A victim of clichés
Karachi is a victim of its own clichés. Those responsible for running the politics, administration and economy of the city know, or define, it through words and phrases that are not just tired but also partially, if at all, relevant. From being an extended version of Mai Kolachi, a village of Sindhi and Baloch fishermen thronged in 1947 by the Urdu-speaking migrants from India, Karachi has become a heaving megapolis of more than 15 million souls.
In the process, it has acquired many identities and definitions: It has been variously called the city of lights, the land of opportunities for the Punjabi and Pashtun professionals and workers, the economic hub of the country and the bastion of the demographic, cultural and political power of its Urdu-speaking residents. Added to these are the self-restricting identities that the political parties operating in Karachi have hoisted upon the city and its residents.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with such reductionism. After all, this is how human beings know and define themselves and their environs. But scratch the surface and this begins to rankle as the root cause of most of the city’s past and present woes. Any attempt at defining Karachi in selective, yet not-so-innovative, ways is rooted in the desire to stop the city from assuming a multifarious, all encompassing identity that can reconcile as well as transcend its competing and clashing definitions. So compete and clash they must unless the city finds a way to be known and defined in a way it has not been so far.
Karachi, therefore, must rid itself of its violently decisive clichés before its residents start knowing and defining themselves beyond their narrowly defined boundaries of identity and association that have turned the city into a lethal mix of racial and ethnic ghettos perpetually at each other’s throats. It needs to define itself as a place that leaves out none of its millions of citizens.
Achieving that goal is as easy, or difficult, as overcoming the city’s seemingly intractable problems of proliferating guns and unrelenting violence. Definitions and identities, like the solutions to complex issues, cannot be imposed: They emerge out of a complex combination of factors. There can be no quick fix, no magic formula to redefine Karachi in a refreshingly novel and comprehensive way that is acceptable to all its residents in spite of their ethnicity, religion, sect and politics.
Yet this is no reason for inaction, no excuse for sitting still and letting the city continue its journey down the deathly spiral it has been moving along for the last few decades. The people of Karachi can certainly make a meaningful contribution in the process of letting a new definition for their city emerge by bringing together factors that can be conducive to a positive outcome. It is in this search for these favorable factors that the essence of the action to save Karachi lies.
These factors are certainly not political. Over the last three decades, the politicians have tried various political combinations and permutations to solve the riddle that violence in Karachi has become and they have failed without exception. They are also not economic. Since 1980s, the city’s economy has expanded manifolds yet more industries, more businesses, more money have not induced social peace and harmony. So what could they be?
It may be helpful to look for them in the realm of culture and society. The second thing fist: India-born sociologist Ashutosh Varshney in his book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life has argued that the more a city has active and inclusive labor unions and trade associations the less the chances of ethnic violence it has. He has compared the history of ethnic violence in three pairs of Indian cities to come up with the conclusion that the cities that are more violent have less active and less inclusive civil society organisations. The implication is obvious: Not every type of civic activism is an antidote to violence; one that works as a bulwark against violence has to cut across ethnic or any other divide.
Karachi shows why. The city has numerous trade and industry bodies as well as trade unions yet they have never played any role in stemming the tide of violence arguably because they are so openly affiliated either with political parties or with ethnic groups that their appeal never crosses the limit of the party or the ethnicity they are linked to. The doctors and paramedics who refuse to treat the victims of violence from a certain ethnic community at the city’s Abbasi Shaheed Hospital are not expected to mobilize their association to work for peace. Even if they do, there will be no listeners to their calls for peace on the other side of the city’s ethnic schism. This also explains why the business and trade bodies and labor unions have never made public demonstrations for peace even if the violence has a direct negative impact on the livelihood of their members: They are partisans to the perpetrators of violence.
Yet, umbrella civil society groups possess the authority to replace ethnicity-based trade and labor bodies with those that are ethnicity blind. The Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), for instance, can recommend the revocation of the practice licences of the doctors found to be discriminating among their patients on an ethnic basis. The PMA can also refuse to provide legal recognition to the medical associations set up and working at hospitals involved in such discrimination. Along the same lines, the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) can refuse to extend its support and recognition to all industry and business organisations known to have exclusionary ethnic affiliations. Regulatory institutions should similarly make the lawyers and the teachers to disband their ethnicity-based organisations and unions.
The minimum that Karachi’s political parties can do to make a positive contribution to the city’s peace is to ensure that they do not pressurize and threaten the PMA, the FPCCI and other similar national level forums into taking back the spurned professionals, workers and businessmen. If and when that can happen, the solution for the city’s problems will slowly but surely start emerging from behind the dark shadows of bias and prejudice.
Art and culture can be equally vital binding factors and in many ways they already are. Sindhi sufi poetry and music, Noor Jehan’s Punjabi songs, Urdu poetry and prose do not have votaries just from one ethnic group or the other. Everyone loves them. The only problem is that the city does not, or perhaps cannot, offer avenues to enjoy and appreciate them in a non-ethnic atmosphere. There are hardly any associations of writers, poets, musicians and other artists that take proactive steps to overcome such hurdles and take their work across ethnic and political boundaries for all and sundry to partake in. The intellectuals and the artists of the city, indeed, need to seize the initiative and run away with it before it is too late.
In this, too, the political parties can chip in by not trying to hinder such efforts whenever and wherever they start taking place. They just need to realise that art and culture created under political duress, ethnic compulsions and ideological biases can never win over audiences nor do they survive the test of time. How literature, art and theatre produced in Soviet Union are no longer even talked about should serve as a lesson for them to stop dictating to the creative conscience of the city’s literati and artistic community. The moment such a realisation dawns upon the ethnicity-driven politicians of Karachi, the city’s long drawn night of pain and suffering can start harboring hopes for the beginning of its own end.
Badar Alam is editor of the political monthly magazine, Herald.