Conversation with Laurent Gayer

March 2, 2015
Featured ImageLaurent Gayer, author of Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City, came to T2F for a session about Karachi city and its violence. The event was co-hosted by Desi Writers Lounge and T2F and moderator for the session was Sabin Agha, renowned journalist who has covered the difficult years of Karachi and currently works for the BBC.

The session started at 7 pm and by then nearly 80% seats were occupied; soon additional chairs were required to for the latecomers. Farheen Zehra, Karachi representative of Desi Writers Lounge, made the introductions and Sabin continued the conversation from there. Most of the discussion centered around the content of the book itself, therefore much of the information can be gained by reading the book. The important points, however, are summed up as follows:

- Up until the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan had a strong student movement. Since Laurent experienced student movement himself in France, he was fascinated to know how they died in Pakistan ... so much so that people don't even know about the history of the leftist student groups that shook up governments and even brought them down on knees at occasions to fulfill demands. A whole chapter in the book is dedicated to these movements.

- Karachi can only be described as Chaotic when taken as a single unit and discussed about it in general. But when you consider the internal dynamics and how things are planned out, it far from being chaotic ... it is ordered disorder where divisions are based on ethnic lines drawn since the 1980s and made permanent since through violence.

- Karachi is recently declared as the most dangerous city in the world. That is an unfortunate label. It is the most dangerous city based on its size, as most large cosmopolitan cities are not as violent, but it is not in the top 50 of most violent cities in the world. With a homicidal rate of about 18 or 19 per 100,000 population, it is much below than many other cities around the world. In fact it is close to Chicago with that rate. Other cities of central America have homicidal rates as high as 100 per 100,000 people and that's a very dangerous city to live in.

- A lot of Karachiites, the old ones who remember Karachi from 1950s and 1960s call it the golden era and are nostalgic about it. Laurent consider that just nostalgia and not a fact. He has used numbers to show that despite being a golden era, violence was still part of the city and murders still happened. The student unions themselves often suffered from police firing and crackdown, losing one or more members to bullets and baton charge.

- Karachi became a Mohajir city overnight after partition but even to this day it has not escaped the effects of partition. The city has not moved on. Before 1947, due to its port and business benefits, the city attracted migrants. After 1947 it still does and Mohajir population, once very dominant in the city, is now reduced to below 50%. The demarcations within city are based on ethnic lines. The Sindhi Hindu, elites of the city that migrated to India and abroad, their places were never really filled by Mohajirs and thus the ownership of the city was up for grabs, leading to power struggle that has turned violent in recent decades. Once major element is the housing problem for the population that continues to be the sore point for the city.

- Despite obvious lack of socio-economic opportunities for Sindhi and Baloch population in Karachi and Mohajirs' gradually losing their status in government, there was no reason or indicator to lead them to violence at mass level. Even up until the 1960s there weren't any major reasons to start violent ethnic clashes and first of those came about in 1970s with the language riots regarding Sindhi and Urdu.

- MQM started out as a student organisation, APMSO, and it was as aggressive as other student bodies. But it did not gain any ground. It had failed to mobilize the Mohajir students so much so that Altaf Hussain left the country after completing his studies. Even when they formed MQM, their success was very limited. It shows that people were not inclined towards ethnic division and catered more towards ideology and morals rather than backgrounds.

- The catalyst to the whole episode was Bushra Zaidi incident, a student who was hit by a speeding minibus and the ensued ethnic clash turned bloody. The book mentions it in minor way, Laurent believing that everyone knew of all the details. After the book launch he came to know that Bushra Zaidi incident is of very high importance and he is now working to research on it more. In fact Laurent recently went to a library which had Jang newspaper dating back to the 1980s and there he found the paper detailing the incident ... only to discover the page about the incident cut out and missing. He has requested that if anyone has the paper or the details, please let him know. He has also urged to not lose these historical details because historians of the future will be unable to find realities of the history.

- Laurent made an interesting observation, that Pakistani society is one of those where female body is associated with honor. If you want to implode the situation, one way would be attack that honor. The official version is that police had beaten girls (and molested some) who were protesting about Bushra Zaidi incident. Another version is that during confrontation with Police, it was Islami Jamiat Taluba who threw bricks at the girls to incite violence that resulted in citywide clashes.

- While MQM was a militant organisation, Laurent said the blame cannot be laid down on MQM alone. When it came into being, the city was already experiencing militancy. With availability of guns, the student organizations had been militarized and violent clashes left deep impacts on the city. Then Salimullah Tipu's infamous hijacking laid rest to any possibility of rollback. Coming into being in such violent times, the only way to survive would be by being more violent than the adversaries. After Bushra Zaidi incident and Qasba Colony massacre, MQM was able to rally the Mohajirs behind ethnic ideology and once the people got through the obvious differences, they realized their community can itself serve as an ideology. As a result the party gained ground once violence was part of the equation and ended up with victory in the political arena as well that continues even today.

