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«THE OPEN CITY: SOCIAL NETWORKS AND VIOLENCE IN KARACHI Azmat Ali Budhani, Haris Gazdar, Sobia Ahmad Kaker, Hussain Bux Mallah Collective for Social ...»

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Working Paper no. 70

- Cities and Fragile States -



Azmat Ali Budhani, Haris Gazdar,

Sobia Ahmad Kaker, Hussain Bux Mallah

Collective for Social Science Research

March 2010

Crisis States Working Papers Series No.2

ISSN 1749-1797 (print)

ISSN 1749-1800 (online)

Copyright © A.Ali Budhani, H. Gazdar, S. Ahmad Kaker, H. Bux Mallah, 2010 24 Crisis States Research Centre

The Open City:

Social Networks and Violence in Karachi Azmat Ali Budhani, Haris Gazdar, Sobia Ahmad Kaker and Hussain Bux Mallah Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi Karachi is not only the largest metropolis of Pakistan and its commercial hub, it is also known as a ‘mini-Pakistan’. This is a reference to the ethnic and religious diversity of Karachi’s population. It has been a city of migrants for as long ago as anyone cares to remember. Until the 1980s it also shared, along with Lahore, the status of the political pulse of the country, or at least of the urban parts of Pakistan. To succeed nationally, movements had to make a mark on the city, and currents that emerged in Karachi frequently influenced the national mainstream. The very features of Pakistani society that are represented so prominently in Karachi are the ones that are often thought to challenge the coherence and stability of the nation state. Foremost, of course, are ethnic and religious sectarian heterogeneity. But there is also political fragmentation, economic disparity, demographic pressures, steady erosion of the state’s institutional capacity and the heavy footprint of international conflict. This paper is based on the premise that even as Karachi’s politics were cut off from the national mainstream, the city became a vantage point on the crisis of the nation state in Pakistan.

In fact, the city’s exceptionalism since the mid-1980s could be seen as part of a wider process of political disarticulation in Pakistan: a disarticulation that at times threatens the basic make- up of the state. Yet the state has managed to pull back from the brink on several occasions, and so has the city. A closer look at the city and its own ‘experiments’ with the limits of institutional elasticity holds lessons for an understanding of the precarious resilience that has characterised the nation state itself in Pakistan. The aim of this paper is to provide a perspective on institutional breakdown in Karachi, using the prevalence of conflict and violence – particularly of the civil variety – as an index for this.

The paper begins with a description of the conflict and violence that has become associated with Karachi. Trends and patterns in conflict and non-state violence are identified here, as outcomes that require explanation. The second section provides relevant background information on the city’s placement within the national polity and economy. Some of the main explanations for Karachi’s trends and patterns of conflict and violence − relating to ethnic identity, organisations, economic frustration, and political conspiracies − are reviewed in the third section. The role of external factors such as migration and the influences of the war in Afghanistan are also highlighted. An alternative approach focusing on two incontrovertible aspects of Karachi’s urbanity – migration and informality − is outlined in the fourth section. It is proposed here that the analysis of conflict and violence in Karachi can benefit from an understanding of the very processes that made Karachi an open city in the first place. The high rate of migration was correlated with an erosion of the formal sector’s capacity for supplying basic infrastructure or regulating the use of existing infrastructure.

This resulted in the rapid growth of an informal sector for the provision of residential land, basic public utilities, transport and contract enforcement. The informalisation of public 1 provisioning, which was often aided and abetted by state organisations, was premised on two institutional deviations: first, the large-scale legitimisation of private non-state arrangements for contract enforcement; and second, the strengthening of existing or nascent social networks based on bonds of family, ethnicity and religious and sectarian identity. Qualitative accounts of the histories of land use in six very different localities of the city are interpreted using this alternative approach. Finally, it is argued that this alternative approach offers a way of understanding not just the breakdown but also recovery or the prospects of a return to political negotiation.

Conflict and violence Current patterns of non-state violence Karachi is a busy city that provides sustenance to its 15 million residents through industry, trade, commerce, services and charity. It is also a violent city – probably the most violent city of comparable size in South Asia. In 2001, the murder rate in Karachi was 4.04 per 100,000 people compared with 1.67 in Mumbai and 3.79 in Delhi (CPLC 2009). Between 1994 and 2004, there were 8,816 casualties reported through incidents of violence including murders, torture by non-state actors, kidnappings for ransom, vigilante reprisals, bombings and suicide attacks.1 There are estimated to be a significant number of lethal weapons, many of them unlicensed and illegally held, in private hands in Karachi.2 These statistics, however, do not fully convey many of the paradoxes of Karachi’s non-state violence. The capacity for violent disruption that lurks just beneath the surface manifests itself at rare instances when the city is brought to a grinding halt by one of it several claimants. Otherwise it is business as usual, with traffic jams, bustling markets, late night shopping and dining, drives by the sea front, and an infectious carefree mood. There are few ‘no-go’ areas in the city, and hardly any neighbourhoods that are normally ‘closed’ to the entry of ethnic or religious outsiders. Yet it takes only a rumour for the shutters to go down, and for any locality to turn inwards on those occasions when the situation becomes abnormal.

There have been days when pitched battles have raged between armed groups – divided along party-political, ethnic or gang lines – throwing up temporary fronts across otherwise invisible and well-traversed boundaries. Those days are not common, but everyone seems to know that they could come at short notice.

Specifically, there are currently several identifiable proximate sources of non-state violence in Karachi. First, a number of political parties operating in the city maintain armed cadres who are organised and trained in the use of lethal weapons. Inter-party violence has tended to flare up around particular events such as public meetings, rallies and elections. There are also underlying tensions between political groups that are blamed for targeted killings of rival members and armed cadres. These groups are discussed in greater detail below, but it needs to be noted that their activities are not directly linked to jihadi forms of religious extremism.

