How do we begin to understand a city? A city so drastically important to the country it belongs to, but one that has remained relegated to the depths of ethnic violence and executive control. A city that was the heart of Pakistan but is today known for the regularity with which violence asserts itself in every corner.

Laurent Gayer painstakingly documents Karachi, a city once known for its clubs and its thriving culture, but where regular people now spend many hours navigating the ramifications of years of violence. Everything from the architecture to the ways in which “normalcy” is assumed is dependent on the interactions that people in the city have had with violence.

Karachi is a city of migrants. It is undergirded by a complex political system that makes it an interesting case not only for the study of armed conflict but also for the causal mechanisms that play a larger role in igniting those in the first place. The complexity of having an ethnic conflict, a housing crisis driven by the party in power, a central government that is more interested in Karachi as an economically critical place, and a student organisation that suddenly gets access to arms, is woven into a narrative with eclectic sources at hand.

A context of violence

Laurent Gayer, who is currently a researcher at the Centre for International Studies (CERI), Sciences Po, is fluent in Urdu and opens every chapter with a poignant couplet or a quote from his lengthy interviews. The book is expansive – it begins by mapping the rise of the MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement, earlier known as the Mohajir Quami Movement) which was founded by Altaf Hussain, who is now in exile. It started as a students’ union but soon became the third largest party in Pakistan.

The MQM had an ethno-nationalist agenda, which basically meant that much of the “interests” it represented came to be articulated around the mobilisation of the mohajir ethnic identity. Their spectacular rise from the bastis to the bastions of power and the subsequent establishment of criminal networks is nothing short of the material of a thriller.

The ethnic struggle in the city – between the mohajirs and the Pathans – not only set the context for a fierce economic and political struggle, but also transformed the city into an object of desire and contention. The city was already deeply fragmented because much of its populace comprised mohajirs. This, coupled with the influx of Afghan refugees during the Soviet-Afghan war, led to the deepening of ethnic cleavages.

There was already a housing crisis brewing in the city. Much of the mohajir community could not be resettled because urban planning could not catch up with the influx of people. These bastis were neither legal, nor had land rights attached to them. The Pashtun entrepreneurs started to invest in the land and deepened the ethnic crisis by mobilising around identity. This finally culminated in the bloody riots of 1986.

All of this is important in understanding the context of violence in Karachi. It is not simply contained in some ancient hatred or in an urban planning crisis – there was already a form of social organisation that became an ever-evolving reason behind recurring violence.

Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for City
Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for City, Laurent Gayer, HarperCollins.

Criminals and the state

The relevance of the book lies well beyond an understanding of how the MQM came to be in the city. It is present in the consistent accounts of the ways in which everyday people lead their lives in the backdrop of violence. For Gayer, violence is not symptomatic of disorder, but is a fact of ordering social lives. Even in the face of disorder, social lives are ordered in a specific form.

The argument that armed conflict and war are inescapably sociological and are a factor of organisation has important repercussions, because it changes the lens of studying violence to one of in motion rather than being just a cause and effect. The Karachi of the rich may have been dead for a while now, but the words of Naveeda, a social worker from Kutch whom Gayer interviewed becomes incredibly relevant and poignant when one has to describe violence in motion.

“Ajib tarah ki faza hamaare shehr mein ho rahi hai ki humko apna shehr ajnabi laga hai.”

(Such a strange environment has developed in our city that it seems to have become a foreign land.)

The close linkages between formal governance and criminal organisations are an elegant reminder of sociologist Charles Tilly’s seminal essay “War Making and State Making as Organised Crime”, which Tilly begins by drawing an analogy between organised crime and governance. He argues that while there is a perceptive difference between the ways in which banditry and governance are seen, the same cannot be said for the ways in which they operate when it comes to monopolising violence.

According to Tilly, the difference between violence coming from the state and from anyone else is marked by what can legitimise this violence in the longe run. For him, banditry, piracy and gangland rivalry all exist on the same continuum. For Gayer, Karachi follows a similar model. The MQM is not just a party in power – it is also an armed group and the representative of an ethnic faction. It is also in control of most of the informal networks of power that control much of Karachi.

Criminality becomes a fact of everyday life and mandates how one interacts with executives at large. In the book Mafia Raj by Lucia Michelutti et al, the writers discuss the “art of bossing” and situate goons at the peculiar intersection of criminals and those who use the processes of democratic institutions to come to power.

They also create informal networks of collaboration, often resorting to means outside of the law and the system in order to make ends meet. These informal networks have two important functions: first, they make the criminal in power unaccountable, and second, since state capacity is abysmally low, these become the only form through which one can access some form of state resources.

A similar model is reproduced in Karachi, where many people have to be connected to the MQM in order to secure protection in the violent terrains of the city. The police or the state forces have been rendered almost ineffective here.

What’s the story?

But Gayer looks at violence in the form of a narrative. For him the causal factors perhaps explain the background of the conflict, but none of them is sufficient to explain how attitudes and behaviours are shaped. He interviews several people and finds many stories of the fallout of the violence – how the consistent disruptions became an order in itself.

People grew to walk around the violence – they knew which places to avoid. There was order in the disorder that seems to represent much of Karachi. Gayer’s interviewees rang from people in the MQM to regular citizens whose lives came to be disrupted, and who changed their lives to accommodate it. He moves seamlessly, mapping the city structurally and emotionally, and making a case for looking at violence not as top-down imposition but as a sociological fact. Violence is not disruption, it is normal. But the city is a living and breathing landscape, where mobility is still a possibility.

The book is a fascinating study in understanding violence as a social reality of multicultural and multi-ethnic urban spaces, and its implications are relevant everywhere. Through this study of Karachi, Gayer has opened the doors to understanding armed conflict in a setting away from the usual frontiers of war-torn borders and impenetrable jungles, landing it squarely in the middle of one of the largest cities in Pakistan. It also understands criminality and systems of statehood beyond the usual binaries – not everything criminal is understood as being outside the system, and perhaps one can derive a better understanding of what it means to be the state.

Gayer closes the book with the following lines, succinctly capturing the violence birthed by the city:

Meri t’amir mein muzmir hai ek surat kharabh ki
Hayola barq-e -khirman ka hai khun-e- garam dahqan ka

(Inherent in the creation is the seed of my destruction,
The passion of my creative endeavour creates instead the force of which strikes me down.)