«THE OPEN CITY: SOCIAL NETWORKS AND VIOLENCE IN KARACHI Azmat Ali Budhani, Haris Gazdar, Sobia Ahmad Kaker, Hussain Bux Mallah Collective for Social ...»
Recent city-wide violence This chronological review will be incomplete without reference to two recent city-wide acts of political violence that revealed the geographical contours of the emerging contest in Karachi. The first was what has come to be known simply as ‘May 12’. There was widespread fighting on that day in 2007 when rallies from different parts of the city heading to the airport to receive the deposed chief justice of the country came under attack. The ensuing violence claimed over fifty lives in different parts of the city and left many people injured. There was a virtual shutdown for three days, and a serious danger of the situation escalating into an open ethnic conflict. The second instance was the reaction in Karachi to the news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi in northern Pakistan: widespread rioting engulfed the city and there were several deaths; while about thirteen banks were burnt or robbed, and fifteen factories, ten petrol pumps and more than seven hundred vehicles torched (The News, December 30, 2007).
The then-ruling MQM was widely held responsible for the May 12 events. The party had clearly stated its opposition to the deposed chief justice’s visit to Karachi, and to the lawyer’s movement against the Musharraf regime in general. Opposition parties which then included the PPP and the ethnic Pashtun Awami National Party (ANP) were supporting the lawyer’s movement, and planned to turn out in large numbers to greet the defiant judge. The night before the judge’s visit MQM cadres were seen setting up road blocks and barricades shutting off access to the proposed route of the chief justice’s reception processions. The city had been divided geographically between a central corridor along a north-south axis, and the periphery.
On the day itself all state-security forces – police, paramilitaries and army – were conspicuous by their absence. At around midday, the time when the chief justice’s plane landed, there were sniper attacks on opposition processions that been stopped at barricades at different points in the city. Many opposition supporters were also armed and there were pitched gun battles across the city. The MQM managed to stop the chief justice’s welcome, thus forcing him to return to Islamabad after waiting within the airport for several hours. Ambushes and attacks on processions were well-planned and eyewitness accounts suggest that many of the attackers organised into military-style units acting in concert. In addition to sniping and gun battles there were a number of instances of abduction, many of which led to execution-style killings (HRCP 2007b).
Although the MQM had an upper hand in terms of scale and organisation of combat, the opposition also managed to put up sustained resistance on the streets. The violence quickly spread from the processions to neighbourhoods along a notional front-line that roughly corresponded with the boundary between central and outer districts around the city. MQM offices were set alight in the outer districts as well as in cities across the country.
Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on December 27, 2007 provoked an angry response in Karachi and other cities of Sindh. Gangs of youth, many of them armed, spread out from working 8 class neighbourhoods within the city and in the outlying settlements and there was widespread rioting and arson (The News, December 30, 2007). On this occasion, too, the state-security forces were withdrawn from the streets. Petrol pumps were early targets and they remained shut for several days, thus paralysing traffic in the city. Although many of the central precincts of the city were also affected by rioting – and thus remained closed for several days – there was a sense of a centre-periphery geographic division. All of the main entry and exit routes serving the city were effectively blockaded, including routes leading to the harbour area.
The differences between the two recent city-wide acts of violence are obvious. The first was planned, involved direct confrontation between armed groups, and resulted in high levels of casualties but relatively little damage to property. The second, by contrast, was spontaneous, and there was extensive looting and damage to property. The similarities, however, are instructive. In both cases the main protagonists, at least on the surface, were political parties.
State-security forces were absent or withdrew, and order was quickly restored when they reappeared. There was a geographic division of the city between the centre and the periphery.
On both occasions there was a danger that the violence would escalate along ethnic lines, but this danger was quickly ameliorated by political parties and leaders through public gestures of reconciliation.
