December 9, 2018

An interview with Dr. Nichola Khan

Nichola Khan, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton, is a Chartered Psychologist and a senior lecturer in psychology. She holds a BA in Developmental Psychology, an MPhil in Cross-Cultural Psychology, and obtained a DPhil in Social Anthropology (2008) from the University of Sussex. Her book ‘Mohajir Militancy in Pakistan: Violence and Transformation in the Karachi Conflict’ (Routledge Contemporary South Asia Series) appeared in 2010.

I admired Dr Khan’s work, as she is one of the few academics working in this area. I interviewed her over email in March 2012 but was unable to publish the answers in my newspaper because of their length and other considerations. While the interview is dated, her points on how to view violence in Karachi are enlightening and still terribly relevant. I interviewed her because of my abiding interest in the violence in Karachi which I had to engage with on different levels daily as the city editor. I would like to clarify that in the course of my work in journalism I have seen that many parties and not just one are behind violence in Karachi and it is a much more complex phenomenon than one that merits finger-pointing. I cannot claim to begin to understand it but I ask the questions as that is the only way to begin.

Me: When will the violence end, is the question everyone asks. Do you have any comment on this? Do you think there is a way to end it?

Dr Nichola Khan: My view is violence will hardly end. Technically, one way to reduce it would be to disarm opponents, adopt some massive 'welfare' programmes, and let former enemies co-operate on some specific issues. Or a roundtable model – as they did in Spain after Franco or Poland in the 1980s. However, public debate can only achieve so much and I don't see any conditions.

As long as Pakistan is a heavily militarised country, and at the crossroads of many conflicts (Afghanistan, Kashmir, Iran, Central Asia, etc.), weapons will always be available and a fruitful business – including to political actors at every level. The problem has far broader implications than the MQM in Karachi.

Whilst Pakistan’s situation, and the situation in Karachi, are extreme, Pakistan is no exception. Take the Arab Spring – although undoubtedly there is immense public-political will for change, the discourse of ‘popular revolution’ obscures a deliberate strategy on the part of the US to secure economic power and resources in the region.

However, the problem in Karachi is that violence, politics and crime have become endemic to such a degree that although there is an enormous popular will for it to end, there are too many vested interests in keeping the situation going.

MM: Was the MQM violent before the operations or do you think that the operations just made it worse?

Dr Khan: Things were clearly made worse. Operation ‘Clean-Up’ of 1992 both intensified and alienated the violence. It produced a pattern of circular confrontation between militants and the police, of escalating ferocity, copycat and tit-for-tat killings. Consider Shakeel’s account from the mid-90s (quote from book): “We frequently heard news of MQM workers being killed by the police or Haqiqis. Our neighbourhood was a ‘no-go area’. Any stranger was interrogated. Some confessed their associations. We tortured to extract information about their operations – drilling, amputating limbs, chopping corpses into pieces and hanging them upside down. They were killed, put into bin-bags and thrown into dumps (Khajji Ground in Pak Colony). These were police tactics [my italics] we copied.”

First, though Shakeel no longer lives in Pakistan, and we cannot verify his account, what is vividly conveyed is the excitement these cycles of violence produced – how killings became elevated as a legitimate, politically enlightened response, to the abhorred practices of violence and exclusion associated with the state.

Second, (more frightening) is the extent to which violence worked to force the redistribution of power. Violence is a normative mode for conducting politics, and for securing power. Considering the state apparatus, its security methods and these militants were all violent, the sad paradox is that violence was and is far from radical or in any way revolutionary, but in fact deeply conventional.

MM: How similar do you think the Pakhtun violence is to the Mohajir one in terms of the realisation of selfhood or masculinities?

Dr Khan: The Pakhtun also seem to venerate the gun and the power it seems to give the person who wields it. I don't know! But I am sceptical about sweeping generalisations, especially when based in ethnic connotations. Even more so when such so-called ‘differences’ have been used to justify killings, violence, the irreconcilability of conflicts, and inequalities in wealth and opportunity.

Ethnicity is dangerous not because ethnic violence is ‘natural’ or inevitable, or because there are fundamental differences between groups, but because it acts as a smokescreen to obscure the political, economic (and military) forces and policies producing marginalisation, fragmentation and violence. There are parallels with similar arguments being made in Europe. Here the ‘problem’ of social disintegration has become ethnicised, and located within ‘Muslim culture’. This ‘culturalising’ tendency led Sarkozy, for example, to attribute the 2005 banlieues riots in Paris to deteriorating ‘Muslim’ family structures and absent fathers, with no acknowledgement of the poverty and racism facing many families, or for example the immigration laws that disrupt family life.

