Defying the Taliban with love

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Naimat Khan  TFT Issue: 06 Jan 2017

 

A few hundred metres from where the Taliban maintained their courts, communal harmony prevails. Naimat Khan reports from Manghopir.

 

By the end of 2013, Manghopir was the incontrovertible Ground Zero of the Taliban in Karachi. Its major neighbourhood, Sultanabad, built on qabza land (i.e. under the occupation of the land mafia), was home to both the leadership and the rank-and-file of the Wali-ur-Rehman Mehsud faction of the Taliban. In the foot of the mountainous ridge forming the border between Sultanabad and Ittehad town, the Taliban had a multipurpose office, built along the lines of their office in Miramshah bazaar in North Waziristan Agency. There, the ‘Ameer sahib’ would summon people to the Taliban’s ‘Shariah’ court. Southward in Sultanabad is the ANP Chowk, and also known as Madina Bakery. In the Taliban era, the Chowk was a symbol of terror in the vicinity. Bodies of around 87 people, including 17 policemen and 10 local Awami National Party (ANP) leaders and activists, were recovered from there. As the Taliban’s hold grew, locals say, the Manghopir Police Station, by the Manghopir River, was also closed down. From Sultanabad and nearby areas, violence and crime in the city was directed: ranging from bank heists to bomb blasts; and from targeted killings to attacks on political workers and minority sects.

But all was not bleak in this Taliban-infested part of Karachi. Less than a mile away from the center of violence, a tightly knit community with a sizeable proportion of four different religious and sectarian affiliations lived in a small colony, resilient in the face of waves of violence and political turbulence in the area. The colony is situated in the city government leprosy hospital and extended to Yaqoob Shah Basti. In the center of the colony are four places of worship of different religious affiliations: a mosque, a temple, a church, and an imambargah, all of which face each other.

Unlike the rest of the city where ethnic and religious identities reign supreme, the residents of this colony play down their differences. Many do not like to being identified by their religion, sect, ethnicity or language. Others speak of their respect for the others’ faith and ethnicity as their strength. That respect, they say, has helped them survive the turbulence common to Manghopir and Karachi.

Residents believe respect for others’ faith and ethnicity has helped them survive the turbulence common to Manghopir and Karachi

“I was admitted to the Leprosy hospital in late 60s. At that time almost all doctors were British. They treated us with immense compassion and would advise us to live in peace and love. I think their frequent emphasis on peaceful coexistence resonated with the community,” said 85-year-old Sohna Faqir hailing from Lasbela, Balochistan. Faqir recovered to full health at the hospital and yet did not leave the area. He was drawn to the care and camaraderie in the community and decided to settle here.

In the 1890s, a group of British doctors, visiting the area, came across patients of leprosy at the Mangophir Mazar bathing in the hot sulphur springs – also called ‘Mangi’ or Garm-aab. Back then it was famous that the springs had healing powers. When the visiting doctors saw the patients in pain, they were moved to do something. “They [the British] went back, collected funds and came back to setup the hospital in 1896,” according to Faqir.

“The Mandir existed before the hospital was established in 1896 but later during the British rule a Masjid and a church was setup for the patients, their attendees and other dwellers of the town,” said the 85 year old. As the population increased, Faqir said, an Imambargah – called the Imambargah Ali Raza – was built.

“Until 1986, the Sunni and Shia Muslims would offer prayers at the KMC Jamia Masjid. Later Imambargah Ali Raza was established,” said Noor Islam, a local journalist and resident of the same neighborhood, and added, “Despite separate places for offering their prayers, there has never been sectarian discord in the colony.”

For many years, Manghopir, a town founded by the 13th century saint Pir Haji Syed Sakhi Sultan, was home to Muhajirs, Sindhis, Punjabis, Kashmiris, Seraikis, Pakhtuns, Balochis, Memons, Bohras, and Ismailis. In 2008, thousands of displaced civilians from Waziristan started moving into the area. Following the Operation Rah-e-Nijat in South Waziristan, the demography of the area changed rapidly.

“After the operation, the Taliban militants came here in droves, started taking shelter in the neighbourhood, and by 2012-13 they achieved a complete hold over the locality, making it no-go area for political workers and law enforcement agencies,” said Islam.

“We have been living here for so many decades together. We are one people practicing different faiths, which made us strong when Taliban would freely roam around on the main road,” said Babu Lal, caretaker of the of the centuries’ old Mardeshwar Mahadev Mandir, the oldest of the four worship places in the locality. Facing the hospital, a few steps to the east, is the Imambargah and few steps to the west are the Church and the mosque.

