On one side, people known as Mohajirs, long the dominant group in this economic hub, seethingly point to bullet-scarred and burned houses and demand a new province that would be theirs alone. On the other side, Pashtuns who migrated here in recent years after fleeing an Islamist insurgency in their native northwest also point to bullet holes, and some express worry that a sort of ethnic cleansing is to come.
“Now they are asking for their own province,” Adnan Khan, a Pashtun whose brother was fatally shot by unknown assailants this month, said of the Mohajirs. “Next maybe they will ask for their own country.”
Karachi, Pakistan’s most diverse city, is once more spewing violence that goes unchecked by police and is stoked by thuggish politicians. While the fierce Taliban insurgency seeks to overthrow the government from mountain hideouts hundreds of miles away, the city’s battles are laying bare the deep ethnic, political and sectarian cleavages that pose an additional threat to this fragile federation — as well as an impediment to its unity against Islamist militancy.
When Pakistan parted from India in 1947, it fused vast spans of ethnically and linguistically distinct populations under the common cause of Islam. But the state has struggled to define Islam’s role as a social adhesive. The powerful, Punjabi-dominated military, meanwhile, has aimed to suppress various nationalist movements, even while sometimes backing ethnic and sectarian groups as tools for influence. Politics remain cutthroat and largely localized. The result, some say, is a nation hobbled — and increasingly bloodied — by factionalism.
“Why are they fighting in Karachi? Because they have not become Pakistani yet. People have not become a nation,” said Syed Jalal Mahmood Shah, the Karachi-based leader of a small nationalist party that represents people native to surrounding Sindh province. Mohajirs, like Pashtuns, are themselves migrants to Karachi: They are Urdu-speaking Muslims who fled Hindu-majority India at partition.
Shifting demographics are the root of the fighting in Karachi, where an influx of ethnic Pashtuns from the war-torn region along the Afghan border is challenging the Mohajirs’ long-standing grip on the city. The struggle is waged through assassinations, land-grabbing and extortion, and it is carried out by gangs widely described as armed wings of ethnically based political parties. The Urdu speakers, represented by the dominant Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, accuse the Pashtuns of sheltering terrorists in Karachi; the MQM’s main rival, the Awami National Party, or ANP, says the city’s 4 million Pashtuns are ignored politically.
But the violence is escalating to new levels, and residents say ethnic tensions are sharpening.