Left to right: Photograph by Arif Mahmood, White Star,   Photo courtesy Laurent Gayer
Left to right: Photograph by Arif Mahmood, White Star, Photo courtesy Laurent Gayer

Karachi is easy to stereotype. Despite being home to people belonging to practically every community living in Pakistan, the city is quite conveniently painted with a single brushstroke as the abode of Urdu-speakers or Muhajirs (migrants from India). Until recently, it was often referred to as the “most dangerous city in the world”. Its citizens were frequently labelled as suffering from the Stockholm syndrome — beholden to the same political, religious and ethnic organisations which they accuse of extorting money from them and causing violent disruptions in their lives.

The last three years have seen the paramilitary Sindh Rangers taking on these same political, religious and ethnic groups in order to cleanse Karachi of crime, militancy and terrorism. The general perception is that the operation has resulted in a growing sense of security in the city. Beneath the surface, however, the cracks are far from being healed — the city remains divided along the fault lines of language, class and power. The operation itself seems to have changed into an exercise in clipping the wings of Karachi’s largest political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). The party’s members have been accused of being involved in anti-Pakistan activities; many of its main leaders (including Karachi’s recently elected mayor Waseem Akhtar) are in jail, facing numerous cases ranging from listening to objectionable speeches made by the party’s founder to committing acts of terrorism; hundreds of its activists have been detained and interrogated; scores of them have gone missing; a few have been killed in encounters.

Mainly as a result of the operation and also due to the subsequent split within MQM, Karachi is in a state of limbo: With the local government still not fully functional, the provincial authorities cannot care less about the woeful state of roads, schools, hospitals, sanitation and waste disposal in the city.

To discuss all these issues, the Herald invited Laurent Gayer, a French social scientist and author of Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City (2014). For the past fifteen years, he has been studying Karachi’s complex sociopolitical and cultural environment. Omar Shahid Hamid is the second participant in the discussion. He has written two novels about Karachi, deriving mainly from his own experiences as the son of a slain bureaucrat, Shahid Hamid, and as a young police officer in Karachi in 2000s. He has recently rejoined the Karachi police force to work with the counterterrorism department.

Despite being home to people belonging to practically every community living in Pakistan, the city is quite conveniently painted with a single brushstroke as the abode of Urdu-speakers.

Herald. Let us begin by discussing the biggest development in Karachi — the pressure that MQM is under.

Omar Shahid Hamid. It is evident that Pakistan’s establishment sees Altaf Hussain and the people around him, especially in MQM’s London secretariat, as personae non gratae. They are not acceptable anymore. However, it does seem that the party is likely to continue as a political entity, with the proviso that its extensive connections with militancy get disconnected. This seems to be the format that we, at the moment, are looking at. Personally, I think the nexus between politics and crime has become so ingrained within MQM over the years that it is very difficult to separate its militant aspect from its political aspect. The divisions are not that clear anymore.

Laurent Gayer. I see recent events as only part of a longer chain of developments that we have been witnessing in the last few years: a gradual sidelining of Altaf Hussain under pressure from the state and its security apparatus, and a victory of that section of the party which is being referred to within MQM as tanzeemi (organisational) over the mercurial tehreeki (agitational) elements. What we have been seeing over the past few weeks is really the culmination of a process which began in the late 1990s with the transformation of Muhajir Qaumi Movement into Muttahida Qaumi Movement. What is at stake here is the gradual mainstreaming of the party — and that process has never really been complete for the reason that Omar has pointed to.

Like everyone else, I was struck by the dramatic developments of the last few weeks but we should not be too surprised by the apparent betrayal of Altaf Hussain by MQM’s Pakistan-based leadership. If we look at the writings of MQM’s earlier ideologues – such as Imran Farooq – in the mid 1980s, the striking thing about them is that they portrayed Altaf Hussain’s charismatic authority and the centralisation of the decision-making process around him as a rational option in times of crisis. What we have seen in the past few weeks is the reversal of this argument — and that, too, on rational grounds. Now that Altaf Hussain – whose leadership seemed erratic recently – has become a liability for the party, reason demanded that other leaders break away from him.

