Karachi: Ordered Disorder – Review (Part 1)

March 19, 2015

History, Political Science

Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City

Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City

by: Laurent Gayer

Coder Credit
Published in 2014, Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City is a political and historical account by Laurent Gayer as part of his academic research in the field of Political Science. Spanning a period of 12 years, author has extensively traveled and interacted with stakeholders of Karachi city to gather and verify information while discounting rumors, busting myths and ignoring propaganda along the way to finalize this book.

Note: Because of the sheer depth of information and various angles, this post contains review of only the first half of the book that includes Karachi's general history, student politics and MQM's political role. Part 2 will be published after sometime which will be based on Lyari (history, gang war and politics) and Taliban (incursion in Karachi and subsequent supplanting of ANP).


With an official population approaching fifteen million, Karachi is one of the largest cities in the world. It is also the most violent. Since the mid-1980s, it has endured endemic political conflict and criminal violence, which revolve around control of the city and its resources (votes, land and bhatta-"protection" money). These struggles for the city have become ethnicized. Karachi, often referred to as a "Pakistan in miniature," has become increasingly fragmented, socially as well as territorially. Despite this chronic state of urban political warfare, Karachi is the cornerstone of the economy of Pakistan. Gayer's book is an attempt to elucidate this conundrum. Against journalistic accounts describing Karachi as chaotic and ungovernable, he argues that there is indeed order of a kind in the city's permanent civil war. Far from being entropic, Karachi's polity is predicated upon organisational, interpretative and pragmatic routines that have made violence "manageable" for its populations. Whether such "ordered disorder" is viable in the long term remains to be seen, but for now Karachi works despite-and sometimes through-violence.

Chaos with a pattern

The primary argument of this account by Laurent Gayer is that Karachi is indeed chaotic. So much so that journalistic accounts have even declared it the most dangerous city in the world. That, however, is a very simplified assumption about the city. While Karachi may indeed be most violent among the large cities of the world, with about 13 murders per 100,000 population it is much safer than several South and Central American towns and cities where 100 murders per 100,000 population take place. By that account, Karachi is not even in the top 50 most violent urban centers of the world.

Chaos of Karachi has a pattern, a rule in itself ... an ordered disorder. This disorder is created by stakeholders of the city who, to this day since the creation of Pakistan, trying to fill the power vacuum left behind by Hindu and Parsi communities that migrated from the city. Every community believes itself to be the owner of the city and a show of strength has now become the norm to maintain dominance in the ownership argument.

The premise has strong merits in light of both the historical evidence and political narratives of each stakeholder, creating a baffling environment where people are both resilient and complacent to the violence and chaos of the city.

It Begins From The Beginning

The city has two beginnings, one is culture and the second is economy. Both are interspersed with politics and social order that led to great changes in subsequent decades. In that respect it is important to begin with economy and society that forms a suitable base of "ordered disorder" argument of the author.

Karachi, named after the famed Mai Kolachi (whose 6 sons were killed by giant allegator and last, crippled son then killed the allegator), was developed initially by Parsi and Hindu communities as basic port and commerce city. With the arrival of British the city was used both as a cantonment and as transit for war in Afghanistan. Saddar area was the modern shopping district while cantonment areas as housing for British people. After independence, exodus of the primary 'owners' of Karachi, the Parsi and Hindu communities (also financial backbone of Karachi and, in turn, of Sindh) left huge power vacuum which incoming migrants from central Indian states (the Urdu speaking Mohajirs) never quite fulfill. Until the beginning of 1950s about 250,000 people lived on Karachi streets and by the end of 1950s the number increased to 550,000.

Ayub Khan initiated resettlement plan through a Greek firm, creating satellite towns like Liaqatabad, Nazimabad, Malir etc and moved the working class population there. This cleaned up the shopping district of Saddar which was also the heart of the city as well as housing government's administrative organs. As a result the elite Urdu speaking of that time recall to this day the 'golden days' of Karachi city (1950s and 1960s) which, statistically, was not so peaceful as assumed.

The people living on streets led to unhygienic living condition and aggressive behaviors. Middlemen helped them settle at better spots and find them work, marking the beginning of informal economy. When these people were forced to new satellite towns, away from city center with the employment, most families were reluctant, many selling their plots to entrepreneurs of informal economy and grabbing space nearer to the city center. This creation and reliance on informal economy became mainstay of the city, stamping the government institutions as unreliable and slow. To this day over 60% of Karachi's population is employed in informal sector, from push cart vendors to middleman helping you pay passport fees and exploiters such as transport and tanker mafias.