Finally, it is striking that the political backdrop of both cases of recent city-wide violence were events relating to the national mainstream. Karachi’s violent response in turn had an influence on national politics. The May 12 violence resulted from MQM’s decision not to allow the opposition movement – which had received public support in other parts of the country, notably north-central Punjab – to encroach into what the party regarded as its territory. The violence had the opposite effect. The resistance in Karachi and the casualties raised the pitch of the opposition movement and made the government’s position harder to defend. The post-Benazir violence was also a response to an event in national politics. The PPP had been a minor player in the city with its support concentrated in the rural areas and smaller towns of Sindh and Punjab. The scale and spread of violence suggested that something might have changed. Karachi was back in the national mainstream after decades, and now in its own violent manner.
Pulling away from the brink?
The remainder of this paper is not about conflict and violence, but about understanding the conditions that may have led to a qualitative change in Karachi’s security environment and its isolation from the national mainstream in the mid-1980s. Karachi’s experience suggests another paradox, and thus a potential source of insight. There are a number of instances – some drawn-out and others rapid – when a clear danger of escalation of violence and breakdown has been reversed. The ten-year period from the late 1980s to the late 1990s saw dramatic changes in the fortunes and military capacity of the MQM; and there have been other periods when criminal violence has peaked and then declined. The two recent cases of city-wide violence offer dramatic windows on instances when escalation was seen as a palpable threat and the situation was rapidly brought under control. Any understanding of Karachi’s drift into conflict and non-state violence, therefore, also needs to be able to explain the tendency thus far of pulling back from the brink.
9 Wider context in time and space City, province and state Karachi was a small port with a natural harbour that was attacked and occupied by British troops in 1839. The Governor of the Talpur Mir rulers of Sindh formally surrendered the defences of the city to the East India Company for the purposes of setting up a military base.
Within four years the British used Karachi as a staging post to defeat the Talpurs and by 1843 had annexed Sindh to the Bombay Presidency. Karachi was now administratively rejoined with Sindh as its colonial headquarters (Rustomji and Katrak 2007).
In 1936, following a concerted political campaign by the Muslim leadership of Sindh, the region was separated from the Bombay Presidency and made into a province of British India, with Karachi as its headquarters. The city was already a centre of Sindh’s political activities and now hosted the provincial legislature and high court. There was rapid growth in economic activity as a result of the separation from Bombay. During the two world wars, the city also expanded to accommodate soldiers belonging to allied forces that set up bases in Karachi, and used the sea and airports for supplies (Rustomji and Katrak 2007).
The city hosted an intricate and detailed administrative system, and this influenced Jinnah’s decision in 1947 to choose Karachi as the first capital of Pakistan. Between 1947 to 1954, close to one million Urdu-speaking Muslims followed Jinnah to Karachi to make it their home in Pakistan. When Karachi was officially declared the capital of Pakistan, the constituent assembly decided to separate it from Sindh to make it a federally administered area – a move that was resisted by the Sindhi members of the assembly who feared the alienation of an important historic heritage and economic resource from their constituencies (Ahmed 1998). Karachi hence became Pakistan’s first Federal Capital Territory.
In 1955, Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and tribal areas were combined to form One Unit – i.e. West Pakistan. Lahore was declared provincial capital of West Pakistan, while Karachi remained the federal capital. In 1958, the federal government decided to move the federal capital to Islamabad (Ansari 2005). Following opposition protests, the One Unit was dissolved in 1969, and Karachi was once against designated capital of the newly revived Sindh province. Between 1958 and 1969 Karachi grew rapidly as an industrial powerhouse of Pakistan, but was home to few significant central or provincial government offices.
Until 2001, Karachi was an administrative division consisting of several districts, the urban segments of which were part of a municipal corporation. Reforms of local government systems in Pakistan, popularly known as the ‘Devolution Plan’, amalgamated the entire territory of the former Karachi division into the City District Government of Karachi (CDGK), the formal distinction between urban and rural areas was removed and the city divided into eighteen towns. The lowest administrative unit is now the union council, of which there are 178 in Karachi.