Also read: How Altaf Hussain maintains his image as MQM's supreme leader

Hamid. It was easier for Altaf Hussain to run the party by remote control in the past because there was no media scrutiny of his activities. With the advent of a very intrusive [broadcast and digital] media, all of his foibles have been laid bare.

I also think that MQM’s support, or decrease therein, is becoming a generational thing. The generations that grew up in the late 1980s and the 1990s are obviously ageing and their children perhaps do not have the same commitment to MQM that they themselves had. The younger generation sees a man who is very erratic, a man who is prone to theatrical displays captured live on television. Some of the lustre or charisma has been lost that way. That has been a major factor in eroding MQM’s myth.

I will also add that it is yet to be seen how MQM holds up — whether it will become a political organisation like any other or it will remain an agitational movement, as Laurent puts it. The X factor still remains Altaf Hussain. We are yet to see what the post-Altaf MQM world will look like and whether the party will be able to retain its vote bank and hold over Karachi. We are also yet to see if it gets splintered or remains stable in the future. These are big questions that remain to be answered.

Herald. Between 2002 and 2013 – that is 11 years – MQM had Karachi in a firm grip, with a virtual licence to shut down the city at will and commit acts of political and criminal violence at the time and place of its own choosing. And even though people already knew about Altaf Hussain’s theatrical behaviour, they voted for the party in large numbers in the 2013 elections. Why didn’t violence and Altaf Hussain’s shenanigans then create the same negative image that has been on display since September 2013 when the rangers started their security operation in Karachi?

Rangers personnel at the crime monitoring cell of SITE Association | Photo courtesy Laurent Gayer
Rangers personnel at the crime monitoring cell of SITE Association | Photo courtesy Laurent Gayer

Gayer. Let us put aside for a second the question of Altaf Hussain’s charisma, even though it is a strong element in what MQM is or what it used to be. There are two other elements that make MQM what it is. One is its power of disruption and the other is its power of patronage, especially to the benefit of the Urdu-speaking population. Two recent developments have upset these powers. [One of them is] the operation and the way the rangers have consistently stopped MQM since the fall of 2015 from making its strike calls effective. The end of hartaal (strike) politics has put an end to MQM’s power to shut down Karachi at will. I think that has been a major development. The MQM as we knew it has already been dead since September 2015 when, for the first time, its strike call was completely unheeded by the residents, entrepreneurs and shopkeepers of Karachi.

The second development is the way the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Sindhi-dominated bureaucracy have reclaimed much of the resources and prerogatives that once belonged to the municipality of Karachi [under the local government system set up by Pervez Musharraf]. This has undermined MQM’s power of patronage after the 2013 elections and has been a major reason for a decrease in the party’s power in Karachi in particular and urban Sindh in general.

Hamid. Between 2002 and 2008, the party was, indeed, re-energised because of its alliance with Musharraf. In that period, it enjoyed a greater amount of power than it did in any previous stint in the government.

Two issues which predate the rangers operation [have played a part in the weakening of MQM]. The first is Imran Farooq’s murder. The British police have conducted a fairly thorough investigation into the case over a period of five to six years. Although there are no convictions or prosecutions so far, the investigation has created fear among Altaf Hussain and his inner circle in London that they may no longer be beyond the reach of British authorities.

Operating from abroad once gave Altaf Hussain a certain amount of leverage as far as dealing with Pakistan’s establishment was concerned. The murder investigation [has reduced that advantage and] placed an enormous amount of personal pressure on him. That pressure shows in the number of tactical and strategic errors that the party and its London leadership have made since Imran Farooq’s death on September 16, 2010.

The second issue is transition of power from MQM to PPP after the 2008 elections. Though the two parties remained coalition partners in the Sindh government after that election, the real power shifted to PPP, 2008 onwards. Cutting MQM out of patronage networks began then.

The generations that grew up in the late 1980s and the 1990s are obviously ageing and their children perhaps do not have the same commitment to MQM that they themselves had.

