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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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Wider political conspiracies relate to machinations of particular governments to influence the ethnic demographic make-up of particular regions in order to gain firmer control over them, or fomenting violence in order to sabotage the economic potential of a city in order to put an alternate city in a position of advantage. There is a further idea that violent ethnic and sectarian politics are deliberately promoted at times in order to prop up dictators and to subvert democratic movements. Many of these explanations of violence are tenable, given that key actors in the state are caught expressing opinions that are consistent with such conspiracies. An important consequence of the political conspiracy theories of all hues is that they erase the distinction between state and non-state violence.

Economic frustration Economic frustration, particularly youth unemployment, is often used as a way of understanding the rise in violent crime. Party-political rhetoric has sometimes played upon feelings of economic frustration in order to solidify support for identity-based mobilisation.

16 The rising tide of consumerism coupled with low rates of job growth is thought to have fuelled street crime and other violent misdemeanours. Explanations concerned with demographic and inter-generational dynamics also focus on economic frustration as a determinant of violence.

Some of the arguments for ethnic solidarity are based on rivalry between groups for access to limited public sector jobs or educational opportunities.13 Alavi’s salariat framework provides a good entry point into this discussion. It has also been argued that violent organisations have offered young men from poor families a sense of empowerment over older generations, as well as the more affluent classes (Alavi and Harriss 1989).

External factors Finally, factors external to the city are thought to have played an important role in pushing Karachi towards conflict and violence. The growth of the city was itself a consequence of larger political events – notably the partition of India and related demographic changes.

Other regional conflicts also had a major impact. The civil war in East Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh brought new refugees, and led to further anxieties concerning ethnic demographic balances.

The war in Afghanistan affected Pakistan in general and Karachi too in specific ways. There was an influx of Afghan refugees that added a new dimension to the trajectory of migration in the city. The war in Afghanistan was also associated with the breakdown of many established systems of governance. The Pakistan government became an active participant in the war while maintaining a public posture of non-interference. This required the development of a parallel institutional infrastructure and the loosening of formal controls over illicit trade and unregulated currency movements.

The proliferation of unregulated weapons markets is thought to have led to a rapid increase in the availability of sophisticated armaments to non-state actors. The conduct of the war in Afghanistan had already resulted in a blurring of the boundaries between state and non-state actors in the first instance. Small arms – including automatic assault rifles, handguns and rocket launchers – were readily available on the black market and found their way into the hands of various student groups and political parties.

Openness and informality The five themes outlined above encompass much of the existing scholarly, political and policy-oriented discussion on conflict and violence in Karachi. Taken together these five themes provide a convincing account of the qualitative and quantitative changes in the city over the decades, particularly since the mid-1980s. There are, of course, gaps and limitations, but none that are insurmountable to research. For example, the ethnic identity approach can be developed further to include issues of economic class and their interaction with ethnicity.

The acknowledged fluidity of identity preferences can also be operationalised further to understand the dynamics of ethnic identity construction over other forms. There is, clearly, scope for empirical work on the relationship between economic conditions and criminal and political violence. Likewise, archival and interview-based research can reveal yet more insights into ‘political conspiracies’ affecting various stakeholders.

13 The tension between Muhajirs and Sindhis is often dated back to the introduction of separate urban and rural quotas for government jobs and higher education places (Kennedy 1984).

17 While accepting the need to deepen research in all of these areas, this paper proposes a complementary institutional approach that focuses on two outstanding and incontrovertible aspects of Karachi’s urbanity: migration and informality. It draws on an impressive body of work done by heterodox urban planners and analysts that has placed informal public provisioning at the core of Karachi’s growth experience.14 This perspective on Karachi can be viewed, of course, in the broader context of scholarly work on the informal urban sector in developing countries (De Soto 2000). The point of departure of the thesis pursued here is the inductive premise that an understanding of Karachi’s experience with conflict and violence should be informed by the specific (and much analysed) trajectory of urbanisation.





It is proposed that the growth of political violence in Karachi was an outcome of the very processes that made Karachi an open city in the first instance. The high rate of migration coincided with an erosion of the formal sector’s capacity for supplying basic infrastructure or regulating the use of existing infrastructure. This resulted in bringing forth an informal response, which was in turn aided and abetted by state organisations and personnel (Linden 1991). It is estimated, for example, that 50 percent of the city’s population resides in localities that were settled informally (Hasan and Mohib n.d.) – illegally or irregularly acquired, or with gross violations of existing regulations concerning land use. About 47 percent of the city’s water needs were supplied using water tankers, a majority of which drew water from hydrants managed by the water utility (Rahman 2008). Public transport systems were dominated by private contractors who informally managed bus routes, ran unregistered bus stands, and charged and enforced user fees from individual bus operators. In all these activities state organisations and their personnel were active participants and colluders, and charged systematic bribes (Ismail 2002). The heterodox view in urban planning is that the informal sector was an effective provider of public goods and services particularly to the poor.

The informalisation of public provisioning, however, 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. For the large segments of the economy that operated informally, the formal policing, legal and judicial systems were unlikely to help in contract enforcement and dispute arbitration. These two institutional deviations – non-state enforcement and salience of social networks based on prior notions of solidarity − which were necessary for the expansion of the informal sector, also became conspicuous features of the city’s politics.

