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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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27 Negotiation and renegotiation of rents The institutional approach to understanding conflict and violence in Karachi suggests a strong underlying willingness and ability on the part of agents to conduct economic transactions that might be illegal but are considered to be socially legitimate. It might be argued, in the spirit of de Soto (2000), that the formalisation of private property rights in land (and the reduction of unnecessary and rent-creating regulation), will undermine the legitimacy of non-state violence and informal social networks. Our case studies from Karachi suggest, however, that the assignment of property rights in land will itself generate conflict and violence, because of the high degree of contestation over claims. Moreover, the process of regularisation creates new economic rents that are contested, negotiated and renegotiated.

Karachi’s disarticulation from the national political mainstream was driven only in part by the ideology and organisational characteristics of the MQM. In reality, political life in the city was already dominated by local contests over economic rents. As the city grew without corresponding increases in investments in infrastructure and public services, the informal sector grew disproportionately. The city was open for migrants and displaced people – all they had to figure out was which rung of the socio-economic ladder was theirs to start with.

There was nothing inevitable about Muhajir ethnic mobilisation, or the nature of the organisation that emerged as the self-proclaimed protector of the city’s largest ‘ethnic’ group.

But the notion of a citizenship-based urban community with claims on the state, pursued through formal administrative, political and legal routes was already long in disrepair by the 1980s. Migrants from India had once been the most prominent candidates for non-parochial modern citizenship in Pakistan – due to their urbanity, loosening of traditional hierarchies and relatively high reliance on formal sector economic opportunities. It was ironic that they gave birth to an organisation that took non-state violence and ethnic solidarity to hitherto unknown levels in Karachi.

It was not just about the MQM. Other groups and factions, many of them much smaller than the MQM, followed similar methods and technologies. The breakaway MQM-Haqiqi faction, which emerged under official patronage during periods of state suppression of the mainstream MQM, was little different in attempting to assume the role of local enforcement. Various religious groups also operated in a similar manner, often with state support. In many of the tougher neighbourhoods there was little difference between criminal gangs and the youth cadre of political and religious factions.

The escalation in violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s was triggered by party-political conflict with ethnic overtones. There was also a trajectory, however, of organisations (predominantly MQM factions at that time) expanding their bases and projecting power within low- and middle-income localities. In other words, as student activists-turned political cadres became successful in challenging existing non-state enforcers, particularly those from other ethnic groups, they were encouraged to expand the scope of their actions and violence.

Rents had been renegotiated and for the players involved there were few apparent hurdles to further expansion.

The checks, when they did come, originated not from rival ethnic parties or non-state actors that had lost rank to the MQM, but the state itself. The successive state campaigns to curb the activities of the MQM in the 1990s were initiated with the explicit purpose of limiting the challenge the organisation was perceived to have posed to the coercive superiority of the state apparatus. The coalition of forces that acted against the MQM in the 1990s included 28 important segments of the state-security apparatus, national and provincial political parties, and the industrial and business elite. These three groups had quite disparate motives, but were all clear that the MQM’s brand of politics had finally reached its natural limits. The city’s business elite, which had once voluntarily financed the MQM’s rise from low- and middleincome communities into provincial and national politics – as a counter to its perceived political disadvantage vis-à-vis Punjab-based business – was now desperate for state protection from the MQM. Voluntary donations had turned into extortion, frequent city-wide strikes raised costs and uncertainty, and the rise in violent crime had become a physical threat to the business elite and their families. For the mainstream political parties – in particular the PPP, though also the Muslim League – the MQM was a maverick and unreliable bloc that negotiated irrationally, and destabilised elected national and provincial governments. The state institutions that had, like the business elite, once encouraged the rise of MQM to reduce the influence of mainstream political parties, now perceived a security threat in the organisation. The fact that Karachi was a conduit for much of the country’s foreign trade, and a source of the greater proportion of tax-revenue collection, meant that it could not be simply handed over to any one political organisation.

The MQM itself had enjoyed such rapid success in imposing its will in the communities where it had emerged that it was barely conscious of the fact that it had crossed a line. The incoherent and equivocal law-enforcement efforts from around 1989 onwards might have encouraged MQM leaders and supporters to doubt the state’s resolve and ability in challenging the party’s rise. In the event the crackdown between 1993 and 1996 was severe and determined. MQM’s top leadership fled the country and many of its key militant activists as well as ordinary members and supporters were killed. The stranglehold had been broken, and apart from human rights activists there were few voices in the political and civil society that objected to the repression. There were signs of disaffection even in the MQM’s core constituency among Karachi’s Muhajir communities: frequent strikes and shut downs, rising crime and the transformation of voluntary donations into extortion had taken the gloss off the party’s image.

The resuscitation of the party in the late 1990s, and then its revival and rehabilitation in 2002, were premised on a conspicuous change in nomenclature. In 1997, after a period of intense struggle in which it lost many of its cadres – and inflicted heavy casualties on police and civilians alike – the MQM changed its name from Muhajir to Muttahida Quami Movement (United National Movement).17 It abandoned the cause of ‘Muhajir nationalism’ in favour of a broader cross-ethnic base. This change, even though it was suspected by some MQM detractors as superficial and tactical, did represent a significant rhetorical retreat from the days when MQM leaders had encouraged talk of the ‘Muhajir nation’ creating its own nation state. When the party was finally brought back from the cold into government in 2002, it made a concerted effort to cultivate sources of funding that were less visible to its political constituency than door-to-door extortion visits.

