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Excerpt | Karachi

LiveMint logoLiveMint 12-06-2014 Laurent Gayer

Survival strategies

Karachiites often claim to have learned to cope with violence, to such an extent that they would have become immune to it. As a fifty-five-year-old Urdu-speaking bookseller at Burns Road’s Urdu Bazaar told me in December 2011, a few months after Karachi witnessed its worst episode of political warfare since the mid-1990s, ‘Today, so many people are dying that [whenever someone is killed], we are less affected than if a flea was creeping over our ear’ (Ab itne log mar jate hain, to logon ke kan par jun tak nahin ringti). However common such assertions may be, it is doubtful that the populations of Karachi have become a fearless and heartless lot. Nor are they more ‘resilient’ than other populations affected by armed conflict. They have simply adjusted their everyday life, as best as they could, to the virtual or actual threat of political, ethnic and criminal violence. Rather than coping with crisis, they have learned to cope in crisis....This ‘art of survival’, as a local journalist recently described it, encompasses routines of representation and routines of action that were gradually internalised by Karachiites, the fastest learners being, as always, children. In his gripping account of the December 1986 massacres of Qasba and Aligarh colonies and their echo across the rest of the city...the writer and critic Asif Farrukhi recalls how his young daughter reacted, in his absence, to her first experience of a gun fight at close range:

On my way back from the office, I peeped into the room of my children. I noticed that the shelves where Anusha was keeping her dolls and stuffed toys had been emptied. I was surprised and the first thought that came to my mind was that there had been a burglary. The toys which my children kept with so much care had vanished! Panicking, I made some noise. Anusha came to me laughing. ‘I hid the dolls, so that they wouldn’t be hit by a bullet.’

To amount to a form of social navigation, such coping in crisis demands some predictability in the patterns, timing and locales of recurring episodes of violence. This is undoubtedly the case in Karachi, where the major tension spots of the city (Banaras Chowk, Qasba Colony, Orangi, Sohrab Goth, the Teen Hatti bridge to Liaquatabad, etc.) have shown a remarkable continuity since the mid-1980s, while certain public events (religious festivals, strikes, days of mourning for ‘martyred’ political or religious leaders, etc.) are collectively identified as life-threatening, inciting people to stay indoors. The routinisation of violence, in Karachi as in other societies confronted by situations of chronic civil strife, should not be mistaken for a ‘habituation’ of conflict by its populations....In the most violence-prone localities of Karachi, the management of ‘ordinary’ violence by local residents is challenged by the continuous transformation of this violence in the course of the conflict. Here lies the source of the Karachiites’ enduring sense of fear: violence will always transform faster than their attempts to cope with it.

More than the frequency of violent occurrences, what has been upsetting the residents of Karachi over the past few years is the blurring of the categories of violent events, that is, their increasingly indiscriminate morphology—‘malformations of violence’, so to speak. Schematically, three different types of collective violence could be distinguished until recently. Ethnic and sectarian ‘riots’ (hangamas) were the most encompassing form of collective violence: anyone singled out as a member of a rival group on the basis of his phenotypical features, sartorial style and even haircut could become a target. However, these incidents remained limited in time and space: they would generally flare up on specific occasions at well-identified places (particularly at the interface between ethnically differentiated neighbourhoods), before expanding around this epicentre, only to recede after a few days of disturbances and the deployment of security forces in disturbed areas. The most exposed to these episodes of collective violence were daily labourers, itinerant merchants and the homeless, who could not take shelter from the violence unleashed by rioters and militants acting under the cover of the ‘riotous crowds’. Political violence, for its part, was more targeted, singling out party activists

while sparing ‘apolitical people’ (ghair tanzim log, lit. ‘people without [any affiliation to] an organisation’). Although bystanders could always fall prey to a stray bullet during a ‘clash’ (tasadum) between rival groups, the gradual professionalisation of target killers limited collateral damages. The most unpredictable form of violence—and thus the most dangerous for civilians—was criminal violence, which took the shape of ‘gang wars’ between rival groups (with a high potential for collateral damages among bystanders) and, more rarely but with even more dramatic consequences for the general public, of coordinated attacks against civilian populations (such as in Qasba and Aligarh colonies in December 1986).