Land and housing This section presents brief case studies of six localities across Karachi, which were established at different stages in the city’s development. The case studies are based on qualitative data collected by the authors in these localities over the last five years, consisting mostly of interviews with local residents, including political representatives and community leaders, and direct observations. The six localities were all considered to be relatively low income areas and had undergone various processes of regularisation over time. One 14 Arif Hasan, Tasneem Siddiqi and Perween Rahman are leading proponents of this viewpoint, which was embraced by Akhtar Hameed Khan – a pioneering teacher-activist involved in urban community development (Hasan 2002).

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The case studies focus on the issue of land and housing. As noted above, the reliance on, and proliferation of, informal provisioning of public goods and services has been a conspicuous feature of Karachi’s growth. Nearly all the studies are stories of displacement, migration, encroachment and stage-wise regularisation. Questions about dispute resolution, contract enforcement and collective action were also addressed, and some of the narratives from these localities are summarised here. Some details of the settlements, socio-economic data from secondary sources and an inventory of public services are provided in Annex 3.

Natha Khan Goth The oldest inhabitants of the Natha Khan Goth are a cluster of ethnic Sindhi families of the Panhwar tribe. The Panhwars are thought to be among the oldest inhabitants inland of Karachi, and their presence here was recorded in the early colonial documents of the midnineteenth century. The original Natha Khan Goth, or village, was named after their ancestor who held over a hundred acres of land in an area that is currently part of a military cantonment. Natha Khan was a farmer and cattle herder who became rich through supplying fresh vegetables and dairy to the fast growing city of Karachi in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1907, the British colonial government required more land to expand its military facilities in Karachi. The Natha Khan village was evicted and in compensation the family was allotted around 17 acres of undeveloped land further away from the city centre. This is the location of present-day Natha Khan Goth.

After independence there was a steady wave of migration from the northern regions of Pakistan, and ethnic Pashtun migrants from various districts of the NWFP began to arrive in Natha Khan. There was plenty of land then, and the Sindhi landowners began to charge rents from the Pashtun migrants for putting up make-shift huts on their land. A fight broke out over the payment of rents, which developed into a feud between the Sindhis and the Pashtuns, lasting several years and causing six deaths. Sindhis claimed that the Pashtuns were emboldened by their rising numbers and the tacit support they received from fellow Pashtun state personnel. The Pashtun hold that the land actually did not belong to the Sindhis in any case, and that they used to demand rent in the early years due to their sheer numerical and political strength. There is agreement, however, that before the 1960s the Pashtuns were few in number and paid rent to Natha Khan, whereas from the 1960s they began to constitute an overwhelming majority and stopped paying rent.

There were other important stakeholders too, including state organisations such as the military, the railways and the civil aviation authority. The claim made by Natha Khan’s descendents that they were the original owners of the land at the present site of the village or at its original location closer to the city centre, were not accepted by the state authorities − in this case the cantonment board that claimed to have acquired the land from the provincial government for defence purposes. Natha Khan was not the owner but had been allowed use of the land for farming and raising dairy cattle. It is quite possible, of course, that Natha Khan’s family was the original but unregistered owners of the land even before the cantonment board acquired it from the provincial government. In any case, the fact that Ghancha Gul − who emerged as a key protagonist and leader on the Pashtun side − was an employee of the cantonment board, fuelled Sindhi suspicions that the cantonment board and other state authorities had become partial to the Pashtuns. The Sindhis linked this suspicion 19 with their reading of national politics that the 1960s military government was led by Pashtun officers.

In the 1980s there was an opening for people living in irregular settlements to get their settlements officially notified and to obtain lease documents from the government. The authorities accepted the claims of the Pashtun neighbourhoods for regularisation. The few Sindhi families did not apply for regularisation because they argued that they already held the title not only to their own part of Natha Khan Goth, but also to the land on which the Pashtun neighbourhoods had been settled.

Informal community organisations were active in the Pashtun neighbourhoods. These were based on the district of origin of the various migrants who settled in distinct quarters within Natha Khan, named after the place of origin – such as Swabi, Mardan and Kohat – in the NWFP. One of the main functions of the community organisations was that they acted as funeral insurance clubs. Members contributed a small annual fee, and were ensured that in case of death the organisation would make arrangements for transporting the body for burial to the district of origin.

Lines Area The (British Indian) military controlled large tracts of land in the city centre, and in part of this barracks and houses had been constructed for troops and officers based in Karachi during the Second World War. At the time of independence and partition displaced people flooded into Karachi from western and northern provinces of India − particularly Uttar Pradesh (then United Provinces), Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (then Central Provinces), Rajasthan (then Rajputana) and Gujarat (then Bombay). These mostly Urdu-speaking migrants and their descendants are also known as Muhajir (refugee). The barracks and houses near the city centre were named after campaigns and officers of the British Indian army, and came to be known collective as the Lines Area. The Lines Area consists of the Jacob, Jutland, Tunisia and Abyssinia Lines, as well as a number of adjoining settlements that started life as encroachments on military land.

When Karachi started receiving large numbers of displaced people the government decided to allow refugee camps to spring up on unused public and private land in and around the city.



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