Second, the use of firearms is common in a range of crimes including robberies, carjackings, vehicle thefts, burglaries, drugs trafficking, protection rackets and kidnappings for ransom. It is presumed that all of these types of crimes involve some level of organisation and networks.

There are allegedly close connections between criminal and party-political networks. In some 1 Authors’ estimates based on annual reports of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP 1994-2004).

2 Between 1993 and 1996, firearms were the agent of injury/death for 3,392 victims (Chotani et al. 2002) 2 parts of the metropolis, such as the old city quarter of Lyari, rival gang leaders have had relations with various party factions. In other cases it is alleged that the local armed cadres of some parties are directly involved in organising crimes and protecting petty criminals. Some conspicuous cases of kidnapping for ransom have been linked with powerful rural patrons.

Third, there have been acts of violence that are thought to be linked to jihad and religious extremism.3 Most of the known groups connected with jihadi violence belong to the Sunni Deobandi sect – even though there are many Sunni Deobandi clerics and organisations that do not support jihadi violence within Pakistan. There have been several suicide bomb attacks on local and foreign targets that have claimed the lives of many civilians since 2001. Many of the now-proscribed jihadi groups that have been declared terrorist organisations have had a presence in Karachi (Newsline, August 2003). It is alleged that the US journalist Daniel Pearl was abducted and murdered by an Al-Qaeda cell operating in the city, and it is possible that there are other such cells that remain hidden. Before 2001 the main public activity of the religious extremists groups in the city was to raise funds and to recruit members through the many mosques and seminaries. These groups were also alleged to have carried out bombing and assassination campaigns against the Shia Muslim community that is present in large numbers in Karachi (Newsline, July 2002).

A brief chronology There has been a steady escalation in violence in Karachi – led by political violence – since the early 1970s. Up until then political, student and trade-union activity was largely peaceful and violence was limited to isolated brawls that rarely led to a casualty. The main source of violence during such movements was the police, and on rare occasions the military that were called in to quell agitation. Sectarian religious violence between Sunni and Shia mobs did take place occasionally, but this posed a security challenge only on particular days in the year when religious marches of rival sects happened to cross each others’ paths. Much earlier in the late 1940s the city had witnessed communal violence against the minority Hindu community, most of whose members were forced to flee to India (Khuhro 1998).

The first political movement during which non-state actors – mostly mobs of youths – used any significant amount of violence was in the early 1970s when the newly-elected provincial assembly of Sindh passed a law requiring the teaching of the Sindhi language in all educational institutes (Pakistan Forum 1972). This was seen by many members of the Urduspeaking majority of Karachi as an assault on their cultural and political position in the province and the city (Rashid and Shaheed 1993). There were cases of ethnic violence as well as other acts of mob violence, but the situation was quickly brought under control through enforcement and political negotiation (Rahman 1995).

Sustained mobilisation followed elections in 1977, which the opposition claimed were rigged by the government of the populist Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. As the government responded with repression the movement in Karachi turned violent with mob attacks, arson and targeting of the government’s political sympathisers and supporters (Weinbaum 1977).

The PNA movement was, arguably, the last major movement in which Karachi was part of, or even led, the national mainstream. In Karachi the PNA movement (named after the opposition Pakistan National Alliance) was headed by right-wing Islamic religious parties that 3 The word jihad literally means struggle in Arabic. In Pakistan is has come to connote combat in the cause of Islam. It is in this sense that the term jihad is used here.

–  –  –

The PNA movement became the pretext for a military coup led by General Zia-ul-Haq, and he imposed a highly repressive martial law regime that banned political activity. General Zia’s regime faced considerable resistance and he made alliances with religious groups to implement Islamic Sharia law. In Karachi, where opposition to Zia had considerable support on college campuses, pro-Zia Islamist groups began to receive weapons and training from state agencies. This was the beginning of the war between Soviet forces in Afghanistan and their mujahideen opponents. The Pakistan military’s support for the Afghan jihad had two immediate implications for Karachi. The Islamist groups, particularly the student-based Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba (IJT), became militarised due to their involvement with the Afghan mujahideen, and there was a proliferation of small arms in private hands as weapons destined for the Afghan jihad found their way to unregulated arms markets (Tully 1995).

Campus opposition to General Zia and the IJT in Karachi took several forms. Besides leftists groups – such as the various factions of the National Students Federation (NSF) – there were a number of ethnically based groups, some of them also with leftist rhetoric, among the Baloch, Pashtun Sindhi and other ethnic minorities. These latter groups saw the Zia regime as a manifestation of Punjabi ethnic domination in the country. Their connections with the rural hinterland, particularly in the Pashtun tribal areas, allowed the ethnic groups to also acquire weapons in order to stand up to the IJT on the campuses. The formation of an ethnically based group claiming to represent the interests of Karachi’s Urdu-speaking Muhajir community completed the picture.4 The All Pakistan Muhajir Students’ Organisation (APMSO), which was to give birth to the Muhajir Quami Movement (MQM) or the Muhajir national movement, was founded as a rival to the IJT. Although IJT was ethnically diverse, its parent party the Jamaat-e-Islami had a strong reserve of support in the Urdu-speaking population of Karachi. Many of the founders of the APMSO were disaffected IJT members, who wanted to replace Islamic solidarity with a call to the distinct ethnic identity of the Muhajirs. The APMSO quickly challenged the IJT and seriously undermined the latter by weaning away many of its potential supporters among the Muhajirs. It also followed in the pattern set by the IJT and ethnic student federations in acquiring arms. Campus politics had been steadily militarised, and by the mid-1980s it was virtually impossible for unarmed student groups to physically survive in the city’s colleges and universities.

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