Karachi, Pakistan - Perched atop a hill by the seaside in Pakistan's largest city sits the mausoleum of Abdullah Shah Ghazi. About 1,400 years ago, the story goes, he came to these shores as one of the first Arab Muslim conquerors. When the armies moved on, however, Ghazi stayed. Today, he is revered as Karachi's patron saint: watching over her citizens and granting the devout a route to God.
Over the past year and a half, Abdullah Shah Ghazi may have had a lot of work to do.
Karachi, a sprawling metropolis of some 15 million people, has been wracked by fits of crippling violence. In 2011, 1,723 people were killed in the city - 476 of those homicides were politically motivated. This year, that number is already well into the hundreds, according to rights organisations.
One cannot understand Karachi's violence, however, without first understanding her politics - and, specifically, the crucible of ethnic issues, crime and land that has shaped those politics.
|Police recently attempted to capture PAC leaders, who had been allied to the ruling PPP [EPA]
Setting the political scene
Karachi, which generates almost 15 per cent of Pakistan's gross domestic product, is the country's melting pot. From a population of 400,000 (mostly Hindu citizens) in 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into mainly Muslim Pakistan and majority-Hindu India, it has mushroomed to become one of the world's largest metropolitan areas.
The initial expansion was driven by migrants from India, referred to as Muhajirs (or Urdu-speakers, after their mother tongue). Today's Karachi, however, has large populations of Punjabis (17 per cent), Pashtuns (14 per cent), Sindhis (eight per cent), and Balochis (four per cent).
Political affiliations are broadly perceived to break down along ethnic lines. Most Muhajirs tend to vote for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), most Sindhis and Balochis back the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and most Pashtuns vote for the ethnic-nationalist Awami National Party (ANP). The ethnic political affiliations are by no means neat, however, largely as a result of diverging political identities of pre- and post-partition migrants to Karachi.
What is clear is that Muhajirs form the largest segment of Karachi's population (44 per cent), and the MQM dominates the city - both in the assemblies, and on the streets.
When talking about politics in Karachi, two things are striking. First, how violence - or the threat of it (both as exercised by, and against, political parties) - is always lurking. It is thus that the MQM's frequent departures from Islamabad's coalition government are often accompanied by days of crippling violence.
"It was in the 1980s, with the entry of the MQM into politics, that one saw violence seriously becoming a fact of life in Karachi," Zohra Yusuf, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told Al Jazeera. "The MQM armed its workers heavily, and they claimed that [they did so] because they were being attacked [by other parties].
"This switching on and off of violence in the case of the MQM is really an assertion of their power," she added. "They want to prove that they have control over Karachi."
Senior leaders of the MQM, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, admitted that the party may have engaged in violence when it was first formed, as a student organisation at Karachi University in the late 1970s. Now, they argue, as a locally dominant political party with national aspirations, it is no longer in their interest.
"Yes, killings have happened in the past - but we were protecting ourselves," said one MQM member of parliament.
And this is where one encounters the second striking thing about talking politics in Karachi: almost every political leader Al Jazeera spoke to, in every major party, used a very particular phrase, when talking about political killings.
"Every action will have a reaction," said Afaq Ahmed, the leader of a faction that violently split from the MQM in the 1990s. His words were echoed by Farooq Sattar, the MQM's parliamentary leader, Shahi Syed, the ANP's Sindh chief, police officials and others.
The phrase evokes an image of Karachi as some incredibly complex experiment in human physics, suspended precipitously above chaos, being constantly pulled this way and that, struggling to find equilibrium.
'A river of fire and blood'
"It isn't just every party in Karachi that has weapons," the ANP's Syed told Al Jazeera. "Every person in the city has weapons.
"There will be misuse of weapons in our party. There will be people [who use them]. But it is not party policy."
Syed said there was an atmosphere of violence in the city, and that local party activists could not always been controlled by their leaders. He implicated members of his own party in being involved in extortion rackets and land grabs, for example - all "without the consent of the party", he stressed.
Primarily, however, Syed held the MQM responsible for Karachi's violence, calling the party a "terrorist movement" and alleging it maintained a "militant wing".
"[The MQM] has captured Karachi since 1986, and ... as a result, this city has become like a river of fire and blood."
- MH Mehanti, Jamaat-e-Islami
Muhammad Hussain Mehanti, the Sindh chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious party which held sway over Karachi before the emergence of the MQM, agreed.
"[The MQM] has captured Karachi since 1986, and ... as a result, this city has become like a river of fire and blood," he told Al Jazeera.
The MQM's Sattar vehemently opposed that characterisation of his party.
"The MQM has not ever prescribed violence," he says. "The political killings in Karachi are being carried out by religious extremists, in a lethal nexus with the criminal mafia, having the patronage of some political leaders."
In between the violent actions and reactions of Karachi's politics, no party, it would seem, sees itself as the prime mover. Observers, however, say all political parties have their weapons drawn, ready to pull the trigger.
What do law enforcement officers make of politicians' assertion that the violence was due to common criminality, not political parties?
"It's bulls**t," one senior police official told Al Jazeera - speaking on condition of anonymity because he remains associated with the government.
"Every major political party in this city is armed."
Lyari: politics, violence and welfare
The MQM is certain it is criminal groups, sponsored by politicians, that are the real problem. Sattar pointed, in particular, to the case of the People's Amn [Peace] Committee (PAC) in Lyari, a PPP-dominated part of the city.
"This so-called Peace Committee - [PAC chief] Uzair Baloch and [deputy] Zafar Baloch. [They] are notorious criminals," he said, implicating them in the city's rampant heroin trade and extortion rackets.
Zafar Baloch, the "gangster" in question, disagreed with that assessment. His group, however, does prove an interesting case study.
