Troubled polity

Published : Jun 01, 2007 00:00 IST

In Karachi on May 12. Gun battles on that day and the next left 41 dead and 150 injured.-SHAKIL ADIL/AP

In Karachi on May 12. Gun battles on that day and the next left 41 dead and 150 injured.-SHAKIL ADIL/AP

With the violence in Karachi, the demand for the reinstatement of a judge hasbecome an agitation for the removal of a President.

AS the late-night flight from Islamabad taxied to a halt at Karachi's Jinnah International Airport, mobile phones began bleeping on the plane. Nothing unusual in that, except that passengers soon realised they were getting near-identical messages: All roads in the city blocked; impossible to get out of the airport; stay put until the situation improves.

It was 1.40 a.m. on May 12, about 11 hours before Pakistan Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary was due to arrive in Karachi, the country's most populated city, to address the Sindh High Court Bar Association later in the day. The event was expected to attract thousands of lawyers, besides opposition activists and members of the public rallying to express support for the Chief Justice, who has been "non-functional" since March 9 following a presidential reference against him on charges of misconduct and abuse of authority.

The attempt to remove Chaudhary has triggered President Pervez Musharraf's biggest domestic crisis since 1999. The Chief Justice's decision to stay on and fight his ouster in court and on the streets led to an agitation spearheaded by the legal community, which demanded the withdrawal of the reference and Chaudhary's reinstatement and widened rapidly into a demand for the removal of Musharraf from the presidency.

Only a week before his scheduled visit to Karachi, Chaudhary received a rapturous welcome in Lahore. All along the historic Grand Trunk Road from Islamabad, people lined up to welcome his motorcade, which grew as it snaked from one small town or village to the next. The 275-km journey took 25 hours to complete. The city stayed awake through the night waiting for the motorcade to arrive. The show panicked Musharraf and his government.

Karachi's legal community and opposition parties promised to make his visit to their city as, if not more, spectacular. "Sindh is known for its 300-year-old tradition of hospitality and, inshallah, we will welcome the Chief Justice in keeping with this tradition," said Naeem Qureshi, secretary-general of the Karachi Bar Association, three days before the event.

As opposition parties too announced plans to welcome the Chief Justice at the airport and escort him into the city, the possibility grew that the zeal of Lahore might repeat itself in Karachi. That was when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) stepped in to prevent another show of strength by Chaudhary, the legal community and the opposition parties.

The MQM is Karachi's most powerful political force. With the 2002 elections, it became a Musharraf ally, a partner of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid)-led ruling coalition at the Centre and the dominant partner of the same party in the Sindh provincial government. It considers Karachi its own turf.

Built on an ethnic base of Urdu-speakers who migrated from India at Partition, the MQM earned notoriety for the wave of violence that swept Karachi in the early 1990s. After Operation Clean Up in 1992, which saw its leader Altaf Hussain flee to London, where he has lived since, the party managed to thrive, demonstrating in every election that it was a force to reckon with.

Within days of 9/11, the MQM held a rally in Karachi, said to have been attended by 2,00,000 people, to express support for the United States' "war on terror" and to strengthen the hand of Musharraf at a time of great internal opposition to his pro-US policies. Its thuggish tactics nothwithstanding, the MQM boldly proclaims itself the only secular party in Pakistan, and still gets votes. In its quest to make national inroads, it changed its name from the Mohajir Qaumi Movement - "mohajir" means refugee, and in this case stands for migrants to Pakistan from India - to the Muttahida (United) Qaumi Movement.

When Altaf Hussain, Altaf bhai to his supporters, announced from London that the party would take out a rally on the same day as the scheduled arrival of Chief Justice Chaudhary, it was clear to anyone familiar with Karachi that these would not be two parallel peaceful events.

The MQM said it also stood for the independence of the judiciary and would rally to demand that the judiciary be freed from the clutches of the opposition parties, which were using the Chaudhary issue for political gain.

The Sindh government asked Chaudhary to postpone his visit, saying it expected violence. The Chaudhary camp said that the Chief Justice was proceeding according to a plan drawn up much earlier to address Sindh High Court lawyers on the occasion of the Supreme Court's 50th anniversary. They said the Sindh government should ask the MQM to call off its rally.

From the roadblocks, it was clear that the MQM was not as interested in holding its own rally as it was in preventing the Chief Justice from leaving the Karachi airport. Huge container trucks, buses, tankers and other heavy vehicles were packed tightly across every few 100 metres of every important road in the city. This correspondent managed to leave the airport in the pre-dawn hours of May 12 only with the assistance of an MQM office-bearer, who introduced himself at every blockade, and managed to get a bus moved here and a truck moved there to squeeze his car through. Where that was impossible, those manning the blockades gave directions to alternative routes into town.

The mayhem began a few hours later and coincided with the touchdown of the aeroplane carrying Chief Justice Chaudhary. Small processions of opposition parties, such as Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party of Pashtuns (a significant force in multi-ethnic Karachi), tried to break through the barriers on Sharah-e-Faisal, the arterial road between the airport and the city. Gun battles broke out between groups. Gunmen on rooftops of apartment buildings shot at people on the roads. The injured lay unattended for hours alongside the dead because ambulances were unable to reach them through the blockades.

The Pakistan Rangers, an elite paramilitary force entrusted with a good amount of Karachi's law enforcement, could be seen in substantial numbers with the local police in several places, but they did nothing to stop the violence. As lawyers went in procession from the City Court, which houses the sessions courts, to the Sindh High Court to await the arrival of the Chief Justice, mobs threw stones at them and fired into the air. The action the police took was to detain the lawyers.

Elsewhere in the city, the building of Aaj, a private television station whose licence the government threatened to cancel in April for its coverage of the political crisis, came under gunfire for close to six hours. Viewers saw its star anchor, Talat Hussain, pleading live from inside the building for law-enforcers to come to the rescue of the station, but to no avail.

The MQM showed it was the "boss" in Karachi. At the end of the day, the city was reeling with 33 dead and over 150 injured. More would succumb to their injuries, and when the violence continued for a second day, the death toll went up to 41.

At the airport, another drama was unfolding with the noon arrival of Chief Justice Chaudhary on board a regular Pakistan International Airways flight from Islamabad. As he and his entourage of about 25 lawyers got off the aircraft, the Sindh Inspector-General of Police and a Rangers officer were standing by. They told him that a helicopter was waiting to take him to the Sindh High Court.

Chaudhary said he wanted his hosts from the Karachi Bar Association to be permitted to come to the airport and that he would go into town only with them. He also refused to go anywhere without his team. At this point, the Inspector-General and other police officers reportedly tried to hustle the Chief Justice into a car. His lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, and others in the entourage resisted the police and took him to a lounge in the airport.

Ahsan, a frontline member of the PPP and an articulate parliamentarian, later said the lawyers travelling with the Chief Justice had foiled an attempt by the Sindh government to "kidnap" Chaudhary.

Soon afterward, the Sindh Interior Secretary (a portfolio held by the MQM) reached the airport and delivered an ultimatum: either the Chief Justice take the waiting helicopter to keep his engagement at the Sindh High Court or he returned to Islamabad. Chaudhary refused to do either and said he would leave the airport only by road to Karachi.

Meanwhile, the Sindh High Court Chief Justice summoned the police and asked them to clear the blockades on Sharah-e-Faisal to enable Chaudhary to take the road. But the police said they were helpless and unable to implement the order.

Outside the Arrivals terminal, journalists, including this correspondent, waited in large numbers in case Chaudhary should emerge suddenly. Behind them, plumes of smoke rose up to the sky from the main road - a tell-tale sign that the violence on Sharah-e-Faisal was such that even if the Chief Justice came out, he would not be able to take the road to the High Court.

The standoff continued through the day.

Late in the afternoon, MQM activists arrived in large numbers at a place in the city called Tibet Centre, where Altaf bhai addressed them over the telephone from London. Stumped by its own blockades, the party could not gather the crowds that it is known to muster usually, but it was still an impressive show.

Hussain reminded the Chief Justice that he had betrayed the Constitution by taking an oath under Musharraf's Provisional Constitutional Order in 2000. He challenged him to resign and apologise to the nation for this, and only then step forward to lead the struggle for the independence of the judiciary. From his office in London's Edgware Road, he said political and religious parties in the opposition were "conspiring" to use the Chief Justice to dissolve the government.

