Q&A: Ethnicity, land and violence in Karachi

In Pakistan's largest city, politics has become intricately intertwined with ethnicity, often with violent results.

    Q&A: Ethnicity, land and violence in Karachi
    Gazdar says a recent police operation against an erstwhile allied armed group was a crucial test for the PPP [EPA]

    Karachi, Pakistan -
    In 2011, more than 470 people were killed in political violence in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. Political leaders say that the conduct of violent politics has become the norm in the city - to the point where what often starts as targeted attacks against political workers degenerates into killings along ethnic lines.

    Moreover, more than half of Karachi's inhabitants live in informally regulated areas: in unofficial housing that exists outside the purview of formal state and civic enforcement. Disputes between rival groups - often enjoying political patronage - over the occupation of such areas has been blamed by both analysts and political leaders for the spike in Karachi's violence over the past year and a half.

    Al Jazeera's Asad Hashim spoke with Haris Gazdar, the director of the Collective for Social Science Research, a research organisation that closely examines issues of politics, violence and power in Karachi.

    Asad Hashim: Would you say that today, violence has become a part of the system in Karachi, if you are trying to exercise power or practice politics in this city?

    Haris Gazdar: I think it's a necessary part of the system. There are a lot of arms, and a lot of people who can use arms. And there has been an established practice of the use of them to control political situations. So I think everybody who operates in Karachi must have either [the power of] negotiation or be prepared to conduct a turf battle.

    AH: Political leaders often attribute the violence to the 'land mafia', and the informal housing sector is both extensive and a source of violence in this city. How much would you attribute the spike in violence over the past year to issues around land?

    HG: For the last year and a half, the violence has been basically around political differences between parties, and then maybe armed groups asserting their own autonomy from whoever thought was controlling them. I think the last year's spike in violence may not have anything directly to do with land issues.

    "In the past there was always violence, but the instruments of violence were different. Before, people had sticks and stones and maybe knives and daggers. And now everybody has automatic weapons."

    - Haris Gazdar, Social Scientist

    I would say there's a longer [and more complicated explanation, to do with broader political developments and governance issues] and not just to do with the land issue.

    Land is just one of many sectors where we've had tacit acceptance by the state that there will be informal provisioning. Some people think that this is part of policy, that huge sectors of the city will be managed informally. That they will be looked after informally through the market, quite often with partnership of the state personnel.

    So that whole area of activity, which looks after essential urban services, that creates spaces where violence, both of individuals and groups, can operate. I think that got consolidated over time into more organised groupings, some of them with links to political parties.

    AH: You talk a lot in your work on the informal housing sector about how political patronage plays a role in that area.

    HG: It always does. Political patronage plays a role in all sorts of conversion of property. So, not just in the informal sector, but also in planned parts of Karachi. They're also directly linked to different forms of political patronage.

    So when we look at parts of the city that are officially unplanned, there we can see this happening in a sort of organic way, through social organisations and informal networks. But every conversion of property that increases value is connected with some kind of patronage.

    The people who are using violence in order to do that are organised in different ways. It's always some process of violence and political patronage that is associated with securing property rights.

    AH: Where does violence come in, when it comes to land issues? Does it have more to do with the evictions?

    HG: That kind of pushing people out used to happen, but now it faces a lot more resistance, because everyone is armed. and I think, as the state initially having tacitly given up its monopoly over urban services, now finds that there are challengers in the private domain or the political domain that are as effective as, or sometimes even more effective than, the state in wielding violence.

    AH: In a way, this is something that has always happened in Karachi. You've had two things: a history of mass migration, and you have that combined with this idea of people filling government service vacuums [...] is it basically the same process happening now?

    HG: Yes, but other things have changed, so you see greater resistance, and you see greater use of violence in all of this. In the past there was always violence, but the instruments of violence were different. Before, people had sticks and stones and maybe knives and daggers. And now everybody has automatic weapons.

    The other thing is that properties have great value now. So whereas in the past people did not understand the true economic value of their property, now nobody's in any real doubt, in a sense.

    AH: You spoke earlier about how political patronage has always come into land regularisation issues - would you say that this is something that happens across the board, or are some parties more involved than others?

    HG: I think all of them are involved, and I think it's very tempting for them to be involved. I think if you're not, and if you want to become a player in Karachi, if you want to have some influence in these communities, then how could you ignore the kind of power structures and social capital that already exist?

    You've got to co-opt it, become useful to it, and make it useful to yourself.

    AH: What other cities has this process been seen in, around the world?

    HG: Most major cities in India have a strong nexus between land regularisation and political party affiliation. So I would say that in most large South Asian cities it is the norm.

    The literature is interesting with respect to Latin America, where you don't see very much mainstream political party [involvement], but you have very strong criminal bosses in informal settlements, around what is called "organised crime".

    So Karachi is a bit different - it's a little bit like the Latin American cities, which have maybe half the population living in unplanned segments and they have their own systems [of service delivery]. Karachi is a bit different to other South Asian cities in that it has a lot more violence. It has similar [but lower] levels of violence as Latin American cities, but it is different in that it has mainstream political parties who are also stakeholders, so in that way it's a bit more South Asian. I think here, in South Asia, we have much greater fluidity that allows political parties to be involved in this.

    AH: Let's talk a little about ethnicity, and the role it plays in the violence - how big a faultline is ethnicity in Karachi?

    HG: It doesn't seem to be a faultline, does it? Virtually every ethnic group has some armed representation. So they're all sort of united in that respect.

    "I think that ethnic violence is basically a way of sending political signals. I don't see ethnicity as a major divider of people in Karachi. I think that Karachi is, even through all of its violence, evolving as a multi-ethnic city."