Economic hub Today, Karachi is spread over 3,530 square kilometres and is the largest city (by scale and population) in Pakistan. In 2007, its per capita output exceeded the country’s by 50 percent and the province’s by around 80 percent. The city accounts for a third of the total national output in large-scale manufacturing, 24 percent in finance and insurance, and 20 percent in 10 transport, storage and communications.8 Karachi is also valued for government-revenue generation. While it accounted for 14.5 percent of domestic output, approximately 54 percent of all central government tax revenues were collected here. The city’s monopoly over seabound trade makes it a prime site for the collection of custom duties. Moreover, being the point of import/manufacture of a large proportion of the goods that attract sales tax, Karachi is a high contributor to national sales tax. Finally, hosting the largest population employed in the manufacturing, retail-trading and services sector, Karachi is also the highest contributor to the central government’s income-tax revenue.
In some ways the relationship between Karachi and the rest of Pakistan can be regarded as a version of the classical dual economy. The city has a high concentration of the secondary and tertiary sectors, draws labour and raw materials from the rest of the country, and acts as the conduit for modern economic services. Urban Sindh (taken as a proxy for Karachi) has around twice the proportion of workers in service sectors (wholesale and retail trade) and manufacturing compared with Pakistan as a whole. It has three times the proportion of its workforce in finance and insurance. A third of all workers in urban Sindh were in the formal sector compared with a sixth in Pakistan, and three-fifths of the workers were employees compared with just 37 percent in Pakistan as a whole (Ministry of Finance 2007; World Bank 2007). With the rest of Sindh, this relationship is even more salient, as the province is mostly rural and primary-producing.
As demonstrated above, the smooth running of business and industrial activities in Karachi is critical for Pakistan’s economy. The violence and ensuing mayhem in the city often paralyses commercial activity, and this causes heavy economic losses to the national economy. For example, when violence peaked in 1995, leading to 31 days of strike and 3137 casualties in that year, the Karachi Chamber of Commerce estimated the economic cost of strikes in Karachi to be $5 billion (HRCP 1995). Similarly, following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated losses in Karachi and Sindh at about $1.3 billion (Dawn News, January 10, 2008).
In the late 1980s and mid 1990s Karachi’s susceptibility to political violence, organised crime, extortion and kidnapping (the latter targeting wealthy business families) resulted in a flight of capital and relocation of business to Punjab and industrial sites in NWFP. The business elite lobbied for protection and dissatisfied with the performance of the police, set up a citizen-police liaison committee (CPLC) with the cooperation of the provincial governor in 1993 (Interview, Sharfuddin Memon, May 29, 2008).
Growth and migration Karachi’s demography underwent dramatic changes (Table 1), and migration played a key role in these changes. The city attracted migrants from all over South Asia in search of refuge and better livelihoods. Between 1941 and 1951, the surge in population can be attributed to the creation of Pakistan in 1947, and the declaration of Karachi as the capital of the new state.
Muslim refugees arrived here in large numbers, and a majority of Karachi’s Hindu population fled to India. Internal migration, particularly from Punjab and NWFP, accelerated in the 1950s and 1960s. Internal migration from other cities and rural areas from across the country 8 Authors’ compilations from calculations and statistics available in the Pakistan Economic Survey (Ministry of Finance 2006-7), and World Bank (2007).
Sovereign and civil conflict in the region was once again the source of international migration to Karachi in the 1970s and 1980s. Following the secession of East Pakistan in 1971 there was a flow of ethnic Bihari refugees who claimed to be ‘stranded Pakistanis’ facing discrimination in the newly liberated Bangladesh. Muslim migrants from Burma sought refuge on the grounds of religious repression at the hands of the military government there (Gazdar et al. 2005). The war in Afghanistan was the source of another major wave of migration in the 1980s (Gizewski and Homer-Dixon 1995).