The MQM leader blamed Chaudhary for the violence and said no violent incidents had taken place until his flight landed at Karachi.

At the Sindh High Court premises, hundreds of lawyers who had managed to reach there waited for the Chief Justice. The stage was ready, and chairs had been laid out on the lawns. Rose petals in huge plastic bags, meant to shower the Chief Justice with when he arrived, wilted in the May heat inside the lounge. Lawyers huddled around television sets, watching live coverage of the day's events on several channels. At one point late in the afternoon, as the cameras showed Altaf Hussain addressing the MQM rally, loud boos and jeers and cries of "shame, shame" went up from the lawyers. As the lawyers continued their vigil late into the evening, the Sindh High Court Bar Association president, Abrar Hassan, said, "We will keep waiting for our guest, whether it takes him two days to get here or four days."

Eventually, the lawyers dispersed late that night after the Chief Justice announced that he was returning to Islamabad. By then, his entourage had been served deportation orders to leave Sindh province. Having proved the point that the provincial government had not been able to facilitate his entry into Karachi, Chaudhary called off his sit-in at the airport.

By 6 p.m., the police and the Rangers could be seen supervising the removal of the vehicles that were blocking the roads.

From Karachi, television viewers could see President Musharraf addressing a rally in Islamabad organised by the PML(Q). All day, as Karachi burnt, vehicles carrying PML(Q) supporters poured into the federal capital for the rally, which the PML(Q) had pledged would be bigger than Chaudhary's Lahore meeting. When Musharraf addressed the gathering, it was late at night. Like Altaf Hussain, he held the Chief Justice responsible for the violence in Karachi. He also said that the MQM rally in Karachi and the one he was addressing in Islamabad were a "clear demonstration of support for him and his policies".

Events in Karachi have drawn the political battle lines in Pakistan even more firmly. The violence has united the opposition like never before. And what was an agitation for the reinstatement of a judge has now become an agitation for the removal of a President. The strike called by the opposition on May 14 was observed in full in Karachi and affected life in all major cities. Traders and shopkeepers, seen as Musharraf's natural constituency, said on television that they wanted to register their anger at what happened in Karachi.

Musharraf has also shown that he is determined to fight back, but, in doing so, he has considerably narrowed his manoeuvring space. Talk of a deal between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto has ended. As long as he projected the judicial crisis as "purely a judicial and constitutional matter" that would be decided within the four walls of a courtroom, he could paint the political agitation as unjustified and unreasonable.

Allowing himself to be drawn out on to the streets was a tacit acceptance of the opposition argument that the government action against the Chief Justice was about the larger question of whether or not he should continue. By permitting, and even encouraging, a political ally to prevent the Chief Justice from entering the city, the President showed the extent of his political insecurity.

While the MQM has no image to lose, the violence in Karachi has damaged Musharraf the most. The ethnic party has given a new dimension to the crisis. The bloodletting pitted the MQM's Urdu-speakers against the ANP's Pashtun followers - Pashtuns were the majority of the dead - and to some extent against the Punjabis and the Sindhis. The ANP called a three-day strike in Karachi from May 27. At the national level, the President's actions have brought accusations that as Army Chief and an Urdu-speaker, he used the ethnic card to ward off his troubles.

The Supreme Court stayed the proceedings of the five-judge panel known as the Supreme Judicial Council that was hearing the government's March 9 reference against Chaudhary. A full court is hearing Chaudhary's constitutional petition challenging the reference. While the government says that the pro-Chaudhary camp is putting pressure on the judiciary through its street protests, a court official was shot in his home and Chaudhary's lawyers say it was a targeted killing. The official was reported to have been under immense pressure to depose against Chaudhary.

Both in the courtroom and outside, it appears to be a no-holds-barred battle from now on. Those on Chaudhary's side say they are fighting for the restoration of a constitutional democracy. Musharraf is fighting to stay on in power. Some analysts believe that Musharraf could still defuse the crisis by calling early parliamentary elections - due at the end of this year - so that opposition energies are diverted. But this option is fraught with the danger of a defeat at the hustings if the elections are free and fair.

Any outcome to the crisis will also depend on how much the military, as an institution, feels threatened. Even though protesters have focussed on Musharraf - the refrain of the agitation was "Go Musharraf go" - slogans have also been raised against the "uniform" for the first time.

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