By Zubeida Mustafa
JO dil par haath rakho tau/ faqat itna hee kahta hai/ Woh Isa Chowk ho ya Das Manzil ka koi mandir/ Lohari Gate ho ya Goth Qasim ki koi basti/ Woh Babul Ilm ho ya Masjid-i-Siddiq-i-Akbar ho/ Hussainabad ho ya woh meri Farooq Nagri ho/ Jahan bhi golian chalti hain meray dil pe lagti hain/ Har ek woh ghar jahan maatam bapa hai mera apna hai. — Ishrat Afreen
(I place my hand on my heart/ and all it says is/ whether it be Isa Chowk or some temple of Das Manzil/ be it Lohari Gate or a neighbourhood of Goth Qasim/ be it Babul Ilm or the Siddiq-i-Akbar mosque/ be it Hussainabad or my Farooq Nagri/ where bullets fly they strike my heart/ every home in mourning is my very own.)
These verses draw a startling picture of Karachi torn by sectarian/communal violence. The picture is of a fragmented city. The verses also poignantly capture the poet’s pain and sense of shared grief with the victims irrespective of their caste or creed. This theme — horror and empathy — has recently found resonance in the numerous conferences held under the banner of the ‘I am Karachi’ peace campaign. This is the need of the hour in a city that lost over 1,100 of its citizens to violence in 2014.
The latest conference was the one organised by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) to “explore peace and reconciliation alternatives: towards a Karachi for all”.
The concept paper attached to the invitation spoke of bringing together a number of stakeholders which included youth from “vulnerable areas of the city”. These meant Lyari, Gadap, Orangi and Sultanabad where Piler had organised pre-conference consultations to start a dialogue with young people. Based on the recommendations emerging from there a ‘Youth Charter’ was presented at the conference.
Violence in the megalopolis is linked to the class divide.
The major factors identified as being responsible for the violence in Karachi and the alienation of the youth were the rapidly changing ethnic composition of the population, the disconnect and the absence of dialogue among communities, lack of linkages between the youth and indigenous culture and intellectual resources. These were the voices of the speakers and panelists, most of whom were not young as defined by the UN — that is between 15 and 29 years of age.
What did the youth, for whose benefit the conference was ostensibly held, have to say? They spoke of their sense of isolation — being excluded — the denial of access to social justice and lack of opportunities and jobs. Some of these found expression in the conference proceedings.
But we also know that when we speak of these problems in the context of the youth of low-income areas it is the class divide that is the crux of the problem. Strangely, economic inequity and social justice were not addressed directly in the way they should have been. Arif Hasan, the architect and urban planner, who has studied and written about Karachi extensively, was the only exception. Arif focused on issues that primarily affect only the poor, namely, space, housing and transport.
To me these appear to be the basic factors that must be taken into account when discussing the problems of marginalised communities. We fail to see that the violence in the city is also connected insidiously with the class divide that has grown over the years and underpins the fault line that splits Karachi today.
The nexus between policymakers, bureaucrats and the military, that Kaiser Bengali, economist and former adviser to the chief minister of Sindh, spoke of, faces a teeming mass of humanity that is underprivileged and lacks opportunities that the privileged take for granted. In between is a class that is not privileged in the same way as those in the nexus but is a beneficiary by virtue of its education and connections.
It is not coincidental that the divisions identified by the speakers — demographic, cultural, communal and linguistic — affect communities that are underprivileged, whereas the rich are united by their wealth. Ethnicity and culture does not divide them. Such inequities destabilise society and create unrest.
Inarguably there is need to create spaces and forums for dialogue for the youth. But it is important that the participants be from both sides of the economic divide. Without this divide being bridged no productive dialogue is possible. At the heart of the matter is the shrinking size of the cake — of job opportunities and good education — and the rising expectations that give rise to friction.
There was talk of a youth movement for peace. Does Piler have the capacity to create this space? One panelist Nida Kirmani, who has studied Lyari and teaches at LUMS , was spot on when she observed that donor-driven NGOs can promote projects but cannot shape movements because when sources of funds dry up, the projects have to be wound up. “No change can come this way. The need is for long-term focus,” she said.