The Karachi Cauldron


Irfan Hussain


Within one lifetime, Karachi has expanded from a small, sleepy backwater to a cosmopolitan commercial and industrial centre, and finally turn into one gigantic, ugly no-go area. Today, virtually everyone in Karachi has been touched by violence in one form or another. Everybody has a horror story to tell. And ultimately, everybody in Karachi is a victim. Businessmen, journalists, students, workers and housewives all tell of friends and family members who have been killed or wounded in armed robberies, real or fake confrontations with security forces, targeted attacks, and random shooting. Police and Rangers will tell you about hundreds of their friends and colleagues, as well as family members, who have been killed and wounded over the last three or four years.


Despite the current uneasy calm on the political front in Karachi, scarcely a day goes by without press reports of a bullet-ridden corpse bearing marks of the most horrendous torture. These incidents are now so commonplace that they are reported in a paragraph or two in the inner pages of local dailies. Indeed, those who live in Karachi have all become so battle-hardened that they have lost the capacity to be shocked or saddened by random violence until it strikes at a loved one.


Despite these problems, however, Karachi is still full of energy, and its people keep coming up with creative responses to the overwhelming difficulties it faces. People like Maulana Edhi and Akhtar Hameed Khan may be household names, but there are many unsung heroes in Karachi, and these people deserve to be honoured for making the city a little more human, a little more liveable.


The Roots of Conflict

It is important to understand that the roots of conflict are no different in Karachi than they are in London or Lagos. Hatred, deprivation, frustration and envy are some of the universal seeds of conflict and violence that lie dormant to varying degrees in all human beings everywhere and throughout history. No individual or city or nation can claim a monopoly on the dark side of the human soul. What does differ, however, is the self-control an individual has on his passions, and the degree of discipline attained by a society. Individual actions depend on upbringing and genetics; social interaction is dependent on the level of civilisation attained by a society. In primitive societies like Pakistan, practices like karo-kari and blood feuds go largely unpunished, but in more evolved ones, they are neither tolerated nor condoned. Thus, while the seeds and roots of conflict are the same everywhere, what differs is the soil and the climate that enable those seeds of hatred and envy to grow and flourish. In Karachiís case, hospitable factors have been provided by neglect, bad governance and prejudice, to name only three.


Turning to the current situation in Karachi, the city, which was once more or less in line with the rest of the country with respect to the level of violence, suddenly exploded in 1985, and has stayed on the boil these last dozen years. The reasons for this eruption and continuing tension and killing have been analysed and discussed endlessly in cabinet meetings, dinner parties, newspaper editorials and columns from Islamabad to Karachi until there is nothing new left to say on the subject.


It is widely believed, specially outside Karachi, that the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) and its offshoot, the Haqiqi group, are largely responsible for the present state of affairs in the city. Liberals generously concede that the government has committed a number of excesses in the name of law and order, but generally hold the view that if Altaf Hussain, Afaq Ahmad and their henchmen can be controlled, the situation will become 'normal'. They also recognise that the government should 'do something' to address Karachiís many civic, economic and political problems. People fortunate enough to live elsewhere are generally not clear exactly what they expect the government to do, but they are unanimous that it should do 'something'.


Even the MQM, at the very highest levels, may not be clear about what it wants. There is a general consensus within it, however, about the abolition of the quota system in Sindh for government jobs and college admissions, and the release of party workers from illegal incarceration. But if these and other demands were met tomorrow, would the MQM disband itself? In short, would the frustration and anger that gave birth to the MQM and triggered off a 12 year-long cycle of bloodshed suddenly abate? Sadly, probably not. Like it or not, the MQM has come to stay, as have all the other ethnic parties that mushroomed under General Zia. Basically, they came into being because minority groups felt marginalised in a despotic dispensation; unfortunately, despite the trappings of democracy, these groups still feel cut off from the mainstream, and hence perceive a need for the protection of militant political organisations.