In 2013, when PPP made the provincial government on its own, the usual MQM response to that would have been to ally itself with the federal government but the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz, too, had an absolute parliamentary majority at the federal level. So, neither of the two major political parties really needed MQM. The party which usually has been very good at playing that middle space and in leveraging its position and number of seats to strike a good bargain with whoever would be in power, found itself in a position where neither the provincial government nor the federal government needed it. Usually, in such a situation, the other thing that MQM would bring to the table was the fear of its destructive elements. Often in the past, other parties put MQM in coalition governments because they wanted to avoid the level of destruction MQM was capable of. With the operation, however, that power is also receding. The loss of political leverage combined with mental pressure caused by the investigation in London is finally striking home. MQM has woken up to a very different reality in the past three-odd years.

Herald. When you look at the presence of the rangers in different parts of the city and the way privatisation of security is taking place, does that elicit a sense of insecurity?

Gayer. I was in Karachi most of the summer and I was struck by the fact that the operation had brought a sense of respite among people across social, religious and gender divides. Most of the people I talked to were emphasising that they could breathe more easily and that they could move around with a greater sense of security. Businessmen could operate more freely as well. Everyone was assaulting me with statistics, emphasising how crime has been declining and how Karachi has been thriving yet again.

Also read: Altaf Hussain: Politics on mute

At the same time, what also struck me was a simmering sense of insecurity and anxiety which I think came from two things. Firstly, Karachi’s structural problems remain unaddressed. The rangers, however devoted to improving the law and order situation, are not equipped to address [the long-standing] issues of governance, political participation and rebuilding and reforming of the city life. [The rangers] do not have the resources or the legitimacy to address those issues.

The other thing that I found – and which is less accounted for – is how the city’s increasingly complex security architecture creates its own share of insecurity. The economic elites of the city live in constant fear of their own watchmen. As security is increasingly being privatised, more private guards enter factories, homes and offices. People feel threatened by this intrusion of security into their everyday life and privacy. There is a paradox here which needs to be addressed.

Hamid. Karachi’s political dynamics are different from anywhere else in Pakistan. If you look at the past 30 or 40 years, the whole crime and politics nexus [and the link between] violence and patronage are nowhere so stark in Pakistan than in Karachi.

Herald. Is this difference because of Karachi’s size or its commercial activities?

Gayer. The major defining element of politics in Karachi in comparison to the rest of Pakistan is its street politics and the art of disorder that MQM has learnt to master, which really has no equivalent in the rest of the country. However, this is also changing as a corollary to the ongoing transformation of MQM. As militant factions of political parties are being dismantled, the parties are losing their street power. It started with Awami National Party. It is now happening to MQM as well. As political parties’ capacity to cause disruption is being curtailed, their capacity to occupy the streets and control traffic flows is also receding.

This curtailing of the street power of political parties is a major development and possibly signals the decline of ethnic politics — at least in its belligerent version that has been in practice over the past three decades. The role of ethnicity will probably endure in the politics of Karachi but the probability of seeing major ethnic confrontations in the streets of the city is receding. That is a rather positive development.

A recently installed picket of the MQM (Haqiqi) in Landhi | Photo courtesy Laurent Gayer
A recently installed picket of the MQM (Haqiqi) in Landhi | Photo courtesy Laurent Gayer

Hamid. The reason for Karachi being different politically is the success of MQM’s political model. Its success in combining populism with a highly organised party structure, street power and a virtually parallel system of governance [has spawned copycats]. Every party over the past 30 years has felt that it needs to follow the MQM pattern if it wants to make inroads into Karachi. That has created the need for a close alliance between militancy and local politics. I think that is where the problem really is. While MQM can change, reform or go away, the fear that ordinary people suffer from comes from that [proximity between militancy and politics]. This is how Karachi’s politics has worked for the last three decades and it still weighs on people’s minds.

