A few years ago I was at a lecture in which the speaker observed that how in modern society we seem to think complex things are easy and simple things are hard. I was reminded of that comment, the other day when Ahsan Butt posed the question, asking what, if anything, can be done to save Karachi? Now despite the positive comments at what he had written, solutions offered were few and far between. To put things in perspective, Karachi is Pakistan’s former capital, Sindh’s provincial capital, Pakistan’s biggest city and its financial nerve centre. It is a cosmopolitan fruit salad, consisting of predominantly Urdu speakers who migrated from India in 1947 after partition. Politically, it is dominated by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which despite being in coalition with the present government, has seen its former iron grip over the city being challenged by both the Pakistan People’s Party and another coalition partner, the ethnic Pashtun Awami National Party. With gravely rising death toll every day, you have power shortages, water shortages, a collapsing infrastructure, sectarian violence and seemingly unstoppable street crime. Not to forget, both the MQM and the Awami National Party have been on the receiving end of the Military’s wrath for their moderate credentials and their alternative view of the Pakistani establishment (to put it simply they don’t like them). The irony, however, is that despite the similarity in their political views, the two parties’ are nowadays openly calling for the military to intervene in the city.
Sounds complicated enough, doesn’t it? My take, however, was a bit different. Reason being, I view Karachi’s situation as part of a broader problem. To put it plainly, the government and people look at specific problems in Pakistan and Karachi in particular in isolation and miss the crucial point that status quo is part of the problem.
There are several problems that afflict the city. First and the foremost, there is the decline in the 'writ' of the state and apprehensions over government’s ability to enforce its authority. You have the police, which is on one hand, politicised, under-equipped and undermanned, and a judicial system with barely 5% conviction rate. In the former’s case, situation is far worse than the rest of the country, as Karachi has had to put up with presence of paramilitary forces along with police for the last 20 odd years. There has never been a serious effort to establish a professional, efficient, depoliticised metropolitan police force. Even when it dominated Karachi from 2003-2008, the MQM was content with the status quo. So to expect the police to suddenly be interested in their duties when for 20 years somebody else has been running the show for them is unrealistic.
At the same time, both Altaf Hussain’s and Ghulam Bilour’s suggestion for a military operation in the city are historical inaccuracies. The military operation in 1992 was not what led to a drop in violence in Karachi. It was, in fact, the brutal paramilitary operation, led by Naseerullah Babar. This was followed by the MQM’s rehabilitation by working with PML-N and finally attempts by the Musharraf’s government to reinvest in the city. It was no single event but the whole process that brought a semblance of peace to Karachi for a few years.
Moreover, as a consequence of the Musharraf era, the political economy and demography of Karachi changed markedly, Musharraf’s rule was noted for, lop-sided development in certain regions within the country with Karachi being the prime example, as the megapolis underwent a drastic makeover under the mayorship of Mustafa Kamal of MQM, as the city experienced a mini economic boom.
The downside was, this growth exacerbated simmering tension in the city and was amplified by the dominance of the MQM in the province and federation, the presence of the MMA in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa along with the debacles in FATA. However, massive demographic balance changes were witnessed post floods last year which triggered a third major influx of migrants from those regions into Karachi.
Finally, there is a historical generational change that analysts and writers do not factor in. The MQM was defined by several key events in its history such as its soaring popularity post Bushra Zaidi incident in 1986 and finally its ouster from Karachi’s local election scene in the late 90s.
In that period a new generation of MQM leaders have grown up. These are people who came of age in the Musharraf boom, and have only a brief memory of the dark days of operation clean up. For them, the military is not seen as a threat as much as their local opponents are seen.
By contrast, the defining moments for the Pashtun community in Karachi, were the Riffat Afridi case in 1998, followed by the clash between ANP-PPP and the MQM in May 2007 and finally culminating with the 2008 election and ANPs first win in Karachi. This, in addition to the PPP’s closeness to the ANP, created a strategic alliance which is challenging the MQM’s hold on power in the city. Generationally, the people leading this movement are a new middle class amongst the Pashtun community, they are people who are not from traditional ANP dominated areas and have essentially been driven to the party more out of a dislike of the MQM than love for the ANP. They want access to state machinery to improve their lot in the city, but are instead coming across the MQM’s near decade hold over the local and in part the provincial state machinery.
When you add all of this together with the criminalisation of the militant wings and the loosening of the leadership’s holds over their members, here you have the crux of the immediate problem. How do you stop ‘political’ violence when the people committing target killings might not be under the control of the local political party?
The solutions to all this are not “complex-easy ones”. They are not the restoration of the Commissionerate system, keeping coalition partners happy with plots and quotas, nor are they military operations. They are not quests for mythical leaders who will save the people or all or nothing political brinkmanship which also likely to be ineffective.
The answers are the “simple-hard”:An assertive local government system which is inclusive of all stake holders, a police force which is independent and local, a judicial system which is effective. But above all, the realisation that while developing cities, a uniform approach is required or else one will be compelled to migrate to where the work is. These in themselves are basic first steps, and like all simple things, they start at square one.