After the sudden surge in violence Karachi saw on March 27, followed by a day of normality, and then in the evening, another surge of violence, one wonders how it is that a city can go from riots and strikes to instant calm and then back to violence again, as if at the push of a button. There is something about this controlled violence that doesn’t sit well with me at all. Why has it flared up again after a period of relative peace? Who gains from the violence? Who suffers?
Make no mistake: the strikes and riots are meant to distract us from the real problems our country is facing. Inflation, rampant corruption, an ineffective government, social injustice and inequality. When you’re worrying how you’re going to get to work and whether or not you’ll be shot along the way, you won’t have the time to wonder why the price of petrol has risen eight rupees overnight, why Hindu girls are being forcibly converted to Islam, why Osama bin Laden was moving around freely in Pakistan and why his wife was sitting in Karachi. You’ll have remarkably little compassion for anyone’s problems but your own.
Karachi is Pakistan’s largest city, but if you look at it carefully, you’ll see that it’s also its own country. With a population of 18 million people, it’s bigger than a lot of small nations in the world. It has its own culture and ethos, its own rules, its own spirit and its own economy. There’s no other place like it anywhere else in Pakistan. People of all ethnicities, religions, political persuasions and economic classes call it home.
But how do you control the beast? Previously, the city was divided into five districts, each under the relatively effective control of the deputy commissioner’s office. After Pervez Musharraf’s devolution plan, the city was brought under the leadership of a single nazim, similar to a mayor. The nazimship has been put on hold until the next local bodies elections, but the effectiveness of the previous administrative system has never been recaptured. There’s a saying in America: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Now, in Karachi, we’ve got a case of ‘If it’s broke, don’t fix it either.’ And some things, like Humpty Dumpty’s shell, can’t be put back together again.
So instead of good governance and stewardship, our leaders have opted to adopt the method of ‘divide and conquer’. That is, keep Karachi permanently divided — along ethnic lines, along political lines, along gender lines, along class lines — in order to weaken what could be a strong, unified metropolis. Small pieces are easier to control and intimidate. The Romans knew this. So did the British. This is not a new thing: Karachi has always been divided along ethnic lines, ever since Fatima Jinnah fought Ayub Khan in the 1964 elections and ethnic loyalties were brought in to support both candidates. When one prevailed over the other, the ethnic populations took it as proof that ethnicity trumps national unity. And we’ve lived like this ever since.
And Pakistanis are good learners. Not only do our leaders tell us to live like this, but we obey them blindly, like sheep. We talk a lot about the diversity of Karachi, how rich the city is because of its minorities, its Shias and Christians and Parsis and Hindus; its Pathans and its Mohajirs and its Sindhis and its acceptance of everyone who calls it home. But the minute the strings are pulled, we start dancing like puppets. We withdraw, we pull inwards and we start to blame the other. Instead of judging and evaluating our leaders and our colleagues and our teachers and our workers on merit, character, and performance, we refuse to assess them along anything else but family and kinship ties, religion and ethnicity. I couldn’t think of a more backwards way to live.
So, Karachi is a country that seethes with frustration, dissatisfaction, anger and chaos. Until the button gets pushed, and then suddenly everything works, and we go to school, work, concerts, fashion shows, restaurants, the beach. Then the button is pushed again and we burn buses and riot outside the KESC offices. When will we tire of being automatic people, doomed to stay in the spin cycle of riots, strikes, shootings, looting, killing? When will we ever learn to say no and try to regain some agency over our lives?
Maybe when we run out of electricity the plug on this cycle will finally be pulled.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2012.