The city works despite, and sometimes through, organised violence

May 31, 2015

Laurent Gayer, author of Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City talks about Karachi and why he wrote a book on the city

The city works despite, and sometimes through, organised violence

"Every city has its back pages: its trivialities so banal that newsreaders don’t pay heed to them, and yet so scented with local aromas, be it the reek of the gutter or the stench of the morgue. The French refer to these columns made up of filler items as the rubrique des chiens écrasés (lit. ‘the column of ran over dogs’.) In Karachi, Pakistan’s turbulent metropolis and one of the largest cities in the world, with a population estimated at 21.2 million in 2011, ran over dogs have been replaced by bullet-riddled bodies stashed in gunny bags (bori band lash), a trademark of the city’s three-decade-old armed conflicts, whose daily numbers are widely acknowledged as Karachi’s most reliable political barometer" -- Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City

A popular meme trending on Facebook some time back showed life in Karachi, as imagined by the rest of Pakistan and by Karachiites themselves. The disconnect between the imagined and the real was so startling, it became funny. But humour aside, the meme was a chilling reminder of how little most Pakistanis know Karachi. And this is why Karachi: Ordered Disorder… is a must-read for anyone looking to really understand the city.

Shot through with poetry, colloquialisms and a familiarity evoking a lifetime, the book belongs to Karachi in the way many of its residents don’t. Here, Laurent Gayer explains why he wrote it.

The News on Sunday (TNS): Why did you choose Karachi to write about?

Laurent Gayer (LG): As a political scientist, I never was quite convinced by dominant theories of social order as they emerged in European and American social sciences in the 19th and 20th century. I felt that these theories, which equate social order -- and political modernity -- with the rise of the monopolist state and the pacification of society were too heavily indebted to European history.

Karachi always fascinated me for its mixture of order and disorder. It is one of the most violent megacities in the world but this chronic violence does not preclude the existence of a formal democracy and a thriving economy. This is how I came to the key notion developed in the book: there is an "ordered disorder" at work in Karachi, which challenges dominant conceptions of social order as well as the somewhat hasty qualifications of Karachi as a "chaotic", "ungovernable" city. On the contrary, I think the city works despite, and sometimes through, organised violence.

TNS: In the book, you talk about the fact that Karachi and its residents have been unable to strike a ‘social contract’ as it were. Where does this lack of ownership of the city stem from?

LG: The Karachi crisis is, first and foremost, a crisis of citizenship. While everyone wants to own the city, or at least a part of it, it is much less frequent to find residents claiming that they belong here. Paradoxically, the neighbourhoods where this sense of belonging is the strongest -- the oldest parts of the city, such as Lyari -- are being increasingly marginalised.

Political parties have only aggravated this state of affairs, as they are more prone to assert their right over the city than to remind their constituents of their civic duties toward it. Karachi is a city of migrants. This is what makes it such a vibrant place. But this also complicates the relation between local populations and their place of residence: home is where the heart is and in the case of Karachi, the heart often remains in the watan left behind. This is true of Pakhtun migrant workers but also of Mohajirs.

Thus, to date, the takhallus "Karachvi" remains unknown of among Urdu-speaking poets. Even for third generation Mohajir poets, Karachi remains ineligible to such poetic elevation!

This is not merely a cultural issue. The weakness of the social contract between the city and its residents also stems from the peculiar postcolonial history of the city. Karachi lost most of its population after Partition, only to see its non-Muslim majority replaced by a new migrant community that felt entitled to a special treatment in light of its alleged sacrifices in the movement for Pakistan. But the Mohajirs could never completely fill the cultural, economic and political vacuum left by the departure of non-Muslims, which paved the way for endless battles around the rightful "owners" of the city and its identity.

The divorce of Karachi’s political scene from national political trends was not only the outcome of its ethnicisation. It was, first and foremost, the result of the decline of progressive politics at the national level… 

TNS: Despite its geostrategic significance -- the port, the Nato supply route and even its reputation as the R&R spot for militants -- Karachi never really seemed to feature in the calculations or strategies evolved during US-led War on Terrorism. To put it another way, the city didn’t seem to matter to the rest of the world. Why do you think this was?

LG: This is not completely true. While the mainstream European and American media hardly dissociates Pakistan from Afghanistan and tends to perceive the former as a mountainous land inhabited by unruly turbaned tribals, European and American diplomats are very much concerned about Karachi and its volatile politics.

