachi, it was at its peak in the early and mid 1990s but most of the sectarian violence since the turn of the century has been organisations fighting other organisations. In the 1990s, there had been much organisational infighting in both Sunni and Shii groups. Splinter groups were formed, and sectarian wars ultimately became one of vengeance and retribution by one organisation against another. This also adds to the targeted violence dynamic in Karachi, with the modus operandi of sectarian outfits almost as sophisticated and organised as that of political parties and groups.
But Karachi is not a sectarian city. Years of common, everyday interactions and interdependence between Sunni and Shiite families have meant that they have lived together, mingled, made friends, even married into each other. Senior journalists even argue that sectarian conflict in the decade of the 1990s was a product of intelligence agencies wanting to stoke sectarian conflict for their own means.
What does happen in Karachi now is that the Shia dynamic plays into local politics: both the MQM and the PPP have a significant Shia constituency, ones that they seek to actively protect. This time around, whatever may be the role of agencies, the biggest mistake was the order issued by Sindh Home Minister Manzoor Wassan to let the Sipah-e-Sahaba conduct a rally on the first day of Moharram through an already tense route. The battle at Numaish has set the tone for the rest of the month, and certainly, leading upto Ashura. What one can argue is that a fool’s fool-proof security plan will be no good till the state decides to implement law as it should be. Perhaps Mr Wassan is in the wrong party, because the PPP – as a victim of terrorism – cannot afford to tolerate religious extremism in the same way that Imran Khan wants to.
The writer is a Karachi-based journalist. Connect with him on Twitter @ASYusuf