The PAC was formed in 2008, Baloch told Al Jazeera, after a six-year gang war in the area had claimed thousands of lives. It was founded by Sardar Abdul Rehman Baloch, more popularly known as Rehman Dacoit - a member of one of the gangs inolved. The initial dispute had been, unsurprisingly, over an issue of politics. Rehman, a PPP supporter, had opposed the decision of his then-boss to defect to the MQM. The result was a bloodbath, turning what was once one of the city's most peaceful quarters into a virtual warzone between 2002 and 2008.
"The thing is, if you don't do this sort of thing [of being capable of killing and carrying out revenge attacks], no-one will respect you."
- Zafar Baloch, deputy PAC leader
The PAC emerged from that war, Baloch said, as a means to settle issues through dialogue and communication, not bloodshed.
The PAC was not, however, just a collection of gangsters gone straight. It was also an instrument for the PPP in Lyari, and the two worked closely. Zafar Baloch, for example, was elected General Secretary of the party's local chapter just last year. In essence, as well as in spirit, the PAC was the PPP in Lyari.
"Lyari and the Pakistan People's Party are lost without each other … there should be no doubt about this," he said. "But as matters have progressed, the PAC became a people's movement, and people demanded that our representatives in the government should have some accountability.
"We have been giving votes to the PPP for 40 years. We have been committed to them."
As Salma Bibi, a 45-year-old housewife in Lyari told Al Jazeera: "I remember election day [in 2008]. Our hands got tired from [fraudulently] stamping ballots with both hands for Nabeel Gabol [a PPP member of parliament for the area]."
Not that there were no misgivings: as one senior PPP leader and former senator, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera, there was a concern that "arming these people could backfire".
But the PAC delivered two things for the PPP in Lyari: votes, and security. In return, police officials told Al Jazeera, the PPP protected the armed group from law enforcement.
All that changed in May, when the PPP-led government ordered a police operation in Lyari, to capture the PAC "gangsters". Zafar Baloch and Uzair Baloch, among others, had bounties placed on their hands, as the police rolled in with armoured personnel carriers and dozens of police officers.
Ten days later, they were forced to beat a retreat. The PAC fought them off, using automatic weapons and, according to the government, rocket-propelled grenades. After days of pitched battles, at least 45 people had died - mostly unaffiliated civilians, but including several police officers.
|Zafar Baloch, a PAC leader, is currently recovering from an attempt made on his life shortly after he took up a PPP position [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
"We have been committed [to the PPP]. But is the PPP committed to us? If they are, they should solve our problems," said Zafar Baloch, speaking to Al Jazeera at a safehouse, rattling off a list of unfulfilled requests from the woefully underdeveloped area of the city - from a demand for more government schools to the need for more sports venues. It is the PAC, he said, which now delivers these social services to Lyari's people.
"This [bounty] is my reward for loyalty to the PPP," Uzair Baloch, the PAC chief, told Al Jazeera. "Lyari has been casting votes for the PPP for so many years, and now if we are asking for jobs in Lyari suddenly we are criminals? When I sat with the [provincial] Chief Minister, then I was fine? And now I am a terrorist?"
The PAC's case, of patronage and disavowal from a major political party is by no means atypical, officials and observers told Al Jazeera.
"Violence has absolutely become systemic to the way that politics is practiced in Karachi. We have seen the total criminalisation of politics," said Yusuf, the country's human rights commission chair.
It is a characterisation that Zafar Baloch concurs with.
"[Even non-political killings] become politicised. The parties see their activists are being killed, and then it becomes a matter of revenge," he said.
"The thing is, if you don't do this sort of thing, no-one will respect you. So it's become mandatory for every political party."
The wheel turns
And so Karachi keeps moving. The police, crippled by low numbers (there are only 32,000 police officers in Karachi) and political appointments, is in no position to fully enforce the law, said Sharfuddin Memon, an adviser to the provincial home department.
"The police treats people differently, on the same crime, depending on who the suspect is linked to," said one former Karachi police chief, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And the militants and criminals have entered the rank and file of the political parties.
"The parties use them for muscle, and the criminals use them for protection. It's a marriage of convenience."
In that situation, the police is forced to re-evaluate its objectives.
"We keep the city in a state of controlled anarchy - we decide how much to allow," said another senior police official.
As for the outlook, most say parliamentary elections, due in March, pose a particular challenge.
"Violence will escalate before the elections," said the former police chief. "The people nourished by the political parties - this is their time."
But Haris Gazdar, the director of the Karachi-based Collective for Social Science Research, believes, with the stakes so high, a deal will be reached between the parties.
"If you have a proper election, with everyone contesting for actual votes, then there is a guarantee that it's going to turn violent," he told Al Jazeera. "It would be seriously very difficult for the city to recover from what would be a delegitimised election if there were a lot of bloodshed."
And so the wheel turns. In Lyari, Uzair Baloch, the gangster and local political leader, told Al Jazeera he was taking meetings with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif's PML-N, Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and other parties. Even the PPP had sent unofficial emissaries, he said, to try and patch things up.
As for Karachi's citizens, they carry on with their lives, as a virtual civil war brews around them.
"[The city] keeps moving after bouts of violence," said rights leader Yusuf. "It stops, and then starts moving again as if nothing has happened."
Imran Ayub, a local crime reporter, narrated an illustrative story: "I was in the newsroom late one night, when I got a text message from a local ambulance service that a body had been found. I told them to hold off on carting it away before I got there.
"When I did, I saw it was the normal thing: a man, killed by a single shot to the head, dumped by the side of the road. And, not more than 50ft away, people were lining up to get into a cinema," he said.
"What a city."
It's the sort of city only a warrior saint, like Abdullah Shah Ghazi, could be watching over.
This article is part of a series of features on violence, crime and politics in Karachi.
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim