The South Asia Channel

Karachi’s clan conflicts

Ibn-e-Insha, the 20th century Pakistani poet wrote, "Iss shehar main ji ko lagana kiya?/Weshi ko sakoon se kiya matlab?" ("Why commit yourself to this city?/What interest do tyrants have with peace?") Although I was living in Karachi some 30 years after his burial there, both of these rhetorical questions stayed with me practically every moment ...


Ibn-e-Insha, the 20th century Pakistani poet wrote, "Iss shehar main ji ko lagana kiya?/Weshi ko sakoon se kiya matlab?" ("Why commit yourself to this city?/What interest do tyrants have with peace?") Although I was living in Karachi some 30 years after his burial there, both of these rhetorical questions stayed with me practically every moment of my time spent in the city. Last month I returned from Karachi, where I spent the summer researching the demographics behind the urban violence that has wracked Karachi for years, but picked up again in earnest.

It is only quite recently that Karachi has come under serious discussion at the international level, yet the factors driving violence and killings in the city this year have been present for at least the past 25 years, and their roots go back even further. And still, there has not been any notable progress in creating a lasting response. The police remain weak, the local and national governments still periodically raise the prospect of "bringing in the army," and leaders of political parties sit comfortably while an ever-increasing number of their minions meet brutal ends.

And while there is much that ails Pakistan besides Karachi, what happens in the city is in part a microcosm of what is tormenting the country as a whole: feeble security, over-population, poor public transportation and housing, weak law and order, abuse of public services by the wealthy and powerful, illegal land-grabbing and squatter settlements, pollution so pervasive that it contaminates food and water for all, ethnic divisions, sectarian divisions, meager education; in short, institutional inadequacies on a grand scale.

Yet institutional "failure," is in some ways a hyperbolic assessment. After all, this is also a city that has provided space for the smallest, and largest, businesses to prosper; a city that grants unrivalled port access to everyone from fishermen to NATO ships; a city that is home to prolific writers, poets, humorists, agriculturalists, entrepreneurs, divine restaurants, a growing, yet hugely talented, blogosphere, and a history that witnessed Alexander the Great, Mohammad Bin Qasim (the Umayyad General who set his sights on the revered Silk Road trade route), and Sir Charles Napier (a British General who conquered the province of Sindh) uncontrollably drawn to the City of Lights. And it is in this paradoxical, puzzling, and ambivalent sense that one must strive to understand Karachi, and beyond it Pakistan, or resign oneself to understanding neither.


Despite Pakistan’s heterogeneity, one aspect of the country that demonstrates some homogeneity is the universal nature of the "clan-based" system of allegiance that is ingrained in most Pakistanis. This system has been recognized for some time, and was articulated recently, and most clearly, by the scholar Anatol Lieven in his book, Pakistan: A Hard Country. Beyond the traditional clan culture based on local identity that pervades Pakistan’s villages and tribes, one can also view the army as a clan, nationalist groups as clans, political parties as clans, sects as clans, among countless others. All promote self-interest and root faith in their clan above other, ostensibly higher, metaphysical pursuits. The vast number of "clans" results in a vast number of different perspectives and perceptions of governance and how the country is — and should be — run. There exists no widely accepted social contract, for instance, between the central (or provincial, for that matter) authority and its people. As such, one’s allegiance — political, ethnic, sectarian, socio-economic, linguistic, or other — will determine one’s value system, which will in turn dictate where one sees the greatest problems crippling the country. And it is this variation that makes the response to debilitating political violence that we witness in Karachi difficult to measure. Many agree that it is ruining the political and social fabric of Karachi, and to a large extent, Pakistan, but consensus solutions remain elusive.

Moreover, these conflicts between "clans" take place in an environment where space is increasingly at a premium. The fight for space, a basic human need, in Karachi gives rise to the most vicious kind of violence. Violence is chosen from a set of strategies available to political actors to assert sovereignty when the threat to their survival is strongest. There are many indicators to suggest that space in Karachi can no longer spread out, only up; six-story buildings populate areas reserved for 2-story homes. Earlier this summer such a building collapsed, leading to several deaths. Ultimately, people have no choice but to stay where they are, quite literally, and endure the violence as best as they can.

Other reasons pepper the growing fight for space. During the course of my research, I spoke about the violence in Karachi with a politically active office clerk who has commuted from the Orangi Town slum (one of the largest in South Asia) to the upscale Clifton area for over a decade. His perspective was of interest to me, as he traveled daily from a home situated in one of the bloodiest parts of the city to one of its safer spaces. Having seen his cousin killed before his own eyes, and he himself having recovered from two bullet wounds, why had he not shipped off, and out, of Orangi Town? He told me about his resolve not to leave an area where he had grown up and where his family, friends and local political leaders resided. In turn, he asked: "And anyway, where would I go? This place is exploding at the seams."