Why do you think the Americans, the British and even the French have invested so much in the securitisation of their consulates in recent years? All these countries are closely monitoring political developments in the city. They are also aware that Karachi remains a major economic hub and in a globalised world where diplomats, increasingly, are becoming sales representatives for their country’s industries, Karachi is a place to be.

Besides, while there never really was a scope for outside interventions or mediations in Karachi’s protracted conflicts, let’s not forget that the leadership of the city’s predominant political party lives in exile in the UK. By granting asylum to Altaf Hussain and allowing the MQM to operate freely from British soil, British authorities have internationalised Karachi’s governance as much as its conflicts. In the process, British authorities have also become a major stakeholder in local politics.

TNS: In several places, you mention the centrality of the informal or the shadow economy to Karachi’s politics and its wars. But you seem to have shied away from a fuller discussion of this. Is there a reason for this?

LG: Karachi’s political economy -- licit and illicit, formal and informal -- informs its volatile politics. However, the battles for the city cannot be reduced to economic struggles. While giving the economy, licit or otherwise, its due share in the formation of Karachi’s "ordered disorder", I did not want to fall prey to an economist rhetoric by suggesting that Karachi’s conflicts are all about greed and the "politics of the belly", to use a famous African metaphor for the practices of accumulation of political elites.

The transformations brought by the Afghan jihad in the local transport economy or in the informal real estate market do feature in my narrative; so do the more recent transformations of the land market and the "land rush" of the mid-2000s. However, I do not subscribe to mono-causal readings of Karachi’s protracted conflicts -- economic factors are only one part of the equation.

I also tried to be a bit counter-intuitive, here. What struck me in Karachi was not so much the criminalisation of mainstream politics as the politicisation of criminals. While political parties are always in search of funding -- corruption and politico-criminal configurations are very much a reality of European or American party politics as well, it is less frequent to see hardened criminals run for office or build a dominion in their areas of influence. More than politicians’ search for a quick buck, it is this engagement of local criminals with representative politics that intrigued me.

After all, why would a successful gangster like Rehman ‘Dakait’ risk it all -- his riches, his credibility and even his life -- to succeed in politics? These attempts to shift to politics, on the part of local gangsters, rarely have a happy end. As such, they are a privileged entry into the study of local politics -- what are its codes, its red lines, and the sanctions for trespassers?

TNS: You seem to insist that violence in Karachi is no reflection on the power of the state and that various aspirants to power rely on the state and its officials for patronage, for power. But what does the state derive from this Faustian bargain? And can civilian power be segregated from military power in this analysis?

LG: The power of the state does not exist in abstracto. Every modern state claims to monopolise the legitimate use of physical force over its territory -- this is the famous Weberian definition of the modern state, which features prominently in the 2011 judgment of the Supreme Court on the law and order situation in Karachi. But every state, at one point or another, resorts to forms of indirect government by striking such "Faustian bargains" with private enforcers.

Historically, some states have been more prone to outsource coercion. This is the case, for instance, of the Ottoman Empire, which preferred to co-opt bandits rather than repress them. Instead of confronting these bandits head-on, Ottoman elites made them auxiliaries of imperial policies and subcontracted them security tasks in the periphery.

Such processes of state formation may not be congruent with dominant conceptions of political modernity, which remain heavily indebted to the Weberian model of the "legal-rational" state. But the history of the modern state takes many paths, all of which do not lead to heavily centralised bureaucratic structures. This is the case in Pakistan, where political elites -- both civilian and military -- have been outsourcing major policing tasks to private enforcers over the years.

This flexibility of the state should not be mistaken for a weakness. What often pass for signs of state failure, at least in the field of security, are the outcome of strategic retreats, opening some space for private enforcers serving their own interests while carrying out the state’s "dirty work".

But state sovereignty is in a constant state of flux in Pakistan and these strategic retreats are often followed by episodes of state intervention reclaiming the ground momentarily lost to private enforcers and renegotiating the inherently unstable partnerships between public and private aspirants to sovereign power.

Incidentally, such public-private partnerships in the field of (in) security management are not the sole prerogative of military elites. The already long history of collusive arrangements between the PPP and the gangsters of Lyari is a proof of that. And the fact that civilian and military elites are rarely on the same page, here as elsewhere, only complicates further an already unstable game.

TNS: As you note, the ethnicisation of Karachi’s politics in the 1980s had the city divorced from national political trends. But the MQM’s attempts to espouse a more inclusionary politics (the changeover to Muttahida, for example), the emergence of new political players and more potential sovereigns have not really reversed this tide. Why do you think this is?

