By Minerwa Tahir
KARACHI: If you grew up in Karachi, violence, alcohol and censorship of media are things that are not alien to you. It was these very characteristics of our city that were brought under discussion on the last day of the three-day 9th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF).
The launch of the book, Cityscapes of Violence in Karachi: Publics and Counterpublics, was held on Sunday at KLF. The panel comprised journalist Razeshta Sethna, anthropologist Nichola Khan, journalist Nadeem Farooq Paracha, LUMS professor Nida Kirmani and architect and social researcher Arif Hasan. Kamran Asdar Ali, who teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin, was moderating the session. The book was the brainchild of Nichola Khan, for which she approached various academics, including the panelists, to write a chapter each. Other than the panelists, writer Asif Farrukhi, journalist Zia-ur-Rehman, writer Laurent Gayer, writer Oskar Verkaik and researcher Kausar S. Khan have also penned a chapter each for the book.
Drinking as an expression of rebellion
“A lot of things have changed but I think Karachi is exactly the same,” said Paracha while replying to a question. “And that’s a good thing. For example, since 1977, getting alcohol in Karachi has always been far easier than anywhere else in Pakistan. It’s almost impossible in Punjab.” He said he wasn’t sure if that’s because of some form of tolerance preexisting in the mindset of the residents the city. “It’s just the dynamics of the city that people really don’t care about a lot of things. They just want to survive day to day. Even after alcohol was banned, there have been … a lot of movements and protests by religious parties in the city against the so-called license of wine shops. And those movements have never worked. Even though these sorts of movements have managed to get rid of these kind of shops in Punjab and now in Islamabad as well. But in Karachi, interestingly, they have given up.”
Nadeem Farooq Paracha
That permissibility is sort of the strength of the city in the sense of celebration, acceptance or living with difference, said the moderator, Asdar. “We do understand differences in this city in a way that other parts of the country don’t understand differences,” he said.
According to Paracha, he has always been fascinated by the whole idea of banning alcohol in Muslim-majority areas. According to him, it’s never a moral act. “It’s a political act,” he said.
The satirist quoted some studies carried out in the United States. “They suggest that whenever a society starts going through rapid economic demographic changes, there’s a sense of chaos in that society and the state reacts by trying to sort of infuse some sort of plan by introducing certain laws that ban alcohol, etc,” he said. “But my chapter is mostly a personal study because I believe that that’s exactly what happened in Pakistan in 1977. The society was changing and [there was a] sense of chaos especially four years or five years after the 1971 breakup of Pakistan. The chapter mostly looks at the 1980s. It’s a personal study of how certain sections of young, urban, middle-class youth actually started to drink as an expression of rebellion against what was being imposed on them.”
Media censorship in Karachi
Meanwhile, Razeshta Sethna talked about the dynamics of media censorship in the wake of violence in Karachi.
Sethna pointed out how she had a debate with Nichola in which she argued that whatever she writes about the media, whatever the state of the media is at the time she is writing her chapter, it’s all going to change and that’s exactly what happened. “My chapter actually looks at the media caught in the middle of forces that not only seek to suppress and seek to censor but forces that actually seek to intimidate and harass,” she said. According to Sethna, her chapter deals with the changing relationship of the media with the state, the security apparatus, militant religious groups and political parties. “You’re caught in the middle of at least five forces.”
She talked about how after the 2001 war on terror, the media became the story in many parts of Pakistan. “We don’t get information from provinces like Balochistan and in FATA, simply because the media is not allowed access,” she said, adding that reporters cannot report freely in these areas and we, as a result, do not get stories from there.
She mentioned how, even today, many journalists are wary of writing the truth about the MQM. “Many of the editors, reporters and writers that I spoke to [in 2015] said that, you know, we’re not going to report freely, we’re not going to talk about what we want to talk about. And yes, we are going to self-censor because at some point, this particular political party will come back up and we’ll be targeted. So we have to report in a way in which we are self-censoring.”
Talking about the political situation since 2016 till today, Sethna said that there is still a “latent fear” regarding MQM.
Violence and Lyari
Nida Kirmani said that what interested her in writing her chapter was that she took it as a challenge to write a personal story.
“My chapter traces my journey in Lyari. My introduction to Lyari was in August 2012, which was the first time I visited.” She said that she wasn’t born in Karachi and grew up in the United States. “So, Lyari is a place that I had heard about.” According to her, the Aman Committee was in power when she visited Lyari the first time. She added that the stories she heard upon her visit “struck a chord” with her even though she had not intended to go there for research purposes.
“I had always been interested in questions about marginalization and multiple kinds of insecurities – economic, physical and gender-based,” she said.
A journalist in the audience talked about her own experience of covering the MQM for 17 years. According to her, even though Lyari was the center of discussion when it came to violence, when she looked at statistics of the CPLC and police, she often found that the numbers were lower in Lyari as compared to the amount of crime being committed in the MQM-dominated areas, such as District Central. The journalist asked if her observation was correct, to which Kirmani asked which year she was referring to. “2012,” the journalist replied.
“According to my respondents in the area, there was less crime in Lyari because the Aman Committee was very much controlling the activities that were taking place there. There was, you know, a kind of state within state. And they were very harsh in terms of anyone who would violate their rules. And so people would say that things were much better now even though they could also see the downside of what was going on.”
Further talking about the lower amount of crime in Lyari, she pointed out how, with the Aman Committee strictly controlling the affairs, “the members of the gangs would be committing their criminal activities outside of their own area”.
The challenge today
According to Arif Hasan, we have a new society which has no system of governance. “I don’t think there can be a greater violence than this. Your aspirations cannot be fulfilled.”
He talked about how the mechanisms and instruments of change used by military dictator Ziaul Haq were used. “The culture survived; the politics did not.” He added that the challenge today is how to have a new culture.
Dynamics of violence
Nichola talked about the reason she decided to compile the book.
“Part of what propelled me to undertake this type of research into violence and particularly into the appeal of violence is just so many young people during the mid-1990s,” she said. “And it’s not surprising really when the Zia period started and at large in the post-Zia era, which militarized Pakistan and Karachi’s society and glorified violence in the Afghan war. And it’s not surprising that violence became fetishized and so popular with such appeal.” According to Khan, the paradox and the question for her was how violence is so destructive on one hand and, on the other, somehow gives people a sense of power.
At the end of the event, Nichola Khan signed copies of the book.
Story first published: 12th February 2018