Serious blow

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

The reasons for the bombing that killed at least 57 people in Karachi and the people behind it remain a mystery.


THE latest bombing incident in the port city of Karachi on April 11, which left at least 57 people killed and scores injured, jolted the Pakistani people and establishment alike. Violence, religious or otherwise, has been a common feature of Pakistani society, particularly since the Zia-ul Haq era of the 1980s. The Nishtar Park blast can be considered as yet another incident in the blow-back category.

But the implications of the latest carnage are so far-reaching that by no yardstick can it be treated as one more event in a country divided deeply on innumerable lines. More than the explosion (eight days later there are still doubts on whether it was triggered by a suicide bomber or a remote device), it is the persons who could be responsible for the conspiracy that make it a frightening prospect for the Pakistani citizen and state.

Here are a few `facts and figures' to view the tragedy in perspective. The blast took place at a conference organised by the Sunni Tehreek of the Barelvi school of thought on the occasion of the birthday celebrations of Prophet Mohammad. The congregation was at one of the central parks of Karachi, in the vicinity of the memorial of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Besides the top leadership of the Sunni Tehreek, the 2,000-odd gathering consisted of small traders and businessmen, including shopkeepers.

According to Sindh Provincial Police Officer (PPO) Jahangir Mirza, the explosion took place despite the foolproof security measures put in place by the authorities. These included the deployment of the police forces of the Saddar and Jamshed towns in addition to 50 reserve platoons. The Jamshed Town Police Officer was apparently supervising the personnel from the police control room established in front of Nishtar Park.

"At such gatherings, internal security is managed by the organisers, while the police and other law-enforcers ensure their presence in the surroundings to meet any external eventuality," Mirza said at a news conference, adding that 67 plain-clothesmen were also present at the venue.

In addition, the Bomb Disposal Squad had checked the venue and "cleared" it and handed it over to the organisers at about 2 p.m. on April 11.

Quoting explosives experts, he claimed that the suicide bomber blew himself up with a locally made device containing approximately 5 kg of highly explosive material filled with a number of pellets. "Any particular person, group or party was not the target; rather, it was a multi-purpose terrorism act aimed at killing innocent people to create a law and order situation and damage the country's image at the international level," Mirza claimed.

According to the PPO, all victims have been identified, except a head found without the torso, which the police think is the head of the suicide bomber. "The police have adopted every possible measure to identify the head, including seeking technical help from the National Database and Regulation Authority, federal investigation agencies and the police of other provinces," he said.

Despite all the measures, the intelligence agencies and the police not only failed to prevent the blast but also were reduced to being mute spectators as irate citizens targeted government installations and indulged in acts of vandalism. For three days Karachi observed an unannounced strike. The situation was so explosive that the Sindh government requisitioned the services of the Army.

Whoever the killers were, those behind the carefully planned explosion succeeded in eliminating the entire top leadership of the Sunni Tehreek. Among the leaders who perished in the park were Abbas Qadri, Iftikhar Bhatti and Akram Qadri. Haji Hanif Billu, a religious and social figure, Hafiz Taqi, a former provincial Minister, and Maulana Mukhtar, a prominent Sunni leader, were also killed.

A senior editor of a Pakistani daily said: "Karachi has had its share of mayhem, particularly in the aftermath of the crackdown on MQM [Muttahida Quami Movement] in the late 1980s. But the fear psychosis which haunts the citizens of the city after the Nishtar tragedy has no precedent. In case the explosion was the handiwork of sectarian elements, it could well be beginning of a civil war in the country."

Interestingly, President General Pervez Musharraf, who was in Karachi a week after the tragedy, was quoted as saying that the April 11 blast could not be linked to international terrorism of the Al Qaeda variety and could be the handiwork of sectarian elements. But the religious parties and the surviving leadership of the Sunni Tehreek do not share the views of Musharraf and his managers.

Leaders of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of religious parties, see it as a "United States and Zionists' conspiracy" to create a rift among Muslims. They blame indirectly their traditional rival in the city, the MQM, for facilitating the massacre. Their argument is that `terrorists' were in control of the Sindh government and the Federal Law Ministry had left the urban areas of Sindh to the control of the `ethnic terrorist outfit', which was engaged in the massacre of political opponents, the Ulema and religious people.

Ironically, except for the authorities, everyone has a theory on the blast. At the end of week one, at least five distinct conspiracy theories had emerged. Each of them furiously brought to the fore the vulnerabilities of Pakistan as a society rather than throw any light on the actual event. Leaders of the Sunni Tehreek seem to point their fingers at the MQM. They claim that the MQM feels threatened politically by the growing popularity of the organisation in the city and other parts of Sindh. The MQM and the Sunni Tehreek are bitter political rivals, but the moot question is, would the MQM go to the extent of staging a suicide attack in the very centre of the city under its grip?

The MQM has been an important member of the ruling coalition in the province since 2002 and is in charge of the Home Ministry. For all its bloody track record, it would be naive to expect a shrewd political force like the MQM to be involved in such a high-profile incident to settle scores with its rival. Further it has been pointed out that the MQM has never been involved in suicide bombings.

The Shia-Sunni angle highlighted another conspiracy. By all accounts, the Sunni Tehreek is considered a non-militant organisation with little evidence of any bloody street battles with other sectarian outfits in the country.

Could it be an outcome of the rivalry between the Deobandi and Wahabi schools of thought within the Sunni sect? There have been instances of violent clashes between the activists of parties and groups representing the two schools over issues relating mainly to the possession of mosques in the city. But there is little to substantiate such an assumption in this case.

Then there is the eternal Al Qaeda-Taliban angle, which has dominated the discourse on terrorism in Pakistan post-9/11. The Pakistani establishment has in the past blamed Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants routinely for incidents of terrorism and violence, but the April 11 incident is a different cup of tea. It is easy to point fingers at Al Qaeda when it comes to either targets of the West or the government, but how can one explain an attack on an Islamic religious congregation?

Last but not least is the invisible, omnipotent and omnipresent `foreign hand'. It should be read as India in most cases, and other foreign forces get into the distinguished list depending on the era and the situation. For example, there were instances when Iran was blamed for fanning sectarianism. Some of the habitual foreign hand bashers in the country did not miss the opportunity after April 11, but clearly they failed to make any mark.

Actually, the list of possibilities for the Nishtar Park incident is endless, like the reaction to the problems in Wazirstan and even Balochistan. More than the April 11 blast, it is the list of endless possibilities on who could have done it that is the bigger tragedy that confronts Pakistan.

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