I do not think anyone, especially political parties, have a blueprint on how things are to be done differently. Look at a break-away faction of MQM – Pak Sar Zameen Party. What has made it controversial regardless of its reasonable sounding arguments is the presence of militants in it. As a Karachiite, if you look at the situation holistically, you feel that it is more of the same or perhaps a return to 20 years ago when the Haqiqi faction was created within MQM. No one has yet figured out a way to break out of the cycle linking politics with militancy. That is what brings uncertainty or fear about the sustainability of the security operation.

That uncertainty originates from the question about the future: what will happen when the rangers go back to the barracks? Do things go back to what they were? Will they become better? Will we see some sort of ‘Beirutification’ of Karachi with different militias – sectarian, ethnic or political – dividing the city into different camps and different spheres of influence?

Herald. Do you think the rangers will ever go back to the barracks? When the rangers are asked if they have any plans to leave Karachi or if they see any end to the operation in the city, their usual answer is that they want to see the operation reach its logical conclusion. When you press further and ask if they have any timeline in mind, their response is always a vague ‘We shall see how it goes.’

Every party over the past 30 years has felt that it needs to follow the MQM pattern if it wants to make inroads into Karachi.

Hamid. I do not think it is a matter of what the rangers want. If you look at developments in Karachi, politics intervenes, political dynamics change overnight and operations are called off suddenly. The last operation conducted against MQM in 1998-1999, following the murder of Hakim Said, was stopped all of a sudden after the military coup on October 12, 1999, because political circumstances had changed overnight.

The operation led by Naseerullah Babar in 1995-1996, too, was stopped overnight. Events in the wake of Mir Murtaza Bhutto’s killing on September 20, 1996, overtook it. Such is the history of operations in Karachi.

That is what breeds uncertainty. The rangers might not want to go back. They might feel that their task is not finished. We, however, cannot predict what turn politics takes in the future [as far as the operation is concerned].

Gayer. If the indicators keep on improving, the rangers are bound to be the victims of their own success. The safer Karachi will become – at least from the activities of non-state elements – the lower the threshold for accepting violence will be. We have seen that and I think the rangers themselves are aware of that.

The shock that Amjad Sabri’s killing created among people also bore testimony to the improvement in law and order. A similar killing would not have led to so much emotion in the city in 2011-2013, when 10 to 30 people were being killed every other day. The more the situation improves, the more critical people will become [even over relatively minor problems]. They will be asking for more accountability and their reaction could become more problematic for the law enforcement agencies.

Also read: Waseem Akhtar- The party man

Herald. That is a very interesting point. After Sabri’s murder, many people questioned the rangers’ presence in Karachi. Many were upset over why the rangers have not been able to stop killings like that of Sabri’s. How do you think they should deal with this situation?

Hamid. There has been a viewpoint that the operation has done nothing. Public opinion in Karachi can be very fickle. The government’s policy or the rangers’ policy can fall victim [to changes in public opinion] — either because they are perceived as being too successful or because they are seen as being ineffectual.

Herald. Do you think there is some disconnect between the situation in Karachi and the views of the commentators who analyse that situation sitting in, say, Islamabad without having a first-hand experience of what the city looks like?

Gayer. Karachi does not exist in a vacuum. It is also constantly changing. The way I would rephrase your question is, ‘How is Karachi changing and to what extent are those changes specific to the city?’ We should not lose sight of the other developments in the city that are happening beyond security-centered issues. For instance, how is the demography of the city changing; how increasingly cosmopolitan is Karachi becoming?

Obviously, the answers to these questions are anyone’s guess since there has been no census since 1998, which is a major problem in understanding and governing Karachi. This is a major dilemma for those engaging with Karachi, be it as a police officer, as a scholar or as a member of a political party. What do we actually know about Karachi, considering that its demographic data is so outdated?

A market in Karachi, set ablaze during protests after the blast in Ashura of December 2009 | Faysal Mujeeb, White Star
A market in Karachi, set ablaze during protests after the blast in Ashura of December 2009 | Faysal Mujeeb, White Star

With the current focus on security issues, major social transformations have gone off the radar — for instance, the emergence of a growing Pakhtun middle class in the city. While I was working in largely working-class industrial areas such as Landhi/Quaidabad, what really struck me was the presence of middle-class Pakhtun gated communities, such as Green Park City. These colonies have developed at the initiative of former industrial workers who have recently made it big as contractors or factory managers and who have been creating their own islands of wealth within working-class industrial areas. While pointing at possible trajectories of rapid upward social mobility in an otherwise brutal economy, the development of such colonies suggests that gated communities are no longer the prerogative of the richest and mightiest in this city.