Interestingly, rival parties that had been marginalised through the use of force, including assassination of cadres and violent disruption of political activities, were able to revive their political positions in Karachi during the very period when the MQM had complete monopoly over the government machinery. Between 2005 and 2007 the city government and the Sindh provincial government was controlled by the party, which was also a key stakeholder in the national government. The May 12, 2007 events are regarded as a watershed in this regard, 17 It has been suggested that this change was demanded by powerful players within the state, including the military and the secret agencies, as a precondition for protecting party leaders from persecution.

29 when MQM rivals (particularly the PPP and the ANP) showed their ability to resist an all-out attempt on the part of the MQM to control the streets. Other events, such as the city-wide shutdown in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, also demonstrated that parties other than the MQM could make their presence felt powerfully. The geography of these recent events – in which the city was roughly divided between the centre and the periphery – suggests an explanation.

The pace of land acquisition, changes in land use, and regularisation in and around Karachi has quickened significantly since around 2001. Some of the factors are exogenous ones, including the rise in property prices, increases in the supply of cash, and the virtual integration of Karachi and the rest of Pakistan with the global real estate market.

Domestically, the revival of the national economy through post-9/11 foreign assistance following a period of stagnation released pent-up domestic demand for housing. In Karachi the increased demand for land and housing – or for targets of speculative investment in real estate – coincided with the consolidation of city governance into the City District Government of Karachi (Interview, Perween Rahman, August 29, 2008). Another related development was the pushing through of a large highway project within the city leading to the displacement of some 20,000 homes in irregular settlements (Hasan 2009).

Land acquisition on the part of the government and private developers meant pressure on irregular settlements across the city. The inclusion of outlying areas of Karachi into the municipal jurisdiction meant that this pressure now extended to old villages, some of them claiming ancestral ownership of land, often without legal title – much in the way of the ethnic Sindhis in the Natha Khan case study. The existing stakeholders and transactors in the informal sector include entrepreneurs like Nawaz Khan of Kausar Niazi Colony, and ethnic Pashtun land suppliers of Machhar Colony. The MQM, in the meanwhile, appeared on the scene both in the shape of the city government, and despite its change of nomenclature, as an ethnic party promoting the interests of ‘its community’. The resulting contest, like the processes of regularisation described above, was one about economic rents and acquired ethnic-political overtones. The ethnic Sindhis, Baloch and Pashtuns in the existing irregular settlements within the city, and in the expanding areas in the city’s periphery, were ready support bases for the return of major political parties such as the PPP and the ANP.18 These parties consolidated the anti-MQM sentiment (and vote) in the non-Muhajir irregular settlements within the city, and in the rural/irregular settlements around the periphery.

The factors that had provided an easy entry point for the MQM into many low- and middleincome areas in Karachi in the 1980s, now worked to the advantage of rival parties in other areas. These parties, whose mobilisation in the past used to be focused on broader provincial and national political issues, even if they did invoke regional and ethnic identities, had taken MQM’s lead of involving themselves in the internal politics of irregular settlements and regularisation.19 The active interface between internal community politics of regularisation and national and provincial parties like the PPP and ANP meant, paradoxically, that Karachi’s 18 Among the early signs, well before the May 12 events, was a city-wide peaceful strike (on June 2, 2006) called by a coalition of ethnic Sindhi and Pashtun organisations to protest against eviction drives of the city government. The mobilisation for this strike portrayed city government actions as attacks on the position of particular ethnic communities (Dawn News, June 3, 2006).

19 Although the PPP was mentioned as a player in the regularisation of the Lines Area and Kausar Niazi Colony, its role was a relatively distant one. Local land suppliers or community leaders had used their connections with the PPP leadership, and even more remotely, the government had taken the populist decision to announce regularisation. The micro-process of regularisation, however, had not then been owned by the party. The antiMQM consolidation of recent years, therefore, was a new development.

30 political life was once again making an entry into the national mainstream. Unlike the MQM, these other parties had wider ethnic bases that were not limited to Karachi. Whether, and to what extent, the emerging political situation will take Karachi back towards violent political and ethnic conflict remains to be seen.

Finally, it is pertinent to ask if the institutional approach to understanding conflict and violence in Karachi has anything to say about the process of pulling away from the brink. If non-state violence and informal social networks are legitimised because they facilitate informal economic transactions, is there a counter process of delegitimisation of actions that disrupt economic activity? There is a sense that this is what happened in the 1990s, when the MQM was seen to have gone too far. Former supporters in the state apparatus and in the business elite backed away when the renegotiation of economic rents threatened to damage the very basis of economic activity in the city. Supportive communities also appeared unwilling to sustain economic disruption. The social acceptance of non-state violence was easier to justify as long as it was based on the facilitation of illegal yet legitimate economic transactions. Similar pressures appeared to operate on the political leaderships on all sides during recent instances of city-wide violence, which were brought under control before they could escalate into wider political or ethnic conflict.

–  –  –

Killings in Karachi 1994-2004 Source: Unpublished data provided to the authors by the Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), and authors’ compilation from annual reports of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

–  –  –



Abbas, Azmat. 2001. ‘Lashkar's big split’, Herald 32(8): 58–63.

Ahmar, Moonis. 1996. ‘Ethnicity and State Power in Pakistan: The Karachi Crises’, Asian Survey 36(10): 1031-48.

Ahmar, Moonis. 2005. ‘Pakistan: The Sindhi-Muhajir conflict’, in Paul van Tongeren and Hans van de Veen (eds), Searching for Peace in Central and South Asia. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

Ahmed, Feroz. 1998. Ethnicity and Politics in Pakistan. Karachi, New York: Oxford University Press.

Alavi, Hamza and Harriss, John (eds).1989. Sociology of ‘Developing Societies’: South Asia.

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