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Book Review, Report

sissies and thugs – an alternative approach to explaining Karachi’s violence

Karachi is not only the largest metropolis of Pakistan and its commercial hub, it is also known as a ‘mini-Pakistan’. This is a reference to the ethnic and religious diversity of Karachi’s population. […] The very features of Pakistani society that are represented so prominently in Karachi are the ones that are often thought to challenge the coherence and stability of the nation state.

Just like it’s mega-city diversity makes Karachi into a model of the whole country, the media’s perception of this city marks a thumbnail for the reporting on the whole country. It’s proneness to violence, seemingly based on a simple sectarian history of conflict, combined with its worldwide interconnectedness (the majority of the Pakistani blogosphere reside here and international newspapers as well as companies have their regional outposts in the port city) makes sure that every larger gunfight is reported in international newspapers. With a lack of knowledge of the country as a whole and the history of Sindh and Karachi in particular, the narrative stops somewhere at ‘those evil MQM thugs vs. the equally evil Pashtun’. To weave in western media’s darling Benazir Bhutto, the PPP also makes it into the story. But as Budhani et.al. note further on in their excellent short write up of Karachi’s history of violence (The Open City: Social Networks and Violence in Karachi; Azmat Ali Budhani, Haris Gazdar, Sobia Ahmad Kaker and Hussain Bux Mallah, Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi, Working Paper no. 70, Crisis States Working Papers Series No.2, 2010 ):

The simplistic view is that Karachi is an artificial amalgam of diverse ethnic groups, and it is but natural that there will be turf battles or worse between them. A more sophisticated rendering recalls that while identity politics offer a natural mode of mobilisation to certain classes, group identity can be very fluid in South Asia, and the salience of any particular identity often depends on the precise political context.

Beginning of July this year has seen a short climax of attention (the FP AfPak channel had 2 pieces in a day by Mirza and Baloch) when the violence suddenly culmulated and death numbers have surpassed the annual average already mid-year. With yesterdays shooting came a new alert on the radar which immediately surfaced in European print. While the time since the attack on Benazir’s motorcade some 4 years back or even since Sindh and Karachi came to international attention (which would be some 180 years, Manan Ahmed has just looked at one story that roots back into this time) would have given ample space to look at some background and write an informed op-ed that would make further copy-pastes of AP stories futile, the simple narrative for the city will stick. The reason of course is, that the reproduction of this simplistic view is a lot easier than the challenge of forming a more nuanced narrative that moves closer to realities. And while neither ethnicity nor religion or politics can be left out of a thorough discussion of why Karachi is today considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, while it’s Indian megacity-counterpart Mumbai is a tourist magnet, there may be another approach (Noah Tucker has looked at this problem recently for the case of Osh in Kyrgyzstan). What Budhani et.al. call migration and informality as a subsumation of the complex situation, Oskar Verkaaik in his excellent Migrants and Militants (Princeton UP, 2004) referred to as Fun and Urban Violence.

Verkaaik looks at urban militancy in Sindh with a focus on Hyderabad where he researched intensively. As his choice of location suggests he is not prone to walking along stereotipical representation of Pakistan – while Hyderabad is by no means some small village, he is the first foreign author on Pakistan I read who is not based in Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi. On the other hand he does not present himself as the shalwar kameez wearing gora who has understood it all and is at par with the locals. His account is sober, but makes use of both – his intellectual background and understanding of cultural, political and historical complexities and his personal experience as a part-time resident of the city and member of the local society. His book is no all-encompassing guide. He focuses on the Muhajir communities and the MQM and to get a better picture similar studies of the other ethnic actors – Sindhis, Pashtun, Punjabi, Hindu, Christian, Baloch – will be necessary, as well as accounts from members of each side.

Early on in his introduction, looking at influential characters in Sindh’s post-partition he points to where his study is going. “For many members of the MQM, for instance, Syed, with his Sassi, was a sissy.“, reffering to the mockery of MQM members of G.M.Syed, his intellectual promotion of Sindhi poetry and Shah Abdul Latif’s heroine Sassi. While looking with great detail at ethnical and societal backgrounds of Muhajirs in their country of origin (in Hyderabad that is mainly India and no Biharis) and in Pakistan (in Pakka Qila in Hyderabad), he ultimately characterizes MQM as a group that mixed “urban youth culture, with its aspects of gender, leisure, and global youth culture, into an ethnic-religious ideology of protest and revolt” – short, a group that was having fun creating havoc. Budhani et.al. note on an early Muhajir leader: “While Bhopali had been seen as an educated and cultured notable, the MQM political model was based on youth mobilisation, irreverence and armed force.” MQM leader Altaf Hussain, whom Verkaaik portrays through the eyes of the Qaum which only sees him on a screen, talking via a crackling phone line, is generally regarded as vulgar polemical clown and as such fits the demand for fun. His supporters often do not even see the need to take him serious.

The controversy made members proud that they were part of a movement that was capable of worrying a large number of people. Initially a dull formality, it had turned into a splendid provocation, secret and outrageous. And the shared knowledge that the secret was in fact empty made it even better.

His theory, that male youth fun (also referred to as the vernacular tamasha by Verkaaik) plays a major part in violence in Sindh, is of course a lot more difficult to uphold than theories on sectarian rifts – simply because it is less understood, partly as Verkaaink writes, because [t]he intimacy of fun is mostly denied to outsiders. The phenomenon of young males getting together mainly to cause a stir that can also turn violent over seemingly minor issues (phadda it would be called in Punjab, Maila Times has a great discription – good satire is quite close to reality) is not hard to come by in any part of Pakistan (and, yes, anywhere in the world). It’s combination with thugs involved in arms trade, kidnapping, murder and smuggling in Karachi and politicians to result in urban war is less easily argued for. Verkaaik manages to construct his theory by portraying the Muhajir community in light of history, anthropological literature and personal assumptions based on his daily experiences and even if you neglect the fun part, his book illustrates the emergence, history and raison d’être of Karachi’s and Sindh’s violence in depth. But as he states himself in the introduction “there are no studies on anthropological fieldwork in Muhajir communities from which the [MQM] movement originates“. And further discussion of his fun-hypothesis will be essential to incorporate it in a common narrative in reporting on Karachi – or dismiss it.

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.


2 thoughts on “sissies and thugs – an alternative approach to explaining Karachi’s violence

  1. Thanks for comments

    Posted by Hussain Bux Mallah | August 3, 2011, 3:43 PM


  1. Pingback: » Stories of Migration and Globalization from the Subcontinent Ajam Media Collective - April 16, 2014

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July 2011


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