With a population now in excess of twenty million, Karachi is one of the world’s largest ‘megacities’. It is also one of the most violent, though Gayer in this books argues its murder rate is much lower as compared to other cities with respect to population density. Since the mid-1980s, Karachi has endured endemic political conflict and criminal violence, which revolve around control of the city and its resources (votes, land and bhatta—‘protection’ money). These struggles for the city have become ethnicised. In the process, Karachi, often referred to as a ‘Pakistan in miniature’, has become increasingly fragmented, socially as well as terrestrially. Despite this chronic state of urban, political warfare, Karachi remains the cornerstone of the economy of Pakistan. In contrast to the ‘chaotic ‘ and ‘anarchic’ city portrayed in journalistic accounts, there is indeed order of a kind in the city’s permanent civil war. Karachi’s polity is predicated upon relatively stable patterns of domination, rituals of interaction and forms of arbitration, which have made violence manageable for its population—even if this does not exclude a pervasive state of fear, which results from the continuous transformation of violence in the course of its updating. Whether such ‘ordered disorder’ is viable in the long term remains to be seen, but for now Karachi continues to work despite and sometimes through violence. When a city remains in the grip of violence for such long stretches and so frequently, staying indoors is a luxury few can afford. Especially since the wave of what is described as “organised warfare” has been felt most in the poorer quarters of the city. Karachi’ites are going through this seemingly never-ending turf war among the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Though there was a time when the MQM — representing the Urdu-speaking population which had migrated to the city and Hyderabad following Partition — was identified with much of the violence, today nobody can quite say who the biggest villain of the piece is, as all are equally culpable. What is worse is the extent of the ethnic rivalry. Increasingly, there are reports of one community barring people from the other from being treated in hospitals, burying their dead or sending their children to school in its areas. When violence peaks, such is the level of ethnic profiling that an innocent bystander’s attire could get him into trouble, with the Urdu-speaker identified by his trousers and the Pashtun by his salwar kameez. Through it all, as per the HRCP’s fact-finding mission, the law-enforcing agencies either looked the other way, abandoned their posts, delayed responding to distress calls or just joined hands with the criminals. Policing — rather the absence of it — apart, the HRCP team concluded, Karachi is in the grip of a multi-sided wave of insecurity-driven political, ethnic and sectarian polarization. “While gangs of land-grabbers and mafias have tried to exploit the breakdown of law and order, they do not appear to be the main directors of the horrible game of death and destruction; that distinction belongs to more powerful political groups and it is they who hold the key to peace.” Ironically, the three key political players have been bedfellows at the provincial level in Sindh and also at the federal level except for the brief spells when the MQM walked out of the coalition. MQM has walked out in a huff umpteen times and is poised to return yet again as it grapples with retaining its stranglehold over Karachi in the face of a growing Pashtun population — triggered by a displacement-induced migration from the strife-torn tribal areas and the Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa (KP) — and the consequent rise of the ANP in the city. Apart from the political turf war, it is a battle for resources and jobs. The PPP’s greater indulgence of the ANP only added to the MQM’s insecurities as its influence — despite efforts to make inroads elsewhere — does not extend beyond Karachi and Hyderabad. This erosion of control over Karachi was felt all the more because of the free run the MQM had in the city through the Musharraf years. The general consensus among Karachi’ites and elsewhere is that the violence has its roots in crime because of the covert and overt support extended by the state and almost all political parties to mafias and powerful predatory groups that have largely come to determine the highly weaponized city’s urban infrastructure development. All three players treat the city like their personal fiefdom. While politicians play out their games of survival in the multiethnic city of 21 million people, the writ of the state is nowhere to be seen. Rather its absence works for everybody. For rangers and security agencies to continue to dominate the city; for mafias to continue to maintain a presence in the city offering people protection from rival groups. This may also explain the deep divisions among various ethnicities, communities and followers of religious sects. We have a state that is not interested in integration, and we have mafias whose interest lies in deepening the wedge between various groups/communities.
A 1990 poster by MQM showing allegiance to the iconic chairman Altaf Hussain.
APMSO an MQM students wing poster celebrating launch date of MQM on June 11, 1978.
APMSO poster celebrating party chief Altaf Hussain’s 49th Birthday in the year 2002.
MQM Poster for Local body election campaign in the May, 2004.
APA woman gestures towards a bullet-riddled wall after security forces took control of a troubled area of Karachi after several days of ethnic violence that killed at least 93 people in July 2011.
MQM poster commemorating martyrs of its party unit 145 F.B.Area, a predominantly MQM support residential area of Karachi.
(Gayer, Laurent, “Karachi – Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City”, 2014)