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Frontline Karachi

by Laurent Gayer
Laurent Gayer

Laurent Gayer

Making sense of Karachi’s seeming senselessness.

With a devil-may-care smile, Aslam pointed at the bullet holes piercing through the thin corrugated iron door. “Now, this is living on the edge!” he bragged. After flying through the courtyard, the bullets had lodged themselves into the walls of the single-story house. Miraculously, none of his family members was hurt, but it was a close call.

Unlike the many bystanders falling to stray bullets in Karachi every year, Aslam could see it coming. A longtime activist of one of the political parties battling it out for control of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, he knew all too well how unforgiving its streets could be.

A few days earlier, as the city’s voters were preparing themselves to defy the scorching heat and the intimidation attempts of the Taliban, Aslam had been involved in a skirmish with a rival group. Shots were exchanged; blood was spilled; and calls for revenge ensued. His party’s victory in the local constituency only made things worse. The rival group suspected him to be involved in poll rigging and held him partly responsible for its defeat. The shooting at his house was probably a warning rather than an actual attempt on his life, but he decided to lie low for a while. Leaving his home, he stayed with friends and relatives, increasingly uncertain of his future. His bravado was also, and maybe primarily, an attempt to conceal his anxieties and regain control over a life going adrift.

Already in his mid-30s, Aslam remained single and unemployed. His political activities prevented him from taking a regular job since he feared that his commuting routines would make him vulnerable to an attack by any of the groups he had antagonized in the past, from electoral rivals to the drug mafia to religious extremists. Aslam contemplated leaving the country and applying for asylum in Thailand or Sri Lanka, where, he had heard, refugee status was granted less parsimoniously than in the West. He was still hesitant, though. He had recently met a girl during a trip to his natal province and he was considering getting married. Moreover, he knew that if he pursued his political career, he would probably be elected a councilor—a potentially lucrative position, although one fraught with risks for himself and his family—in the next municipal elections.

In a city of 21 million, as of 2011, plagued by overlapping forms of political and criminal violence, Aslam’s predicament was by no means unique. Granted, the politically active remain the proverbial few, especially in those families with enough means, economic and otherwise, to dissuade their sons from putting their life and morality at risk by entering the dangerous and impure realm of party politics. But even among the more privileged sections of Karachi’s population, few if any can ignore the multifarious threats to their existence. How is one to live, love, and work normally when paying a visit to friends, commuting to work or attending your local place of worship could get you mugged, shot at, kidnapped or even blown up to pieces?

Karachi-wallahs have several words to describe this state of chronic disorder: inteshar (commotion), khalfashar (chaos), laqanuniyat (lawlessness). These popular perceptions and the journalistic depictions of the city as chaotic and ungovernable have transformed it into a byword for endemic violence and urban breakdown. Such perceptions must be accounted for, especially when they inform individual decisions and social interactions among the denizens of this volatile megacity. And yet, there is more to Karachi’s apparent state of chaos than meets the eye.

Ordering Disorder

Karachi might well be the world’s most violent megacity, but, unlike what is often heard, it is still far from being the most dangerous agglomeration of the planet. It does not even rank among the 50 deadliest cities of the world, and its homicide rate (around 11.3 per 100,000 in 2011, according to data compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan) is closer to Chicago’s (15.9) than to San Pedro Sula’s (169), the murder capital of the world.

What makes Karachi’s endemic violence so specific is the ubiquitous and multifarious nature of it as well as its over-determination by political conflicts. Unlike in South and North American cities, which top the list of the world’s most dangerous cities, in Karachi no neighborhood is entirely murder-free and violent crime is only one source of insecurity alongside interparty rivalries, ethnic riots, Islamist terrorism, and sectarian conflicts. This contributes to the general sense of insecurity of Karachi’s populations across social, ethnic, and religious divides, with their fears extending from the physical realm (fear for one’s own life or for those of one’s loved ones) to the material (fear for one’s property) to the existential (fear for one’s future).

Despite its volatility, Karachi is not an anarchic city. Its disorders have their laws: until recently at least, the worst incidents of collective violence followed well-established patterns, which made them amenable to safety procedures on the part of the public.

The most spectacular as well as the most Karachi-specific forms of violence have been street battles between political parties and so-called ethnic riots. These violent outbursts became routine during the mid-1980s and have since then been following a well-oiled script. They generally flare up on specific occasions (strike calls, days of mourning, religious festivals) at well-identified places (particularly at the interface between ethnically differentiated neighborhoods) before expanding around this epicenter only to recede after a few days of disturbances and the deployment of security forces in the disturbed areas.