Hamid. I agree completely. Karachi is a dynamic entity because of its constant ability to change, adapt and expand. Its social dynamics can change in a couple of years. If you are trying to make decisions about governance or social structures but you are not at all familiar with the city’s environment, your task becomes extremely difficult.

Herald. Has the change that you have observed been an organic one or is it taking a direction someone wants it to take. Take real estate, for example. Is the real estate economy or land economy changing organically with the needs of the city or is it being driven in a certain way by investors, developers and builders?

Hamid. Because of Karachi’s size, I do not think anyone can say that change here is guided. There are always actors and stakeholders who are able to see indicators of change and jump to take advantage of that. But I do not think anybody can totally control that change [whether it is land economy or demographics].

Gayer. I think the real estate economy has been changing in significant ways over the last few years. For instance, the development of Bahria Town and its link to the politics of the city is a major issue. But Bahria Town is not the only actor in the real estate market. There are many real estate entrepreneurs who have active political connections. They are reshaping the city [according to] their own image.

The safer Karachi will become – at least from the activities of non-state elements – the lower the threshold for accepting violence will be.

What is interesting in the case of Bahria Town is that it is a foreign element in the society and economy of Karachi. It is a Punjabi import; [Bahria Town chief] Malik Riaz is not a Karachiite. He did not grow up in the mayhem that is Karachi, yet, he has sunk roots in the city. The way Malik Riaz has been adjusting to Karachi’s disorder is quite striking. And besides the economic weight he wields, he has emerged as a formidable political force.

Herald. Going back to MQM, how do you read the political scenario in the city right now? We have a mayor who is in jail. Who is going to govern the city? Is the local government equipped and powerful enough to run the city?

Gayer. I would link it with the previous question because the Bahria Town issue makes an interesting connection with the emerging political scene in Karachi. The trend that we have seen over the past few years is the gradual sidelining of the political elites that have been here since the 1980s. New corporate elites allied with the security apparatus, or elements of the security apparatus, are emerging. What is interesting is that [former Karachi mayor and chief of Pak Sarzameen Party] Mustafa Kamal himself was once an employee of Bahria Town. Arshad Vohra, the newly elected deputy mayor, is a businessman, coming from the corporate world. The way major parts of the city have been subcontracted to corporate actors is very telling of who the political power holders are these days.

Hamid. I do not necessarily disagree with your point but I will like to point out that even those new corporate elites are trying to ally themselves with the established elites. Look at the example of Vohra. He has joined MQM. What may happen in times to come – or perhaps is already happening – is that the interests of these corporate elites will push or influence policy within political parties dominant in the city. These elites will use political parties as vessels of their interests.

Also read: Operation overkill

Herald. Going back to the question of governing the city, how do you view the situation in which one important political player is not even allowed to function?

Hamid. Changes in the local government structure happened way before the incarceration of Akhtar [the elected mayor] — with the overturning of the local government system established under Musharraf. Even if Akhtar is released tomorrow, what would be his real authority as the mayor?

Gayer. I would return to the theme of a corporate style of governance in the city and I would agree with what [architect and urban planner] Arif Hasan has been emphasising over the years: Karachi is heading into an abyss by pursuing the world-class city dream. These fantasies of a ‘word-class’ or ‘smart’ city are the death warrant of urban planning. In this neo-liberal scheme of things, there is only scope for mega projects. This is tragic because there has never been a greater need for some serious policymaking in the city in terms of decent housing for the poor, in terms of public amenities, in terms of financing of tomorrow’s planners and engineers.