Until recently, the quasi-institutionalisation of these forms of violence made them amenable to safety routines containing the level of the threat for those in the know and with the resources to take shelter, at the right time, from public disturbances. This is no longer the case. First of all, the upgrading of the belligerents’ weaponry has increased the risks of collateral damage even during targeted attacks. As a young Pashtun who grew up in Gul Muhammad Lane told me in August 2012, ‘[The gang war of the 2000s] was not such a big deal. Living in Lyari, I’m used to these

things. When incidents of firing happened, it was ok [firing agar ho gai, to bas thik hai]… it was just everyday matter.’ This situation changed in recent years, though. The same respondent thus recalls how RPGs started replacing Kalashnikovs, with devastating consequences for bystanders:

I remember that near my house… last year [2011]… a clash happened between them [rival gangs]. There was this man, Akram Baloch [a gangster affiliated with Rehman Dakait’s group, who disputed to Uzair Baloch the leadership of the PAC after the death of the former], who lived near my house… He was in charge of the security at Bilawal House… He used to live in the same gali where my house was located. When clashes took place [with the PAC], they [the assailants] would climb on the 5th or 6th floor of a nearby apartment building and shoot rockets [rocket-propelled grenades] from there. Sometimes, some of these rockets went astray [kahin bhi gir jata tha]. Once, a rocket hit a PMT [electric transformer] and the whole area was plunged into darkness for almost 10 days. People of the KESC would not come because the situation was so bad. They [the assailants] did not know how to use these rocket-launchers with precision [Precise unka koi nahin tha ki kaise marun]. Once, they hit someone’s house and three people were killed.

This young Pashtun and his family were relatively ‘lucky’, in that they owned the apartment they lived in and managed to sell it in 2011—though for well below its market value—before moving to a much safer and upscale locality. Other, less fortunate residents of Lyari do not have the luxury to exercise such exit options, though, and are constrained to survive in an increasingly dangerous environment.

Besides these technological transformations of Karachi’s conflicts—which affect all forms of collective violence, particularly criminal and political rivalries—one should factor in the increasingly indiscriminate nature of this violence, and the deliberate targeting of civilians in order to spread terror and outrage among rival groups.... According to Mujahid, a middle-aged, lower-income Mohajir who used to live in Liaquatabad and was a witness to some of the worst episodes of fighting between the MQM, the Haqiqis and security agencies in the course of the 1990s:

If you were neutral… I mean, if you didn’t have any relation with a political party… It was not as difficult [as it is now]. Today, linguistic prejudice [zuban kat‘asub] prevails… So much so that we cannot venture into non-Urdu speaking areas, such as in Pashto-speaking or Baloch-speaking areas. In those days [the 1990s], it was not difficult but today it is. […] It has become very difficult to venture into some localities of Karachi. For instance, in Liaquatabad, there is a road starting at the old vegetable market, heading towards Hasan Square. On the way, there is a Pashtun locality where the situation often gets bad. Firing can erupt at any time, passers-by [rahgir] get abducted and beaten up… It’s been like that for the last three years or so… So it is very dangerous… Before that, they would not grab passers-by and beat them… Back in the days, the violence was more targeted. They would say ‘This guy is with the MQM, take him out.’ Then they would take him away and maybe send him to some [torture] cell. […] But today it is very dangerous for the common man, and if people have to come back from work at night, they will ensure that they don’t have to cross through a Baloch or Pashtun neighbourhood.

This sentiment of vulnerability to ethnic violence is not limited to Urdu-speaking Mohajirs bearing the brunt of an ethnic backlash spearheaded by Pashtun and Baloch political groups... The same feeling of insecurity can be detected, for instance, among the younger Baloch of Lyari. As one of them, a social worker affiliated with one of Lyari’s oldest NGOs, told me in August 2012, ‘I’m really reluctant to go out [of Lyari]’ (Mera dil jane ka karta hi nahin, lit. ‘My heart does not desire to go out’).

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India.

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