    - Haris Gazdar, social scientist

    I think that ethnic violence is basically a way of sending political signals. I don't see ethnicity as a major divider of people in Karachi. I think that Karachi is, even through all of its violence, evolving as a multi-ethnic city. So its multi-ethnic character has not weakened, in fact it seems to have a logic of its own.

    But of course parties have ethnic affiliations and ethnic bases, and sometimes they send signals to each other by targeting different ethnic groups. A little bit like sectarian parties. I mean I don't see, for example, sectarianism being a big issue in Karachi - among citizens - but there is, of course, sectarian violence. And that is directed by organised armed groups that send signals to people from other sects.

    So I see it in that way. There is a branding of parties - that the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is mostly Muhajir, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is mostly Sindhi and Balochi, but I'm not sure if the violence is really based on ethnicity.

    AH: But the violence was ethnic-based, in the mid-to-late 1980s, when the city saw riots, wasn't it?

    HG: But even then, as soon as you get the involvement of political organisations, it's very difficult to then separate it from political violence.

    So back then there were fights between the MQM and other groups, on an ethnic basis, but then there was also a lot of violence between the MQM and non-MQM people who are Urdu-speaking [in the form of factions of the MQM and other parties]. So you just had the emergence of violent politics.

    AH: In that crucible of the mid-to-late 1980s, and the early 1990s, ethnicity sort of became conflated with political identity, in a way, in the sense that now can continue to be drawn upon by political parties. So has ethnicity become almost like a marker of political identity?

    HG: Of political affiliation, maybe. You know the ethnic pattern in political preferences existed much before then. In the very first elections you could see partition migrants and their descendants favoured the religious parties. And the pre-partition migrants [mainly Balochi and Sindhi] favoured the PPP.

    Both groups were diverse in terms of class. It was hard to think of ethnic groups then. It starts becoming articulated like that. The religious parties, they were in a small minority in Sindh, and then they started pushing on ethnic issues.

    AH: So it was just a way for them to clasp onto the fact that there was a bloc that was voting for them, to try and pick up on issues that were common to the bloc?

    HG: Maybe the appeal was on ethnic grounds. The PPP, which is seen as a Sindhi party, is not just a Sindhi party in Karachi, with support from Katchis, Baloch and the Malwaris and the whoever. Pre-partition migrants were coalescing around the PPP.

    [The PPP and the religious parties were solving the issues of particular ethnicities, or positioning themselves in that way] and then gradually this warped into some kind of an ethnic issue.

    More on Karachi's violence from Asad Hashim

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     Pakistan's bleeding heart 

    [By 1984], you actually have exclusive articulation of ethnicity, with the MQM.

    Until then, ethnic politics was basically limited to university campuses. Because you had students who had ethnic groups and were in ethnic federations.

    AH: So politicians identified, whether consciously or unconsciously, movement happening in the way that people were thinking about political identity, and they latched onto that as a way to-

    HG: To access resources. Under [military dictator] General Zia ul Haq [in the 1970s], you were not actually playing out proper politics. You know, when you go to actual elections, you can't be very ethnic, because you actually want to keep your door open for many different groups. You want to build a coalition.

    But as student groups, you can do whatever you want. Because it's a small thing, it's isolated. You can play out whatever your wildest fantasies are. So the Baloch and the Sindhis and the Pashtuns - their federations existed, but they were basically […] not doing Karachi politics.

    Within campus politics, they didn't seem like an aberration, however.

    But when you're not doing open politics, electoral politics [as was the case under Zia during this period], where you have to build constituencies of a large number of people, then people have their ethnic affiliations and preferences and grudges.

    So that's why you don't have open ethnic politics. But you provide that platform at a time when political parties are not allowed to function [under Zia].

    So I think all of it happened at a very specific moment.

    AH: A lot of what you have looked at in your work is about how, with changing demographics in the city, political parties are going to be forced to look beyond ethnic boundaries - either that, or to engage coalition politics. How realistic is it that this will happen? How much are they victims of their own ideology?

    HG: [The police operation against the People's Amn Committee, a PPP-allied armed group in Lyari] was a test for the PPP leadership. The activities of the [group] were actually dividing and alienating the PPP votebank.

    So now, how trapped is the PPP in its addictive alliance with people who are effective at using weapons? How irreversible is that partnership?

    So parties do understand the limitations of this kind of ethnic specialisation.

    What I'm saying is that there seems to be a core correlation between ethnic polarisation and the willingness to use violence.

    AH: These groups, however, also provide social service delivery, in the form of healthcare, education, and protection, of course. How does that figure into it?

    HG: They also provide protection from themselves, don't they?

    If you go down to [the MQM stronghold of] Azizabad it's the same thing, you know? Everyone thinks that they are covering the MQM, and the MQM is protecting them. But what we don't know is what would happen with the counterfactual: if you didn't need protection from the MQM, then what would happen?

    AH: With the changing demographics and everything that's going on, what do you see happening in the upcoming elections for Karachi, in terms of expectations of violence?

    HG: I think the main question in the next elections will be - I mean there will have to be some kind of a stitch up between the parties because as I said, everyone is well armed, no-one really wants a nasty situation, so a lot of it is around control of polling stations. So that's what the MQM is doing, and that's the service that the [armed group in Lyari] was providing … they were providing security to the PPP in District South.

    Because if it doesn't happen like that, and you have a proper election, everybody contesting for actual votes, then there is a guarantee that it's going to turn violent.

    Mr Gazdar's comments have been edited slightly [where indicated by brackets] for length and clarity.

    Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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