Over the years, these confrontations have taken a quasi-ritual form, partaking in an ethnically polarized democracy where violence was gradually routinized. While the potential for a full-blown conflagration remained limited (except, maybe, at the peak of the confrontation between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the state, from 1992 to 1995), violence became integral to the management of coalition politics in Sindh and in Islamabad. The MQM, in particular, has mastered the art of broken negotiations, using its coercive and disruptive resources to obtain concessions from its coalition partners, as exemplified by the scenes of urban warfare witnessed during the summer of 2011.

More banal incidents of criminal and political violence (target-killings, shootings) for their part are often linked to the control of economic rents (land, water, bhatta) and are far more unpredictable. They are irreducible to mere gang wars between or within various mafias, though. Karachi’s everyday forms of political and criminal violence also partake in local political projects. Every aspirant to public authority aims to establish his sovereignty over a given territory by marking it practically (through the deployment of armed militants or the erection of barriers) and symbolically (through the saturation of the visual environment with flags, posters, graffiti), all attempts that often meet with armed resistance in such a polarized and militarized political environment.

Some of these claims may come as a challenge to the writ of the state, but even in so-called no-go areas—where law and order forces are hesitant to venture without adequate backup—the state has not entirely faded away. Only it contents itself with a distant and intermittent presence, in a state of abeyance that does not preclude periodic reassertions of authority through public performances of legitimate violence in particular. Taking the form of police and paramilitary operations aiming to clean up problematic areas, these attempts to restore the writ of the state are not so much about pacifying Karachi, though, as about renegotiating the inherently unstable compromises between the ruling party or the intelligence agencies and the city’s various contenders to public authority.

Choppy Waters

Laurent Gayer

Laurent Gayer

There is always a way to work when there is chaos, the late director of the Orangi Pilot Project, Perween Rahman, told me in March last year, a couple of weeks before her brutal death at the hands of unknown assailants. Rahman emphasized, for instance, how commuters, including herself, started stocking food in their cars after the riots that had engulfed large parts of the city in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s killing in December 2007 so that they wouldn’t be caught unprepared by another prolonged episode of rioting.

Building upon their past experiences, Karachiites always anticipate the worst, which only makes it easier for political parties and religious organizations to shut down the city at will. Increasingly, the various contenders to street power don’t even need to resort to coercive measures to bring the city to a halt—and when violence does erupt, it often amounts to a show of strength by local power holders rather than to an attempt at overcoming significant resistance from the public.

As demonstrated by the reactions of millions of Karachi’s people following the announcement of MQM chief Altaf Hussain’s recent arrest by London police, the residents of Karachi have learnt to anticipate disturbances and act preventively to avoid being caught in the midst of street battles or being stranded at work while the city burns. These safety procedures are premised on an ability to divine the city through the decryption of signs, clues, moods, and rumors—always fluid and uncertain, and thus prone to misinterpretation. This perspective on urban life amounts to an art of survival, which consists of reading the environment (faza) and anticipating potentially life-threatening situations (haalaat). As such, it is a tool of social navigation on a volatile terrain: it does not only interpret the city but informs actual practices, and in particular certain ways to move safely across the city.

The knowledge acquired by battle-weary Karachiites over decades of political turmoil should not be mistaken for a sign of resilience, though. When the adult male population of Lyari, for instance, feels constrained to be accompanied by a child or a female relative to circulate safely within the neighborhood or across the city (by assuming that this co-presence will soften local gangsters and potential target-killers affiliated with other ethnic groups), they do not display their creative imagination or their ability to bounce back against all odds. Rather, they painfully compromise their idea of adulthood and manhood to cope with a dangerous environment they have no control over, and which causes them severe distress.

Moreover, the chronic disturbances affecting some working-class neighborhoods such as Lyari and Orangi reinforce their marginalization from the rest of the city. Employers are increasingly reluctant to recruit young men and women from these tension-prone areas, fearing that they could be troublemakers but also that they might prove unable to attend their job regularly due to the frequent disruption of public transport in their locality. Even the largest textile companies, which employ the bulk of Karachi’s labor force, are unwilling to extend their pick-up services to these localities, preferring instead to recruit their workers in the labor colonies located in the vicinity of the city’s industrial estates. In case of public disturbances, following strike calls for instance, these workers can always walk to their workplace, without disrupting the chain of production—a major concern for the textile sector. Political and criminal violence thus reinforce preexisting patterns of socio-spatial segregation, with the divide between tension-prone areas and comparatively safer ones adding up to social and ethnic forms of discrimination at the workplace.

Besides continuing to inflict immense suffering, both physical and social, to Karachi’s most vulnerable populations, this endemic violence is becoming more lethal by the year (if only because of the continuous upgrading of the military capabilities of the belligerents, from knives in the 1960s and 1970s to Kalashnikovs in the 1980s to RPGs recently), as well as more indiscriminate. Not only are civilians increasingly targeted for their ethnicity or religious inclinations, but even women are now fair game for Karachi’s target-killers.