Despite such static claims, not all is laborious or obligatory in Karachi. People stay in this burgeoning city because it provides an opportunity to earn incomes unequaled in the rest of Pakistan. The population of the city increased 176 percent between 1941-1951 (due mostly to partition), and then by 217 percent between 1951-1972. Such increases have fueled over-population, but they also demonstrate the opportunity Pakistanis, and others, see in the city. People continue to arrive from around the country to settle in Karachi, a city that boasts the famous saying, "the streets are littered with gold; all you have to do is pick it up." Therefore, a thread begins to emerge here, weaving together tensions over space, clan, and party for reasons historically rooted in economic opportunity. This, of course, lends itself to the idea that solutions to some of the city’s problems may lay in expanding industry, and improving urban environments, in other parts of the country. However, it appears that this will only place a plaster, albeit an attractive one, over a hemorrhage.

My interviews with Karachiites also suggest that fewer people are now beginning to migrate for conventional economic opportunity in comparison with past years, as competition for business, jobs, and trade today is immense, and high operating costs have crowded out small businesses. One consequence of this shift has been the expansion of the black market economies, and more illicit activity including bribes, kidnapping, and looting to satiate the economic need that drives thousands of people to arrive in Karachi. As such, as more people arrive in the city and are subsumed by existing political groups as workers or mureeds (followers), the above-mentioned clan structures begin to consolidate, resembling a state within a state. These clans tend to be hyper-politicized, a dynamic that often leads down a dangerous path. Here, violent methods used by politicized factions, including parties themselves, become institutionalized in the absence of a civil society that is in its nascent stages, and where state institutions remain volatile. And there is little evidence to suggest that such methods would dissipate if space in Karachi were to be expanded out (as is mooted in many circles in the city) or if industry were to be built in other parts of the country to create jobs. These ills would migrate wherever clans went.

Indeed, some contend that Karachi’s woes continue to arrive from the outside, be it international capital and the process of globalization, or migrants coming in from other parts of the country or region. This, of course, is untrue. Living as part of the elite slice of Karachi’s society, many of the city’s educated and wealthy inhabitants recall the Karachi of the pre-Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq era, where they would explore their youth in the city’s discotheques and clubs, and never have to worry about guns firing at night. Theirs was a Karachi of peace and prosperity. Today as then, they have the luxury of living in plush homes guarded by private security guards and surrounded by amenities that any inhabitant of Georgetown or Kensington would blush to look at. Indeed, theirs is also a clan that does not, and for security concerns cannot, busy itself with what happens in Qasba Colony or Banaras Chowk. A blasé outlook, one might suggest, but one that affords this community the ability to look away, albeit, at times, uncomfortably. Still, in looking away, they help abet the turmoil, as it is from within their clan structures that politicos and politicized industrialists are born who in turn send out men with guns to wreak havoc in the streets and settle political scores.

What options does this leave not for the incoming migrant or elite businessman, but for the average person in Karachi? Why is it that they, who cannot hide behind the umbrella of ideology or wealth, remain resilient? Indeed, it is because of them that Karachi is populated with a silent, but growing middle-class — an entire generation that has lived with this violence. Their resilience comes from a sense of not knowing anything different. "This will all boil over, the politicians will compromise, and things will return to normal," are things I heard regularly in my time among them in the city. Policymakers in Pakistan talk about "cleanup operations" to rid the city of "miscreants" and gangsters — but did such operations work the last time they were tried, in the 1990s, when the government made the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and their Muhajir following their target? Or, did it work in the 1980s, when Sohrab Ghot and its surrounding areas were bulldozed to clean up the drug mafias and the largely Pashtun slums? The people of Karachi have been enduring and accepting witnesses to each of these "operations." The short memories of some may help perpetuate the city’s problems, but it also affords many others a strange immunity, allowing them to live and work, day-by-day.

Insha continued in the aforementioned poem, "jis jholi main saw chayd hoay, uss jholi ka phaylana kiya?" (Metaphorically translated, "the hands you spread for blessings are so battered: what is the point now in raising them?"). The reality of Karachi remains grounded in the collective will of its inhabitants to persevere through the city’s mess, rooted in their countless distinct experiences, aggregating to infuse the city with some semblance of order. Their immunity, though, also breeds resignation to any meaningful change. Though one cannot term it disinterest, a certain sense of despondency pervades the city. Most people living in Karachi want an end to the violence; history and context compel them to believe it won’t end. And who can blame them? They are ruled by tyrants who have no interest in peace.

Bilal Baloch is a graduate sudent at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he concentrates on comparative politics and South Asia.

Bilal Baloch is a co-founder of GlobalWonks, a tech-enabled marketplace connecting global affairs experts with organizations around the world. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. You can follow him @bilalabaloch

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