According to Lal, the community regularly observes ritual of shab-e-barat, Diwali, and Holi, in which Muslims and Christians also participate. “From 2012 to 2014, we – as a precaution – would celebrate the events inside our houses. After the Karachi operation in 2015, we resumed our celebrations out in the open.” Even when we moved indoors, our Muslim brothers continued to be a part of our celebrations, Lal added. “Our Muslim friends make it a point to wish us on Christmas and Easter,” said William Gill, 45-year-old councilor of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and added, “Muslims join us at the Baptist Church in our prayers on Christmas.”

Asfandyar Mir, doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, researching politically motivated violence and the dynamics of Taliban control in Karachi, recently visited the community. Commenting on the uniqueness of the ethnic and religious tolerance in the area, he added: “from a social science perspective, the fact that such islands of harmony exist amidst extreme turmoil is always remarkable. Most analyses on Karachi’s communal relationships start with the observation that in times of violence identities are hardened, and even apolitical religious and ethnic groups are compelled to seek security with their co-ethnics or religious groups. But this diverse community contradicts that trend, having withstood pressures in a very challenging part of the city.”

Are Taliban staging a comeback in Karachi?

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By: Naimat Khan

KARACHI: On December 8 a journalist from Manghopir posted photos of graffiti declaring Taliban’s comeback in the ‘Sultanabad’ area of the city. The graffiti read “Khalid Mehsud Sajna Zindabad Taliban Zindabad” and “we’re watching, we’re watching all, Tehreek-e-Taliban Waziristan.”

As the photos began to do rounds on social media, law enforcers swiftly moved to remove the graffiti. But the appearance of the Taliban’s message remains the talk of the neighborhood. Until 2013 Sultanabad – with a sizable population of Mehsud tribesmen having moved in after the military operations in South Waziristan – was a no-go area, controlled by the Pakistan Taliban. They had an office in the area as well.

Karachi police views the graffiti as nothing more than a hollow threat. “I do not see it as an indicator of Taliban’s come back,” said Omar Shahid, SSP Investigation in Counter Terrorism Department of the Sindh Police. No wall-chalking was reported in Kanwari colony, which was also one of the Taliban’s strongholds in the city few years back. At the peak of Taliban’s influence, Shahid says, prominent local elders had left the city for Peshawar and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) due to Taliban’s threat. In the last few years, most of them have come back.

“The first indicator of Taliban recurrence in the town would be if they are threatened or killed,” Shahid argues. He thinks that this time around, the local population will offer more resistance than before. Recalling the recent meeting of Pathan elders with former DG Rangers, Major General Bilal Akber, the police officer says that the community feels it suffered because of the Taliban.  “Until and unless Taliban undertake a sustained campaign of terrorism, such graffiti has little significance,” he concluded.

Informed locals offer two explanations for the appearance of the graffiti. Some locals link it to the politics surrounding the removal of the former Manghopir SHO Ghulam Hussain Korai. Korai was removed after a police encounter of an Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) leader Maulana Yousuf Quddosi. On his removal, locals staged a protest, insisting that Korai had a major role in wiping out Taliban from the area. “It’s said that it’s linked to the race for seat of SHO Manghopir, a vicinity where two major centers of drug peddlers – one owned by a Baloch and another owned by a Pashtun from Shangla Swat – are situated, providing huge share to ‘all’,” a local said.

Others suggest that it’s not just about the graffiti but that they have seen Taliban move around in the area. “Pro-Taliban graffiti are not the only alarming thing for us. For the last few weeks six men riding three 125 motorbikes have been seen roaming around the streets of Sultanabad,” a local driver Mubeen Khan told this scribe. “Few years back, Taliban courts would summon people here in this office ,” the driver told while pointing towards a house in the foothill.

Law enforcers remain vigilant. When the Taliban made inroads in the area in 2012, the Manghopir police station was closed down. The police station is only a few hundred meters away from the Taliban’s former neighborhood. Right now, it remains open and functioning. Soldiers of the Rangers also patrol the main Hub dam road.

Still, locals remain wary and concerned. Last month the Taliban posted a two-minute video message in Pashto, showing Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah announcing the appointment of Haji Daud Mehud as the new chief for Taliban’s Karachi chapter. Haji Daud Mehsud was an official in the Sindh police before defecting to the Taliban. Fazlullah instructed all factions of the Taliban to follow the directives of Mehsud. Mehsud is a resident of Quaidabad.

Published in The Frontier Post