In this context, the safety routines of commuters and the evasive tactics used by parents to keep their children at bay from gangs or from the dangerous world of party politics no longer provide immunity against lethal encounters. This sense of increasing vulnerability to political and criminal violence nurtures a deep urban malaise. For its fearful residents, the city is becoming undecipherable. Naveeda, a Kutchi social worker employed with one of Lyari’s oldest NGOs, told me in August 2012, that, “Such a strange environment has developed in our city that it seems to have become a foreign land.”

The uncertainty surrounding some extraordinary disturbances (bombings, large-scale arson attacks) as well as more banal violent incidents (target-killings, abductions, extortion) only add to this malaise. As every group in the city denies involvement in violent or illicit activities, the identities of the perpetrators and their rationales are anybody’s guess. This opacity raises doubts about what one knows about one’s social relations and environment—doubts that obfuscate social norms and relationships.

Fear as a way of life, in the context of Karachi, thrives on this opacity of violent occurrences. While upsetting even the most intimate relationships (what can really be known of one’s friends, neighbors, and even relatives, in such a game of shadows?), it reinforces, a fortiori, the boundaries between ethnic groups (if one cannot be sure about one’s own, how could one see through ethnic others?). Thus, the urban malaise conveyed by Naveeda is irreducible to a sense of personal vulnerability. It is also the expression of a lament for the pluralistic city and its promiscuities, a city where, in her words, people of all ethnic stock had once “interacted closely, sat together in restaurants, and ate and drank together.”

Cents and Sensibility

Karachi’s economy has been hit hard by political disturbances and by the protection rackets set up over the years by various political, religious, and criminal groups. Besides the increasingly pressing issue of bhatta, frequent strike calls by political and religious groups have been a recurring source of concern for the city’s traders and entrepreneurs. In 1995, the cost of a single day of strike was estimated at $37 million, and there were 22 days of strikes in the first 10 months of this year. The cost of these disturbances has been increasing over the years and a recent study by the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry put the cost of every new day of strike around $190 million. Assuming that Karachi would register 35 days of strikes on average annually, the same study then put the yearly cost of these disturbances at $6.7 billion or almost 3 percent of the national GDP. Even if these figures seem inflated (the yearly number of city-wide strikes is probably closer to 15), there is no doubt that political disturbances have a huge cost for the local economy but also for that of Pakistan at large.

Over the years, these disturbances did translate into a flight of capital to other parts of Pakistan or to greener foreign pastures (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Dubai, Saudi Arabia). Thus, the share of Karachi in Pakistan’s manufacturing sector went down from 60 percent to 40 percent during the mid-1990s, when the city seemed on the verge of full-fledged civil war. In recent years, some traders and entrepreneurs have also been relocating their activities within Karachi itself, leading to major transformations of the city’s economy. The rise of extortion in some bazaars and wholesale markets of the Old City, such as Sarafa Bazaar or Bolton Market, led many traders to shift their businesses to safer parts of town. As a result, the economies of Lyari and the Old City, which remained tightly knit until then, have been disintegrating, which only aggravated Lyari’s already dire economic situation.

While taking a hit, Karachi’s economy has, however, shown a remarkable capacity to endure and even to thrive, at least in certain sectors (textile, construction, pharmaceuticals). As of now, the city remains the jewel in Pakistan’s crown, contributing around 25 percent of its GDP, handling 95 percent of its international trade, and holding 50 percent of its bank deposits. Like everyone else in the city, economic elites have learnt to cope with political turmoil. By recruiting their workforce in the vicinity of industrial estates or by importing from other parts of the country workers (such as the Seraiki) who have no roots and thus no political protections in the city, these entrepreneurs overcome the recurring challenge of strikes and try to contain workers’ unrest (especially when these migrant workers are provided accommodation on site which insulates them from the rest of the city and makes them more docile).

But this is not always sufficient to ensure calm within the workforce or the security of the management, though. In order to protect themselves against workers’ unrest, racketeering, and kidnappings, factory owners try to appease the locally dominant political party while maintaining a balance with its rivals. Four sources of revenue and influence are particularly coveted by local party bosses: the scrap (such as textile waste); the management of workers’ canteens; jobs to distribute among party workers and affiliates; and cash, which is the easiest way to ensure the cooperation of local power holders. A senior manager of one of Pakistan’s largest textile groups, which has been working in SITE as well as in Landhi for years, explained to me recently that, “Other than money, it’s always a little complicated. So if somebody can be handled with money, it’s the best solution.”