Similarly, David Cameron attributed the London riots last year to poor parenting and social support, singling out individuals rather than the harsh cuts his government have made in the current recession, and their effect upon employment, education and daily life in communities already demoralised. These kind of alarmist accounts made by Sarkozy and Cameron – of proliferating (Islamic or ‘black’) violence – bears similarity to many analyses being made about violence in Karachi.

Though Karachi’s problems of violence are long-term and more severe, one implication in both cases is that violence is an outcome of ‘ethnicisation’, of irreconcilable differences between ethnic groups, and that ‘all’ Mohajirs, Pathans, Baloch or Sindhis are the same. This view, which has also been a very effective tool of political mobilisation, has little to say about neighbourhoods in Liaquatabad for example – routinely portrayed as a hotbed of MQM militancy – where Baloch paan vendors, Pathan watchmen, Kashmiri labourers, Sindhi office workers and Mohajir shopkeepers trade and coexist peacefully.

Nor does it explain how mohallyadar belonging to different parties enjoy heated debates without resorting to violence, and are loyal to each other – warning each other of imminent attacks, as well as co-operating in the purchase of weapons that could be used between their respective factions.

The situation is complex. When the press also frames Self-Other relations antagonistically in terms of intractable differences and immutable characteristics, it is likely to reproduce the same terms (including violence) of ethnicisation/politicisation that it finds so troubling. In my view, the responsibility of a ‘free press’ exceeds the ‘freedom’ to expose and condemn political parties.

At some level it must address the uncomfortable paradox of its own fascination with the violence (including against the press) it condemns. This is the problem of a situation where violence has become so endemic and normalised. It is facile (and boring) to blame the MQM exclusively without a more discriminatory effort to consider the wider conditions that have allowed the situation to thrive.

Even if it were true that Afaq Ahmed, Shahi Syed, Zulfiqar Mirza or Altaf Hussain were plotting out the next round of killings, Karachi citizens are not passive victims manipulated into violence by villainous leaders. Those who condemn MQM for the violence most roundly – the state, media, public commentators, intellectuals and citizens – are not separate, or onlookers, but implicated too. It is very important to strive for a more holistic view. Although this might arise in proportion with an increase in press freedom, those who terrorise the press have little interest in cultivating a more vocal or sympathetic popular voice.

Me: The police and army or Rangers have acted against the MQM over the years in multiple operations but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. What are they doing wrong in their approach? How can Karachi’s other stakeholders possibly come up with a policy that doesn’t repeat their mistakes?

Dr Khan: Again, I have no idea, but it seems to me, first, that violent repression never works – any intelligent general or statesman knows that. Second, the security agencies in Karachi have a history of partisanship, being highly politicised, corrupt, demoralised and lacking in discipline. In the ‘operations’ of the nineties, the police concealed and fabricated evidence, were involved in extrajudicial killings, torture, the unlawful conviction of arrestees, dawn raids on homes, and provided ‘protection’ to warring groups.

Though this situation has definitely improved, the creation of a disciplined non-partisan metropolitan security force is still a critical requirement for sustainable security and peace. Just last week (March 2012), Rangers were allegedly involved in setting up armed ‘People’s Amn Committee’ boys in a house in Liaquatabad. This was interpreted locally as PPP-engineered pressure in the lead-up to the elections (of 2013), to keep the pressure on MQM in the arena of national politics.

Next, after Rangers arrested ANP workers in Banaras last night (March 30, 2012), Mohajirs were killed in retaliation this morning. As long as the state’s own security forces act and are perceived as an armed faction, as having vested interests in violence at critical political junctures, it’s ridiculous to talk about effective policy-making for peace.

Me: How did the violence affect you?

Dr Khan: Those self-proclaimed ‘militants’ I knew – now middle-aged – succumbed to the seductive, slippery appeal of violence, which pervaded their lives far beyond the flat surface of the ‘political’. In ways they were absolutely unprepared for the failure of their ‘revolution’ to achieve the free, just and equal society MQM promised. Left with broken lives, in no trite sense, they must face responsibility for their crimes, without the support of the leaders they idealised.