However, the dimensions of the Karachi conflict go far beyond the MQM or any other political party. Ultimately, the struggle is over the division of the cake: who gets how much out of the nationís wealth. Virtually every minority in Pakistan feels that it has been done out of its proper share. Irrespective of the statistics, this perception has gained so much currency over the years that it is taken for granted in all the minority provinces. In a sense, the mohajirs of urban Sindh have a sense of double deprivation: on the one hand they feel they have been marginalised at the national level; on the other they think they are getting a raw deal in Sindh in terms of government jobs and college admissions.


So, contrary to perceptions, Altaf Hussain still has so much support simply because he is seen to be the only one fighting for mohajir rights. He does not sweep the polls in every election in Karachi because of his charisma or because of mohajir short-sightedness, but because his supporters think he will improve their lives by forcing the Sindh and federal governments to make greater concessions in terms of jobs and college admissions. If people all over the country vote for their economic betterment, why should we think the mohajirs are any different?


A second element fuelling the mohajir sense of deprivation and frustration is of a cultural and psychological dimension. Today, the typical MQM activist is in his late teens or early twenties. Although he has no personal knowledge of life in his ancestral home in India, he has been fed on a steady diet of mythical images about how good things were in the old days. This is typical immigrant psychology, excepting that in most cases, second and third generations get absorbed in the new mainstream through employment, marriage and a wide array of contacts with the majority population. For the most part, such an interaction did not take place in Karachi. One reason was that the dominant section of the local population, the Sindhi Hindus, emigrated at the same time the Muslims arrived from India, leaving a vacuum that was filled by the new migrants. Then, to a very great extent, Karachi became a city for migrants from all over Pakistan as Punjabis, Pathans and Balochis flocked to the countryís political, financial and industrial capital for opportunities. Even after Islamabad became the nationís capital, Karachi continued to act as a magnet for millions of Pakistanis, and later, for Bengalis, Biharis, Sri Lankans and Afghans.


The result of this unceasing inflow was to transform Sindhis into a clear minority in Karachi, allowing the original mohajirs and their descendants to retain their separate identity, as well as a thinly disguised sense of cultural superiority. They believed that, having ruled much of India for eight centuries before the British arrived, North Indian Muslims held a manifest destiny to rule the new state of Pakistan. Indeed, the average MQM activist and supporter is convinced that Pakistan was created by the sacrifices made by his fatherís and grandfatherís generation, and therefore that he had a right to demand and expect a special status.


Never mind that the reality was completely different. In the overwhelming number of cases, hard-core members of the MQM are descended from families who were just as badly off in India as their children are in Karachi. Indeed, in most cases, they are better off now than they were in India. And most Indian Muslims migrated to Pakistan because they had no choice: they feared for their lives and were forced to move. So it was not a case where most Muslims made a conscious sacrifice for a cause. While they may have supported the idea of Pakistan, it is unlikely that the same number of Muslims would have moved had the bloody Hindu-Muslim riots not broken out at the eve of Partition.


Nevertheless, perceptions more than reality shape the ideas and actions of the MQM. So this is the emotional baggage carried by most MQM supporters, and it is this unarticulated desire to not just get an equal deal, but a better deal, that is driving the MQM agenda. It has struck a deep chord in the mohajir psyche.


Nowhere is this sense of injustice greater than when it comes to jobs. The biggest single problem facing Pakistanis today is unemployment, and this issue is magnified in Karachi with its huge pool of young men without jobs. In a country with one of the highest rates of illiteracy in the world, a university degree does generate a certain legitimate expectation of gainful employment. When a young graduate is rejected time and again in the job market, he becomes frustrated and angry. Bear in mind the fact that with our middle class ethos, a young man would rather get a poorly paid clerical job, preferably in a government department, than become, say, a foreman in a factory. Apart from job security, even the lowest official position is seen as having prestige and clout far beyond the salary it pays. This lemming-like rush for government positions has led to fierce competition for scarce jobs, and a corresponding resentment of the quota system.