LG: The divorce of Karachi’s political scene from national political trends was not only the outcome of its ethnicisation. It was, first and foremost, the result of the decline of progressive politics at the national level, with its centre in Karachi. The emergence of mass ethnic politics in the city during the second half of the 1980s only finished the job.

The problem is that while such processes of ethnicisation can take place very rapidly -- especially in a context as violent as that of mid-1980s Karachi, the de-ethnicisation of politics is a much longer and strenuous process. This is what the MQM discovered during the 2000s -- for all its commitment to economic development, federalism and secularism, it remained perceived by its friends and foes alike as an ethnic-based party.

The revival of ethnic confrontations in the city, from 2007 onward, only reinforced these perceptions. More recently, an emerging national political player -- namely, the PTI -- started making a dent into the MQM’s vote bank.

In time, these developments could reconnect Karachi to the national political mainstream. In order to widen its vote share, however, the PTI will have to take roots in the city, by strengthening its party apparatus and becoming more familiar with complex ground realities. At the end of the day, will the PTI succeed in changing Karachi or will Karachi change the PTI beyond recognition? That is anyone’s guess…

TNS: Your book predicts a gradual waning away of the MQM; in fact, you talk about it as an inevitability. Admittedly, the relevance of -- to quote you -- middleclass politics of the marginalised seems to have faded and the party has not managed to deliver a coherent new political slogan. But is this the only reason? How significant, for example, is the leadership crisis within the MQM? Post-Altaf, what future can the MQM have?

LG: The NA-246 by-election has demonstrated that the MQM retains a strong vote bank in some constituencies of Karachi. This is particularly true in the Urdu-speaking belt of District central. But in a city whose demography is fast changing, where the Mohajirs are no longer in a majority and where the MQM has failed to extend its supports beyond this particular ethnic group, the party’s grip over local politics is bound to recede.

The party could also face a serious leadership crisis once Altaf Hussain retires -- voluntarily or not. There is no real second-tier leadership in the party, which in the late 1980s chose to place the leader above the institution. For now, both the persona of Altaf Hussain and the continuity that he maintains with the original ideals carried forward by the MQM keep the party together but it seems doubtful that the party will be able to overcome its internal tensions once he is gone.

TNS: Given the above, how do you view political challengers such as the PTI?

LG: The PTI is a newcomer on Karachi’s political scene. It has pockets of support, especially among Urdu-speaking middle and upper classes. It also has great potential -- unlike the MQM, it is not tied up to a specific ethnic or linguistic group. Last but not least, it seems to enjoy the support of the military, which is not negligible although such "support" and its impact should be qualified -- for the moment, whether in the Punjab or in Karachi, the PTI does not strike me as a particularly successful game changer.

TNS: The Rangers crackdown on Nine Zero last month suggested a renegotiation of the tacit deal between the military and the MQM while some recent news reports speak of ‘a creeping coup’ by the military -- I’m specifically referring to Mehreen Zahra Malik’s report for Reuters -- to deny the MQM complete control over the city. First, how does this sit with your central thesis that Karachi is too big and too disordered to be governed by one? Second, is such a deal possible in the Karachi of 2015? If so, what would the contours of this new deal look like?

LG: This is not the first time the military renegotiates its deal with the MQM. In Karachi, the military’s politics is prone to frequent U-turns. From time to time, the army has seen the MQM as a major part of the problem or a major part of the solution. Right now, it seems to be back to the politics of confrontation.

Its hostility toward civilian forces does not stop with the MQM and extends to the PPP, which it perceives as a corrupt and inefficient party, equally compromised with criminal elements. So once again, the army has decided to step in and fix the mess.

"Creeping coup" might be a bit hyperbolic, here, but indeed the army is back in town, there’s no doubt about that. Governor’s rule would even be superfluous, now that the Apex Committee (which is led by the army and holds its meetings at the headquarters of the V Corps) has been invested with the real decision making power in the province, especially regarding law and order. So once again, civilian institutions are taking a backseat while the army is reclaiming the ground lost over the years.

The problem is that there is no quick fix, here. You can’t just remove the MQM from the picture with a few raids. Neither can you engineer a change of guard at the head of the MQM. In fact, after the MQM’s large victory in NA-246, Altaf Hussain’s grip over the party seems to have been strengthened and his critics within the party have momentarily been silenced. This by-election undoubtedly gave some respite to the MQM and there is no alternative to engaging the party politically as it is, at least as long as British judicial authorities will consider Altaf Hussain legit.

The city works despite, and sometimes through, organised violence