In review - Books

Analysing violence in Karachi

Published Oct 13, 2017 01:24pm

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Vehicles burn on the streets of Karachi after a bout of violence in 2012 | AFP
Vehicles burn on the streets of Karachi after a bout of violence in 2012 | AFP

Karachi is a paradox in many ways. It is central to Pakistan’s economic life yet perceptibly peripheral to its national politics. Karachi’s enormous material growth lies exposed with its teeming poverty and a chaotic infrastructure. Its sprawling expansion – as evidenced in new housing schemes and shopping plazas – is dependent on middle-class greed that coexists with perennial plaints, by the same class, of being marginalised and discriminated against.

Cityscapes of Violence in Karachi: Publics and Counterpublics seeks to navigate the conundrum that is Karachi through an anthropological, social-psychological and sociological lens, focusing primarily on violence. It brings together the writings of renowned academics, journalists, social critics and activists. The result is a fantastic array of well-articulated opinions based on the contributors’ experiential learning and first-hand knowledge of processes that contribute to violence in Karachi.

Academic contributions to the volume are based on an ethnographical methodology that lays emphasis on how violence is (re)produced because of human interdependencies and socio-psychological influences, including individual mental states as well as family and social norms such as hypermasculinity.

Nichola Khan and Laurent Gayer, through their biographies of individuals affiliated with ethnopolitical parties, show how personal histories and domestic difficulties transform ordinary men into violent criminals. Khan underscores the argument that psychosis and delusions, which often lead to violent behaviour, mark “people’s attempt to communicate their distress, and recover their natural state”. In this way, individuals’ engagement with violence becomes a means for escaping their powerlessness and creating a new self-image which offers a real or imagined capacity to exercise power and authority.

Gayer speaks of Karachi’s fascination with a routinisation of violence and locates factors that turn violence into a form of vocation where the capacity to commit violent acts is bought and sold as a form of labour exchanged for cash and other material goods. Violence, in his analysis, is a process that must be studied in the light of divisions, competition, gratification and upward mobility that are ingrained in Karachi’s very sociality.

Nida Kirmani and Zia Ur Rehman focus their attention on Baloch and Pakhtun communities, respectively. Focusing on Lyari as a mini-bastion of different ethnicities including Baloch, Urdu-speaking and Kutchis, Kirmani demonstrates how gang warfare in the neighbourhood made it difficult for its residents to seek employment in areas where ethnic groups other than theirs dominated. She also records how the locals disapproved of the gang warfare — for instance when the Baloch of Lyari protested against warlords in front of Karachi Press Club.

Zia Ur Rehman highlights multiple pressures experienced by the politics of the Pakhtun community in Karachi. One of the interesting features in his very cogent analysis is how the jihadi groups in Karachi appropriated criminal methods of extortion in order to raise funds and in doing so ended up harassing their own core ethnic group — Pakhtuns, specifically wealthy transporters and businessmen in the community.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Karachi unleashed a reign of terror against the Awami National Party, a predominantly Pakhtun political organisation, ultimately weakening its own base. He also underscores rifts within the TTP, offering a measured analysis that nullifies the fabricated and invented image of all Pakhtuns being radical jihadists. This invention and its attendant ethnic profiling was painfully witnessed in the horrific violence after the 2010 murder of Raza Haider, a Muttahida Qaumi Movement member of the Sindh Assembly. Pakhtuns were targeted and killed with impunity after his assassination.

Such ethnic profiling, it must be asserted, is not merely a muhajir invocation but also adhered to by Sindhis.

Why, it must be asked, did the educated muhajir ethnopolitical elite engage in violence against the illiterate Pakhtun bus drivers and conductors whom they were not in economic competition with?

Other contributions are equally interesting: Nadeem Farooq Paracha recounts his political experiences as a student and describes how drinking embodied an act of defiance against General Ziaul Haq’s religiously-ordained dictatorship; Razeshta Sethna lays bare the trials and tribulations of a working journalist, often coaxed and threatened by different militant groups as well as the state; Arif Hasan laments the loss of Karachi’s cosmopolitan values under Zia. He makes the case for creating a new public space where arts and culture flourish.

His emphasis on the need for healing the deep wounds of class, ethnicity and religion in Karachi serves as a clarion call for regenerating the city’s historical, liberal splendour.

Kausar Khan brings forth circumstances around four deaths – those of Perween Rahman, Abdul Waheed Khan (who worked with Perween Rahman and was shot dead two months after her), Zahra Shahid and Irfan Ali Khudi (a Hazara from Quetta) – that not just affected many sensitive Karachiites like her but also manifested the extent to which routinised violence has seeped into the city’s everyday social fabric.

Oskar Verkaaik presents an analysis of Dawat-e-Islami, a Sunni missionary association, that offers a novel form of muhajir identity manifestation – linking ethnicity to religion rather than to language. The group, according to Verkaaik, provides a social space where ethnicity is invoked in religious terms — the Prophet of Islam himself being a migrant, a muhajir.

After reading Cityscapes of Violence in Karachi, it becomes pertinent to raise two important points. Firstly, Karachi’s story of violence is usually situated in the 1985 death of Bushra Zaidi, a muhajir student, in a traffic accident. The muhajir sense of deprivation exploded in the wake of the incident into an orgy of brutal violence against Pakhtuns. It culminated in solidifying the slogan of a muhajir city for a muhajir population.

Karachiites were well aware of its symbolic linkages but they could not have known of its destructive potential back then. Why, it must be asked, did the educated muhajir ethnopolitical elite engage in violence against the illiterate Pakhtun bus drivers and conductors whom they were not in economic competition with?

Did the educated muhajir elite aspire to positions of bus drivers and conductors in their search for employment? It appears nonsensical to even ask these questions but it is imperative to ask them if one is to rationalise the way violence between the two communities transpired and continues to do so even today.

Secondly, it is important to analyse the psychosis caused by childhood trauma, search for fun and fantasy or other altered mental states signifying depression and anxiety. But it is equally necessary to study other psychological variables – such as inappropriate learning, cognitive biases and dissonances and irrational thinking – in understanding how these variables have come to appropriate the imagination of the new muhajir ethnopolitical elite and their many followers.

Was the relative decline of muhajir representation in federal and provincial bureaucracies a function of discrimination or a shift among the educated muhajir middle class towards private sector employment where salaries were higher, for example? Aren’t muhajirs today seeking government employment as a means of socio-economic advancement relatively successfully?

A rereading of muhajir discourse along these lines provides sufficient grounds to show how ethnic grievances are more assumed than demonstrated, involving denial by the muhajir community of its own empowerment in the 2000s. In our attempt to understand violence in Karachi it is the assumed, on which much violence rests, that needs debunking in the first place. Even while not taking a plunge in this direction, Cityscapes of Violence in Karachi remains an authoritative and valuable contribution to understanding Karachi and the perennial violence that plagues it.


This was originally published in the Herald's September 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.