Thirty years ago, Karachi had a quota of 2% for the Central Superior Services which translated into one seat for the Civil Service every three years. In the early Eighties, a further urban/rural provincial quota was fixed for Sindh in respect to jobs and college admissions. This may well have led to the support the MQM enjoys today. Opponents of this system point out that no other province has enforced any urban/rural quotas, and it has been imposed on Sindh to keep mohajirs from getting their rightful share of jobs and college places. This suggests that the mohajir -- non-mohajir conflict is over opportunities, not language or ethnicity.


There is a larger national context that helps keep the Karachi cauldron on the boil. It includes the whole wider sectarian conflict that has gripped the entire country; the progressive criminalization of politics; the easy availability of arms; the addiction to heroin that is now endemic, especially among the younger generation; the breakdown of law and order; the demoralisation and corruption in the police; and the increasing irrelevance of the state.


The national context becomes apparent when it comes to the issue of resource allocation. It is a fact that Karachi today is home to millions from all over the country, as well as hundreds of thousands of Biharis and Afghans. These new citizens have placed enormous demands on the frail infrastructure as well as the job market. Clearly, the federal government has a responsibility to help the Karachi and Sindh administrations to bear some of this burden. But time and again, Islamabad has told the Sindh government to deal with the problem as best as it can. Not surprisingly, the provincial government has completely failed to cope.


With no positive intervention from Islamabad, violence and economic crisis feed off each other and will continue to do so. The violence in Karachi has scared away new investments, even while pushing existing industrial units and commercial offices to shift their operations to Punjab. This has led to further unemployment, and no doubt has increased the number of activists flocking to the MQM banner. Ultimately, the politics of violence is the politics of deprivation.


Some Steps Forward

Much as people living outside Karachi would like to, this problem cannot be wished away. The city plays too crucial a role to sweep its problems under the carpet forever. In purely financial terms, a total strike in Karachi, even for a day, has more ramifications for the whole country than a few random killings. So the current temporary lull in the tension does not mean that the problems have gone away. The merest spark sets off an explosion in Karachi.


By now, all that most mohajirs in Karachi want, whether they are in the MQM or not, is a period of stability and development. Nobody, excepting a small hard-core of militants, is interested in further violence or strikes. The government would do well to show some imagination and magnanimity, and take some unilateral steps.


For instance, this government has made a number of promises to the MQM regarding the scrutiny of cases against the party leadership and rank and file who are currently behind bars. With respect to both groups, the government has been dragging its feet unnecessarily. Most MQM leaders currently have scores of cases registered against them. Altaf Hussain alone may have as many as 60 pending against him. Others have an equally ridiculous number of criminal charges against their names. However, now that the Muslim League is in alliance with the MQM in Sindh and at the Federal level, nobody bothers about the strange fact that a number of provincial and federal ministers have scores of criminal cases pending against them. Our mainstream politicians turn a blind eye towards these legalities. It seems logical to withdraw these trumped-up cases against the MQM leadership unilaterally as a first step.


Next, the entire quota system needs a thorough review. When it was first introduced in the early Fifties, it was aimed to balance the inequalities in the educational facilities in different parts of the country. The system has been in force this last half century, and with time, various vested interests have sprung to its defence whenever it was criticised. But the plain fact is that its original raison díêtre has been overtaken by the progressive deterioration in our public educational system: now government schools and colleges are almost equally mediocre whether they are in Karachi, Hyderabad, Peshawar or Lahore. This being the reality, the quota system has outlived its usefulness and needs to be scrapped. In the context of Sindh, the discriminatory urban/rural quota can be easily dispensed with as it does not require any constitutional amendment. These two steps will go a long way in removing the sense of deprivation so widespread among the mohajirs. Unfortunately, the government has recently announced its intention to keep this illogical system intact for another 20 years.


While the gulf between mohajirs and the establishment may seem very wide, it is not yet unbridgeable. If this or any previous government had the vision and the imagination, many of the political problems facing Karachi would have been resolved. Of course this does not mean that the cityís many social and economic problems would be simultaneously sorted out, but at least a beginning would have been made.