Absence of the state
IT is an interesting fact that Karachi has the highest literacy rate in Pakistan, but also the highest rate of political violence. Being the economic hub of Pakistan, Karachi accounts for more than 25 per cent of the country’s GDP, 54 per cent of central government tax revenues, 70 per cent of national income tax revenue and 30 per cent of industrial output.
Contrast this with the fact that in the last three years (2010-2012), about 5,000 people have died in Karachi as a result of targeted killings, according to the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee. The question is: why is Pakistan’s most literate as well as most developed city also its most violent? What explains the descent of Karachi into a cycle of violence and chaos?
This question can be answered by examining the role of ethno-political parties in Karachi as well as the role of the state and its policing powers.
Putting the spate of ethnic violence in Karachi in a conceptual context, one notes that inter-ethnic tensions in the city have to do with the fact that ethnic groups in the metropolis are placed not in a hierarchical/ranked position vis-à-vis each other, but are rather unranked.
This implies that though the Mohajirs are well-educated, middle-class and employed, this does not in any way put the Balochi-, Pushto- or Sindhi-speaking people in a particular subordinated position compared to the Urdu-speakers for the other ethnic groups are materially advantaged and going about their business in Karachi.
This relative independence for each ethnic group is reinforced through geography, in which groups located in distinct areas exercise relative autonomy to do whatever they deem fit, for example the Baloch in Lyari, Mohajirs in District Central and the Pakhtuns and Sindhis in the goths and peripheral areas of Karachi.
This unranked nature of competing ethnic groups (in which ethnicity in itself is not a marker of violence) becomes a cause of brutal ethnic conflict as the fight over land, extortion money and resources manifests itself in an overtly ‘ethnic’ idiom.
On the other hand, where ethnic groups are ranked with one dominating and the other(s) subordinate, the intensity and level of ethnic conflict remains low or static over a period of time because land, money and resources are the exclusive domain of a single ethnic group. However, where this is not the case, each ethnic group presumes itself to be powerful or capable enough to outdo the other.
In Karachi, what is perplexing is that in the realm of politics, the Mohajirs and Pakhtuns (and the Baloch and Sindhis for that matter) are tied together in a political partnership at the federal and provincial levels; the major parties representing them also share a commitment against religious militants such as the local Taliban. So why does this alliance not translate into a lessening of the state of ethnic conflict in Karachi?
The answer has as much to do with the role of the state as it has to do with the attitudes and policies of competing ethnic and other actors. More often than not the turmoil in Karachi is viewed through the following categories: Mohajirs vs Pakhtuns, Shias vs Sunnis, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement vs Haqiqi, etc. But the most pertinent question should be: where is the state?
Thomas Hobbes put it clearly in his Leviathan that anarchy results due to the absence of a “common power” — that is the state — and that anarchy is the perfect breeding ground for “force and fraud”. What causes people, according to Hobbes, to put faith in a common power is the fear of death.
One feels that, with killings having become so routine, this fear of death has crossed its rational threshold in Karachi. With the absence of the state, there is no fear of it for anyone involved in criminal networks of extortion, kidnappings for ransom and the killing of innocent citizens on the basis of their sectarian or political allegiances.
The state should bring itself back in for peace to prevail in Karachi and the rest of the country. This entails that its policing powers should have the ability to punish the perpetrators of violence and bloodshed. However, the police and security personnel in the city are themselves compromised mainly due to political allegiances, which prevent them from punishing criminals and the corrupt.
Around 120 policemen were killed in Karachi in 2012, a phenomenon which is attributable to the wholesale politicisation of the police. By definition, institutions of the state, in order to have legitimacy and authenticity, should be above the considerations of social forces.
When state and social forces become one and the same, it is difficult to implement the writ of the state and a condition of anarchy becomes the order of the day.
Very recently, I happened to be waiting in a long queue for CNG when the owner of the station shut it down abruptly. I asked what was happening, to which the station owner replied that the police wanted him to close down the station because members of an ethno-political party were shutting the city down.
It was at that moment that I wondered that if the police had stopped the party workers from forcibly shutting down the city and stood behind the citizens of the metropolis, Karachi would not be what it is today.
The writer is assistant professor, Department of International Relations, University of Karachi.