How did the city shut down so quickly?
On June 8 five years ago the MQM called a strike in Karachi, telling shops and bus operators to support their protest because the Rangers had attacked Farooq Sattar’s PIB Colony house. They bashed the gate with rifles and tried to kick it in. Rangers DG Bilal Akbar issued a clarification that no raid had taken place. The MQM ignored him.
This was the last time ever the party called a strike.
Normally, when the bhai log made such an announcement, for years, it would spread like wildfire through the city. Shopkeepers would jump over their counters to yank down their shutters that would unfurl with a clatter to the ground. As news spread people wouldn’t bother to leave home and those who were stuck at work would make a mad dash for it. The roads drained out of traffic (nearly enough to even improve our miserable air quality index for the day). Silence would blanket the city.
But this time, no one listened. Public transport kept running. Shops stayed open. Everyone thought one thing: the strike call was a total fail. What was surprising, and quite shocking to many, was that Altaf bhai was still officially in control in London.
Since that day in 2016, no political party has come close to shutting Karachi down. There were five years of relative peace. The people who live here started to forget what paralysis felt like—until, of course, this year.
On April 12, the Lahore police detained Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan chief Saad Hussain Rizvi in Lahore ahead of planned protests against French cartoons. And before Karachi had even caught up with the news, people realized that suddenly something very familiar was happening.
TLP activists blocked highways and major roads across the country. In Karachi, they staged sit-ins at eleven key city points: Mereweather Tower, Orangi 5, Baldia 4, Native Jetty flyover, Star Gate, MA Jinnah Road, Korangi 2.5, Hassan Square, Liaquatabad and NIPA Chowrangi.
When the Rangers surfaced, violence broke out as TLP activists resisted. On the evening of April 13, TLP mobs ransacked a police mobile at Baldia 4 and burnt motorcycles at Star Gate and Orangi 5. It took a while but eventually, the police and Rangers managed to get a grip on them.
Then on April 18, Mufti Muneeb-ur Rehman announced a nationwide strike after clashes broke out between the police and TLP. Traders and transporters backed the call and business in Karachi came to a halt. The port, banks, stock exchange and forex companies were open but major business centres, Saddar, Jodia Bazaar, Tariq Road, Bahadurabad, Clifton closed down.
But there were some areas in the city where shopkeepers didn’t get the memo and stayed open.
“I was sitting in my shop after iftaar when I saw a group of people wearing face masks appear in the area,” a paan shop owner in Malir’s Moinabad, Maaz, told Samaa Digital. “The men parked their motorbikes along the railway track near Model Colony Railway Station and started aerial firing.”
They gave everyone ten minutes to close. “[Everyone] threw their display items inside and pulled the shutters,” he said. The men kept coming back to make sure their threat was followed.
Maaz was hardly eleven years old when he had seen the same thing happen. In 2013, the MQM gave a strike call over the killing of party workers in a bomb blast during an election campaign.
“Eight years ago, I was sitting in the same shop with my father when some men with their faces covered started aerial firing,” he said. “My father threw everything along with me inside the shop, pulled the shutter down and ran away.” He then returned a short while later, opened up the shutter and pulled his son out.
Though the TLP ended up calling off its protest after successful negotiations with the federal government, the Karachi police is still looking into its show of power in the city for those few days. The information yielded by several men who were arrested for taking the law into their own hands has been helpful.
The police discovered that the men involved in the TLP violence were associated with the MQM in the past.
Korangi 2.5 is one area where the TLP staged a sit-in. A heavy contingent of police was deployed at this point. “During the sit-in, the protesters attacked the police from time to time and when the police retaliated, they ran away into the narrow streets,” Korangi SSP Faisal Abdullah Chachar told Samaa Digital.
When the police arrested some of them, they found that they had an MQM background. “For instance, a man called Shahzada Shahbaz alias Kashif alias Bandhani was among the miscreants, who was patronizing the sit-ins in District Korangi.”
Shahbaz joined the MQM in 2000 but left it to join Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, which was banned in 2002. Shahbaz is named in four cases of robbery and possession of illegal arms. He formed his own gang and carried out a number of robberies in the area. “Shahbaz was arrested for robbery and sent to jail too, but he got bail and came out,” the SSP said. “He joined the TLP in 2018 and now he is engaged in funding it.”
Baldia 4 was another area where the TLP activists gave the police a tough time. “We faced swift resistance in the clearance of roads for the restoration of vehicular traffic here,” Keamari SSP Fida Hussain Janwari told Samaa Digital.
“Miscreants from Patni Mohalla suddenly appeared from time to time, attacked the police and then fled.” According to Janwari, the police registered 43 cases against men across Keamari for ransacking property during the TLP violence.
Patni Mohalla is considered a symbol of terror in Baldia Town as the MQM’s notorious militant, Farooq Patni alias Farooq Dada, belonged to it. Though Patni was shot dead in an encounter in 1995, this area is still considered an MQM stronghold. And indeed it seems that much of the culture of fear, and men who carry it forward are still active in Karachi.