By Zainab Imam
‘The Dynamics of Karachi’: (L to R) Bina Shah, Laurent Gayer, Aquila Ismail and Steve Inskeep — Photo by White Star
With tearful eyes over Karachi’s transformation into a virtual war zone and joyful smiles over memories from a better time, panellists at the session ‘The Dynamics of Karachi, helped the audience understand the reasons for the city’s abysmal situation.
The session was moderated by anthro-pology professor Kamran Asdar Ali, who structured the debate at the very onset by posing clear questions to the panel that included architect and urban planner Arif Hasan, journalist Steve Inskeep, researcher and author Laurent Gayer, who has just finished working on a book about Karachi’s political history, and fiction writers Bina Shah and Aquila Ismail.
The session, for which the one-hour duration was far too short, focused mostly on the rampant violence in Karachi and successfully managed to capture the essence of the city without once using the overused word ‘resilience’.
Ali began the session with Inskeep, who a day earlier had held an hour long session with Javed Jabbar in which he read excerpts from his book, Karachi: InstantCity. Inskeep appeared genuinely baffled as well as awed at how everyone seems to want a piece of Karachi: “I have met people from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement who said ‘this city is ours’, by which they meant the muhajirs,” he said. “I have met Sindhis who said ‘this city is ours’ and Baloch who said ‘this city is ours’ with such vigour you would think Karachi was a part of Balochistan! The Pakhtuns are also at least claiming a part of the city,” he said as the audience nodded its head in agreement.
In his view, it is this diversity which is the underlying cause of the violence in Karachi, but he also clarified that although it appears to be a disadvantage, it is actually the city’s biggest strength. For peace in the city there needs to be an understanding of the plurality of Karachi to use the strength of the different kinds of people who populate it, he said.
“In the early history of this city, you can see that this diversity was seen as its strength. Jinnah’s vision of making Karachi the capital of Pakistan was to bring together the strength of all kinds of people who lived here,” he said. “The late Ardeshir Cowasjee told me that Jinnah had sought his father’s help in building a national shipping firm.”
Ismail then gave the account of seeing her “beloved” and pluralist Karachi metamorphose into a jihadist hub. “I came to Karachi on August 20, 1972, after my family had been thrown out of Dhaka when East Pakistan became Bangladesh,” she said. “Soon after, I joined NEDUniversity as a second-year student. This city immediately took me in. There was a liberal streak in this city and it was a calming influence.”
But all that changed when General Ziaul Haq came into power. “That was the first that I saw arms on campus. I saw Gulbuddin Hekmatyar walk the corridors with guns. There was violence because the extremists were trying to make their space.”
Gayer was easily one of the favourite speakers after he termed the violence in the city “ordered disorder”. “There is a sense of organisation in the way the killings take place. The violence isn’t entirely random and patterns of violence are similar to the mid-1980s. Disorder is to a large extent ordered, which makes the violence manageable by society, by you people who have altered their lives according to it,” he said.
Gayer said that the “enigma” of the political violence in Karachi had not been fully explored, pointing to the “peculiarity” of violence in the city which he felt had now become embedded in its social fabric. “The violence takes place between intimate friends, coalition partners, over macabre designs and a few days later, they resume politics as usual!” he said, to huge applause from the audience.
Shah talked about what Karachi meant to her, “a really, really difficult city to live in but that makes it easy to write about.” She also sought to assuage the feelings of guilt in Karachiites, the notion that they have become apathetic people. “Whether we love or hate this city, whether we are residents or visitors or whether we have a stake here or not, we are [in this session] because we are concerned,” she said.
The last speaker for the session was Hasan, who summed up the entire discussion by simplifying what the violence in Karachi was about — land. “The governance system has broken down in Karachi and the city lived on kinetic energy for as long as it could. The phenomena of land politics and bhatta came about as a consequence of the breakdown of this governance,” he said.
Hasan said that the expansion outside the city was better than the expansion inside the city. “When the built space comes down to two metres per person, there will be turf wars and violence,” he said.
He concluded by outlining the need for public sector reform: “the entire planning and policymaking in Karachi has an anti-poor bias, not just at the implementation level but also at the training [of policymakers] level. This is why you get flyovers but no one cares about the pedestrians,” he said.