- Once in power, MQM began to gain influence in all matters of the city. It politicized labor unions by infiltrating its hardcore people, it infiltrated civic institutions and took control of the informal economy. The housing was now under its direct control, bhatta (protection money) was a large part of the equation and it continued to expand while remaining an erratic partner of the government. What Laurent is convinced of, however, is the MQM was at least not created by the army. The army may have supported its creation, there are only speculations, but there is no evidence of its creation by the army at least from academic point of view. There is a clear lack of solid evidence to believe on this conspiracy theory. This, in part, is also why Army conducted operation against MQM even without informing the sitting Prime Minister in 1992 when party had abducted Major Kalim and tortured him.

- Since its creation until now, MQM has maintained its own writing and poetic circulation. Since Mohajirs themselves have no uniting factor except their background as immigrants and many of them were members of Jamiat, MQM has an inherent fear that if it failed to continue maintaining its ethnic grip, the Mohajirs will begin to fallback to political Islamic factions such as Jamiat or find place in other political organizations like PTI. That is why they religiously follow with writings and poems within their own circles and it is not easy for outsiders to get hold of these writings and materials. MQM especially fear DeoBandi madrassas spread around the city that are hotbeds for Taliban.

- MQM remained largest benefactor of militancy in the city until the emergence of competitors in the face of Pushtoons and Baloch groups, particularly Taliban and Peoples Aman Committee. Uzair Baloch of PAC, during its peak, was a very approachable person for foreign correspondents and the Lyari gangsters could be met without fearing for life. While the Karachi city was gripped in fear of getting robbed in the streets for mobile and wallet, Lyari people were completely oblivious of street crimes. True, people were dying because of shootouts and homemade grenades, but not for mobile snatching. And Lyari people were more afraid of getting robbed at Clifton than in their own area.

- MQM wasted a lot of time fighting ANP. For Taliban, Karachi was an alien city. True, Afghan trade and other things did happen here, but it was still foreign for them. In order to gain access, Taliban had to form unholy alliance with criminals and gangs of the city. While MQM wasted time fighting ANP, all the while shouting "Taliban are coming", Taliban were simply supplanting ANP from each area and by 2012 they had become dominant in most Pushtoon populated sectors. The unholy alliance, the same turf wars, extortion (bhatta) and kidnapping for ransom, it cannot be said that Taliban did anything to the city. It was city itself that changed the Taliban, forcing them to play the same game of violence that other players were already engaged in. In an ironic way, Taliban had become Karachiites.

- In Lyari, the gender roles had reversed. When men ventured outside, women and children accompanied them. This was to make sure they were not attacked; the attackers would not want to kill women and children, leading to the young ones to protect the adults. This was not the first time either. Even in the 80s women were very active in student politics despite alienation due to militancy. Even during Operation Cleanup, when most men of MQM had gone underground, women administered Nine-Zero and even now there is a sizable female population of diehard MQM supporters.

- It is said about Karachi that it is resilient, that people bounce back and continue to live despite violence. This is not true. Calling it resilient only hides the reality it is going through and affect this has on people. Each violent incident leaves a mark on the people and wounds simply grow deeper and deeper. There will come a day when it can no longer bear and implode as a result, and that arrival cannot be seen unless stop believing it to be resilient and hoping for a bounce back time and again.

- The dynamics of the city are such that industrialists hire services of the political parties to prevent unionization in their factories. This ensures lack of labor rights and continued patronage of the political party. In an incident, a builder was constructing a building for the cost of 20 million. One party demanded protection money of 2 million to allow the project to go on. Once it began, another party stood up, declaring it illegal and filed a petition in court. The builder paid another 2 million to the second party to withdraw that petition. The building continued to be built even though it was illegal, but since everyone was involved there was no questioning its construction.

- Police is part of the equation in a weird way. While answering a question, Laurent said he didn't get the chance to interview many policemen though he did met the "Dabang" policeman of Karachi. While discussing about the city's situation the policeman said there are no "No-Go" areas in Karachi city. The only "No Go" areas that exist are in the minds of the politicians and they dictate accordingly to the police. It is one major hurdle in the way of police work and leads to lack of effectiveness of police.

- Another observation was that unlike other cities, violence in Karachi is not limited to pockets of bad neighborhoods. It is spread cunningly throughout the whole city, able to shut it down on moments notice.

- Inevitably the discussion turned towards the ethnic side of the city and questions regarding "How long will it take Mohajirs to call themselves Sindhi" were asked. Two audience members were found heatedly arguing about it after the session.

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