This informal sector is where money lies. Undocumented, unaccountable, unburdened and in most cases untraceable, the informal economy defines the rules of engagement between various stakeholders of the city and their use of violent means to secure their turfs, sources of income and means of exploitation.

The second set of beginning starts with student movement from Muslim Students Federation days. Dominating from the creation of Pakistan, it soon was pushed back and eventually utterly defeated by leftist and marxist students groups. These student, who dominated nearly all of student unions in the city, were in-sync with ideologically similar student unions around the country and thus held great street power nationwide. The leftist students regularly agitated against capitalist leaning governments of Pakistan, particularly their closeness to US and UK. Their agitations often pitted them against police, some of the clashes in 1950s led to dozens of student deaths. Subsequent bans and manhunt for leftists and marxists students leaders make for fascinatingly horrifying tales from 1950s till 1970s. Islami Jamiat Tulaba, also known as IJT, was only a small party in 1950s which grew to be strong student body until 1970s.

These student unions and their competitive, often violent clashes merged with the informal economy of the city during 1980s, when Afghan War began and drug money changed the informal economy and guns changed student politics. The rules of engagement from this point change dramatically.

The Rise of MQM

The author has made an interesting hypothesis regarding the rise of MQM. Firstly, he discounted the assumption that MQM was created by the intelligence or the armed forces. Secondly, he attributed the party's rise to violence in the city. Lastly, he has given a historical account of MQM's rise primarily through the rise in militancy in the city's student population.

Linguistic agitation was nothing new. It was neither introduced by MQM nor it stopped after its creation. Mohajirs filled the ranks of IJT and PSF (Peoples Students Federation) and the arrival of APMSO made practically no impact on student politics. Autobiographical accounts of both Altaf Hussain and Saleem Shahzad testify to ugly beginnings, where Mohajirs of IJT would sarcastically shout "Aya aya Mohajir Aya" (The Mohajir has arrived) at Altaf Hussain, the shopkeepers and working class Mohajirs refused to financially support their cause because they were "Londay laparay" (backstreet boys/hooligans) and businessmen tied conditions which were unacceptable for the founders. By 1981, IJT muscled APMSO out of university using the newly acquired firearms.

Imran Farooq, one of the founders of APMSO, wrote an interesting discourse called Nazam-o-Zabat Kai Taqazay (The Requirements of the Discipline) which was later published in 1986. The discourse is about two primary types of movements in the world, Qudrati Tehreeken (natural movements) and Muntazam Tehreeken (structural movements). The natural movements grow like plants but lack centralized structure and planning. The structural movements follow strict rules and regulations, planning and consensual leadership that makes them much more stronger and successful than natural movements.

To achieve success against adversity, members of structural movements need 3 ingredients for greater efficiency for the sake of movement rather than their own - Unity, Discipline and Blind Faith (quaid ya qayadat par andha etimad). In state-of-war, this structure gives speed and efficiency even against greater adversary. This same structural movement had laid the foundation of APMSO, and then of MQM. This fact is highlighted by the oath taken by members upon joining the ranks in early days:

When APMSO was formed (page 83)

I am a Mohajir and I will keep on fighting for the Mohajirs to get their rights. I will remain loyal (wafadar) to the organization and I will not share any secret (raz) of the organization with any outsider.

When MQM was formed (page 83)

I, (name), believing that Allah is here and watching over me, swearing by His book and by my mother, take oath that I shall remain loyal to the MQM and Altaf Hussain for my whole life. I swear by my mother that if any conspiracy against MQM or Altaf Hussain or any act harmful to them come into my knowledge, I shall immediately inform Altaf Hussain or other main leaders, even if the conspirator be my brother, mother, sister, father, any relative or friend. I swear that I will keep every secret of my party and regard it more precious than my life.

Both the discourse (of Imran Farooq) and member oaths need to be seen in combination with Markus Daechsel's research of 'self expressionist' movements of North Indian states (from where majority of Mohajirs originated). In 1920s and 1930s several movements emerged from these states based on fascist European movements idolizing cult of physical strength, paramilitary poses, discipline and obedience, propensity towards rhetorical excess and believe in redemptive nature of nationalism at both individual and collective level. Inayatullah Khan Mashriqi's Khaksar Movement, a paramilitary movement having striking resemblance to MQM in terms of social base (urban Urdu speakers), leadership (intense personality cult around leader) and discourse (rhetorical excess and intense use of poetry) is not only an inspiration for MQM's ideology but is also part of Imran Farooq's discourse as he refers to exampalary behavior of Khaksar activist Bahadur Yar Jung.