Though commentators speak from an array of political, intellectual and personal positions, I feel strongly that there is no appropriate ‘objective’ distance to take. The relationships I formed whilst living in an activist Mohajir community in the nineties produced tensions between empathy, partisanship, concerns for analytical ‘neutrality’, and presented me with a tough moral dilemma. How could violence become routine, unproblematic and logical to such a degree; how did I, like many, become simultaneously accustomed, fascinated, horrified and indifferent to terror occurring before my own eyes? What does it mean to present ‘killers’ as human?

There is a fine line between violence and ‘peace’- in those circumstances violence was all too easy. Personally, those years moved me to a radical pacifism. What possibility now for a ‘militancy for peace’ to be realised – for myself, those I knew, Karachi? There are no easy answers.

Me: The MQM used to react badly to media criticism but it has in recent times changed its public image quite a bit. But in politics its use of violence as a bargaining tool with the PPP seems to continue. What do you think prompts the party to behave this way and do you think it has been beneficial in the long run? (My additional note added May 2013: all political parties in Karachi are equally guilty of using violence).

Dr Khan: I agree, the recent disruptions in MQM-PPP alliances must be linked to an intensification of violence, the forthcoming elections (of 2013), and activities linked to the (now banned) People’s Amn Committee that was created by Zulfiqar Mirza as interior minister. These events underpin the spread of recent violence from SITE area, Katti Pahari, Lyari and other areas across the city. They also reflect the rise of political gangs in small localities, and the enduring marriage of bhatta and violence in the way political parties create and maintain power.

Whilst ‘Aman’ effectively took over small ‘rummy clubs’ and gambling networks in Lyari, there are larger stakes to play for in drugs, bhatta, weapons – linked, as always, to land development, real estate and transport.

The killing of an MQM Sector member in PIB Colony [in March 2012] reflects this intensification and has resulted in a greater perceived need for MQM to ‘protect’ Mohajir/MQM residents in PIB. As always, the techniques are to terrorise. A motorcyclist will hand a note to a shopkeeper asking for money; if he doesn’t pay, a car will drive by and shoot him. Then his neighbour will receive a visit from a well-wisher who will urge him to avoid meeting the same fate.

Whilst MQM is deeply unpopular on one hand – on the other hand, MQM is seen as not being able to deliver on its political promises because of the curtailed powers of local government — and is overwhelmingly the party of choice for Mohajirs.

Nonetheless, the climate is one of greater weariness, political and social ennui. Or at least it seems that way to the old guard who hanker with a strange nostalgia for a time when the violence was predictable, and bhatta was contained. Whereas MQM used to fight the PSF and PPI in KU or colleges, or in Shah Faisal Colony, Sohrab Goth, Pathan Goth, Orangi Town, Qasba Colony etc — or in the respective strongholds or boundary spaces of ‘no-go’ zones, now all the city’s outside space feels like a ‘no-go’ area. The same has happened with bhatta. In the old days it was big industrialists and businessmen who were targeted, now every paan seller or poor shopkeeper must pay up, or fear being killed. What happened?

Me: You book isn’t available in Pakistan and your published papers are not readily available or accessible to the average person on the street. Are there any ways in which your research is being used to inform or alter the situation on the ground? How would you like your research to be used or translated? What kind of impact would you like to see it have? Or is it too risky?

Dr Khan: My intention was to publish with a Pakistani publisher to ensure it reached a Pakistani audience (its most relevant critics). The Pakistani publishers I approached refused it on the grounds it was too ‘risky’.

Though there are signs of change, in a situation where the press is curtailed, silenced and hardly ‘free’, where violence is endemic to Karachi politics and all parties are violent, including the state, I am well-positioned as an ‘outsider’ to be made good political use of. This is not my intention.

I neither condone nor attack the MQM per se; nor do I wish to contribute to a ‘pornography’ of violence about Pakistan. [quote from book] ‘In a febrile geopolitical situation where ‘radicalisation’ and violence in Pakistan have pre-occupied a global community of policy-makers and practitioners concerned to both enhance and threaten security in the region, the need to counter dangerous homogenising tendencies that collapse Islam, Muslims and Pakistanis into the framing of a terrorist threat to Western security and liberal-secular democracy, is still pressing’.

Certainly, I have faced charges that “you Westerners are only interested in the violence in Pakistan”, as well been pleaded with to bring attention to the plight of Karachi’s Mohajirs, to counter the half-truths prominent in public discourse and the media. All this is good. At the least, if my book or I can contribute to changes that encompass a tolerance for open debate and criticism, whatever the terms, that is a good thing. However, the relation of open debate and a freer press to peace is only partial.