The most resourceful entrepreneurs—especially the Memon and Chinioti families who dominate the textile industry—do not content themselves with doing some damage control. Increasingly, these business elites also put the city’s disorder to good use, demonstrating in the process that capitalism is not always averse to politically unstable environments and may, in fact, turn situations of chronic disorder into an economic asset.

Rather than insulating themselves from their disorderly environment, large-scale industrialists buy services from political parties, criminal gangs, and even jihadist militias, building upon the latter’s access to certain economic rents (such as illicit water connections) or their coercive resources (which are mobilized to intimidate the workforce and dissuade it from mobilizing itself for better wages and working conditions) in order to increase their international competitiveness. This muscular neo-liberalism—where the unofficial resources of violent entrepreneurs are used to cut down production costs and increase the flexibility of the labor market while containing labor unrest—contributes to the dynamism of these flagship sectors of the local economy at the cost of a rapid deterioration of the living and working conditions of Karachi’s working classes.

This fast deteriorating working environment is fertile ground for sectarian organizations such as the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat, which has been taking a proactive stance on labor issues since last year’s general elections. This is particularly true in Landhi where the Jamaat came close to ravish PS-128 (the provincial constituency which includes the Pakhtun-dominated working-class areas of Quaidabad and Future Colony as well as more ethnically diverse parts of Landhi and Malir) from the MQM.

In the aftermath of the elections, the Jamaat set up a labor committee which has been pressurizing the management of several factories in the Landhi industrial area, for instance by getting workers readmitted after they were summarily dismissed. According to Shamsul Haqqani, head of the Jamaat’s labor committee, around 1,200 workers were either rehired or found a new position in Landhi factories within the first year of the committee coming into existence. This emerging power of brokerage is bound to make Jamaat a political force to be reckoned with in Landhi and Quaidabad, which could prove easier to conquer electorally than Jamaat’s other bastion in the city (the localities of North Karachi extending from Nagan Chowrangi to Godhra Camp which fall within PS-100, a provincial constituency which includes Shia-dominated localities whose residents have traditionally supported the MQM).

The state is not a passive observer of these evolutions. While Karachi is anything but a lawless society, the law is primarily an instrument of domination in the hands of economic and political elites who can rely upon law-enforcement agencies to protect their interests against the weaker sections of society. Thus, in recent years, antiterrorism laws have been diverted from their original purpose to deter workers from organizing themselves.

While some factory owners recruited local goondas or, more rarely, jihadist militants to crush attempts at unionization, others turned to the Rangers, who promptly obliged by getting these workers arrested on extortion charges, making them fall within the purview of draconian antiterrorist laws. In the meantime, actual extortionists and their political patrons have continued to run scot-free, which has only reinforced their sense of impunity and their ability to stare right into the eyes of the state.

Gayer is a research fellow at the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Internationales, Paris, and author of the recently-published Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City (Hurst, 2014), available through Oxford University Press Pakistan.

Laurent Gayer

Laurent Gayer

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1 comment

Gary September 29, 2014 - 11:07 pm

“Karachi might well be the world’s most violent megacity, but, unlike what is often heard, it is still far from being the most dangerous agglomeration of the planet. It does not even rank among the 50 deadliest cities of the world, and its homicide rate (around 11.3 per 100,000 in 2011, according to data compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan) is closer to Chicago’s (15.9) than to San Pedro Sula’s (169), the murder capital of the world.”

Have people actually seen the murder rates for Rio [yes folks it’s a megacity, not sure why people say it isn’t], Sao Paulo and Mexico City? I mean the real ones, not the nonsense on the UNODC site? It’s food for thought though I think Karachi’s – which is clearly lower than those three cities (contrary to reporting) – could actually be a lot higher than it’s official stat which I’ll mention further on. So it might not matter anyway, Rio aside.

Karachi’s homicide rate is higher than Chicago’s which receives a farcical amount of bad press, but it’s simultaneously (and ‘officially’) lower than the other three megacities.

Murders in megacities and Chicago (almost a megacity) 2012:

1. Rio de Janeiro, Brasil (pop. 12.7m) 3,800 murders / 30 per 100,000

2. Sao Paulo, Brasil (pop. 21.8m) 4,000 murders / 18 per 100,000

3. Mexico City (pop. 23.9m) 4,100 murders / 17 per 100,000

4. KARACHI, PAKISTAN (POP. 21.1m) 2,100 MURDERS / 10 PER 100,000

5. Chicago, United States (pop. 9.9m) 700 murders / 7 per 100,000

I don’t believe Karachi’s official numbers are accurate at all I think they could be much higher, but it has to triple to catch Rio. It also has to increase by 70% and 80% respectively to catch Sao Paulo and Mexico City which would be quite a feat in itself. Possible, but Rio seems too far ahead.


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