A corporate style of governance means serving the interests of the city’s business elites and their foreign partners to the detriment of a master plan for the entire city. It involves the development of heavily policed enclaves of wealth that will tap heavily into the city’s already scarce resources – land, water, electricity – to the sole benefit of the city’s more affluent population. Bahria Town’s project of a ‘mega gated community’ in Malir is emblematic of that. This is the fantasy of a new, sanitised urban environment disconnected from a crumbling inner city left to fend for its poverty and disorder.

Herald. If no one is taking care of large parts of Karachi, does that not give licence to non-state actors to take advantage of the situation?

Gayer. While it is too early to make any prognostic for the city at large, the future seems to belong to new alliances of capital and coercion. Besides the mega real estate projects we were discussing, obvious places to witness this are industrial areas – SITE or Korangi, for instance – because that is where a large part of the wealth of the city is being created; that is where the co-production of security between public and private enforcers is being reinvented; that is where a new architecture of power and wealth is emerging.

It is a good time to start re-addressing the formal economy of the city. There has been a lot of concern in recent years about informal and illicit activities. But the formal economy is still where a significant – if not the most significant – part of the city’s wealth is being produced. Starting with the textile and garments industry, the manufacturing sector remains a major employer, a major exporter and a major contributor to the state’s exchequer. And yet, we know very little of the politics of the areas where this formal economy operates.

A riot in Lyari, Karachi, in September 2012 | Fahim Siddiquie, White Star
A riot in Lyari, Karachi, in September 2012 | Fahim Siddiquie, White Star

These are also areas that have been subjected to the overlapping of crime and militancy — whether it is in the form of kidnapping, extortion or terrorism. For that reason, various anti-crime schemes have been developing in these areas over the last few years which deserve attention.

For instance, one of the major topics that we have not touched upon yet is the growing role of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), which came into being with the professed objective of bringing the police and the citizens together. Today, however, it is increasingly acting like the long arm of the city’s business elites. What is fascinating is that this semi-private organisation is playing an increasingly important role in the city in highly sensitive areas. Its working challenges the boundaries between the public and the private, as well as notions of privacy, sensitivity of personal data and surveillance. For instance, through its databases – one on cases registered and one on prison inmates – it has access to highly sensitive criminal data. This raises a number of legal and political issues but it also makes CPLC a valuable partner for the police. Because while the Karachi police are currently working on their own system of digitalisation of criminal records – again, with the help of citizens’ groups – much remains to be done.

Meanwhile, CPLC has used this expertise – which builds on state’s resources while transcending them – to map crime and design its own architecture of security. I mean that in the most literal sense of the word here: in SITE and Korangi, CPLC has overseen the construction of dozens of boundary walls and chowkis manned by private guards. Building upon corporate geographies of fear, these structures are adding a new layer to Karachi’s military urbanism.

Herald. There are so many illicit economic activities going on in Karachi that even the legal activities are somehow linked to the illegal ones...…

Karachi is a dynamic entity because of its constant ability to change, adapt and expand.

Gayer. In Karachi, as elsewhere, we should be careful when we engage in crime talk. There is a tendency to portray lower-income groups and lower-income areas as more crime-prone than others. But who is responsible for these acts of labelling? Let us not forget that corporate actors are also prone to violate the law. In fact, this is often the major source of their wealth but they are not labelled as criminals because in Karachi, as elsewhere, white-collar crime tends to go unpunished, if not morally unsanctioned. This general trend is just a bit more blunt here. For instance, the Supreme Court’s recent verdict on Bahria Town’s processes of land acquisition in Malir suggests that land-grabbing on unprecedented scale has been going on there. The way the so-called water mafia has been operating in the city’s industrial areas is also emblematic of those connections.

If we go by the book, the biggest criminals in the city are its most privileged residents. This is what Perween Rahman never ceased to emphasise. Whether it is land-grabbing or illicit trade in water, who is behind these activities? More importantly, who are the people benefitting from these illicit trades? It is not the poor sections of the society.

Criminalising the poor is something we should be careful about because there is politics behind it — politics that is seriously damaging for Karachi’s future.

This article was originally published in the Herald's October 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.