The formation of APMSO had little impact since a united Mohajir platform was frowned upon by Mohajirs themselves, preferring to be with IJT. The introduction of guns by IJT changed rules of engagement of campus warfare, where wooden clubs broke heads now sten guns dominated fights. A daring raid of PSF students helped them capture weapon supply cache of IJT and gunfire on and off campus became rampant. To fight off Afghan and Pushtoon warriors of IJT, PSF and other parties hired criminals of informal economy, got them admission, and made them muscle of their groups. It wasn't until Salamullah Tipu's (infamous militant of Al-Zulfiqaar involved in plane hijacking) reckless attack in 1981, killing IJT student and injuring several Iranian students that warfare became bloody and murderous, hostels filled with guns and ammo with snipers perched on rooftops to take out rivals.

This is the time when MQM was formed in 1984, trying to rally Mohajirs but its noise lost in the tumult ... until Bushra Zaidi's death.

The Yellow Devil

Pushtoons, granted transport permits by Ayub Khan as reward for helping win election in 1960s, began operating buses/mini buses in Karachi. Initially hiring driver to operate bus, soon the entrepreneurs began to 'loan' the bus and permit to interested parties on high interest rate. The operators as a result resorted to over-filling buses and recklessly driving in order to pay off the debt. Many Pushtoon policemen jointly owned these buses, therefore provided cover to these operations in the city. When a bus hit a group of Sir Syed Girls School students, a female student named Bushra Zaidi lost her life. IJT and other groups made demonstrations against the drivers, police cracked down on students and bedlam ensued in the city. A group of students going for Bushra's funeral was ambushed by Pushtoon's, killing several of them.

This, and horrifying events of Aligarh Colony massacre, led to intense Pushtoon-Mohajir conflicts. MQM lacked firepower and was helped by Sindhi Nationalists (Jeay Sindh) who gave them some weapons and initial training. The student fighters were sent to Afghanistan for training and they returned to take up bodyguard and hitmen duties. A particularly vicious clash between PSF and APMSO in 1987, where PSF students ran out of ammo, led to APMSO students to tie them up, drag them to Karachi University's gymnasium and shot them dead in cold blood.

Warfare Was Never The Same Again

The battle for student unions had spilled out to streets, informal sector was infiltrated for money supply and turf war began for control of the city. Animal hides and religious donations during Eid-Al-Adha and Eid-ul-Fitr, protection money from businessmen and rich families, providing cover for mafias (land, construction, water, electricity, phone etc) in exchange for fixed monthly fee or percentage share financed MQM's arms and armament procurement. A landslide victory in Karachi's 1988 elections completely sidelined Jamat-e-Islami from the city (IJT was blamed for introducing bloodshed in the city and there was Punjabi leaning bias), its militants and underground criminals offering their fighting services to MQM. Infiltration of public organizations began including KWSB, KESC, public universities and Sindh government departments. Thus rose MQM around the cult of Altaf Hussain, finding its beginning in blood and gore, a past it is unable to divorce due to its duality nature.

Laurent has argued that the structure pattern of MQM does not allow any one person to rise without intense review. Background check, performance analysis and strict following of discipline has been an integral part of the party since the beginning. APMSO magazine Naqib (The Scout) is a constant reminder of MQM's roots to the people with intense poetry such as the following poetic excerpts written by Javed Kazmi (published in 2006):

Ek hashr uthega aisa ki phir kaun-o-makan bhi larzainge (such a great upheavel will take place that universe will tremble)

Ek mauj ki manend bikhrengi phir pagal wehshi zangiren (madness and savagery will be unleashed in the manner of a wave)

Although the verses cannot be taken seriously in their literal meanings (trembling of the universe, unleashing madness and savagery), Laurent does argue that the writer of the poem is inviting its readers (Mohajirs) to let themselves be carried away in ecstasy of violence.

Conclusion (first half)

Laurent Gayer's study of Karachi's history and understanding of the intricacies of local politics has been very thorough. Some events, such as Bushra Zaidi's incident, are not detailed despite having significant importance that shaped the future of the city. The rise of MQM has been explained not just in socio-political backdrop but also the ideology that led to iconification of the leader, around which the movement and party structure was formed and continues to function to this day. The detailing of 1992 operation against the party and subsequent breaking of its back that prevented the creation of "state within the state" or "alternate governance" have been elaborated well. They require further research as to how this structure was created and functioned, and if it still survives in any form today.

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