May Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Published 12 years ago

This is a captivating book, but not an easy read for residents of Karachi, who live in close proximity with the MQM and cannot escape the culture of violence fostered by the party. Whether they love or hate the MQM, the reality of the party’s ethos cannot be denied. And no matter which way you look at it, no matter how much MQM apologists may justify militant ways, a killer is a killer.

Furthermore, when the party holds a city hostage by bloodshed and destruction under the guise of fighting for human rights, it is a downright insult to people’s intelligence.

The antipathy felt for the MQM’s terror tactics by organisations and people desirous of social change through non-violent democratic processes is matched by their abhorrence for all perpetrators of violence, whether they inflict it in the name of religion, or in the name of nationalism. Nonetheless, fear and aversion aside, there are many who would like to understand how so many young men get sucked into a system that so flagrantly defies the law, that disregards basic human tenets and which has, apparently, no value for life.

A fine anthropological study by Nichola Khan, a lecturer at Brighton University, is now available that can perhaps answer these questions. We learn through Khan’s book, that the killers are not psychopaths — they have made choices, and then proceed to follow instructions handed down to them. The men engaged in such activities talk of their experiences clinically, describe their acts of violence in graphic detail, and discuss what motivated them to adopt their chosen paths. The stories of their very personal pathways to violence are eye-openers, and often very sad. They are not mechanical beasts, and often their disillusionment with their party leadership can be sensed. Yet, they continue on their course. That such people can be amidst us — for they have not been apprehended, tried or punished for their crimes, is eerie — is a cold hard reality in Pakistan today.

Nichola Khan’s book, Mohajir Militancy in Pakistan: Violence and Transformation in the Karachi Conflictprovides a vivid glimpse into the lives of four MQM killers, and one of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). There is also a brief account of a woman, a widow, and the induction of her two sons into the MQM’s militant cadres. The book neither comments on, nor judges the various characters, and only describes what they did and how they came to do so. The author analyses some of the actions by invoking several researchers of similar violence in other countries — Northern Ireland, Spain and India, to name a few. The purpose is not to compare acts and forms of violence, but to examine how various researchers explain the many possible causes underlying violence. This is a scholarly enterprise and the 20 pages of reference material is ample proof of the sincere effort made by the writer to lay bare a very complex phenomenon. In doing so, the many determinants of violence come to light. Exploring the life of some MQM militants, the writer states:

“….. whilst diverse social contexts shaped the process of acquiring adult autonomy for militants, reproducing dominant-gender hierarchies of dominance, militancy also represented a particularistic disinvestment of parental values and societal conventions. But why, in a situation of large-scale political mobilisation, did only some men become notorious killers? How do the highly disciplined male-dominated cultural aspects of political violence bear on the gendered dynamic of boys’ relations in the family, particularly with fathers?”

She then reflects:

“From Anna Freud to Erikson, theorists of adolescence have stressed the establishment of emotional autonomy and independence from parents as a central feature, whilst also acknowledging the influence of earlier intra-psychic dynamics in the formation of adult identities, and the role of history and society in determining the duration and modalities of social adolescence.”

In her profiles of the MQM militants — young men of modest backgrounds, inspired by the party’s message to address the unfairness experienced/observed by the Mohajirs — one can perhaps understand to some degree, where the rage stems from. But would this explain or justify the wide-scale murders committed by the party cadres, the mayhem engendered and the petty crime indulged in, with poor Mohajirs — the people who the MQM claim to champion the cause of — often being the victims?

Thus, while those readers of Nichola Khan’s book who live in Karachi and have been exposed to the many bouts of violence unleashed by the MQM on their city, may begin to get a glimmer of understanding of the genesis of the party and the complexion of its cadres, it is unlikely to dislodge their contempt for the violence perpetrated by the party.

The underlying causes of the making of a killer are not easy to establish, especially among those who are the direct or indirect victims of violence. A purely intellectual reaction is perhaps possible only when the violence has abated, and even if not forgotten, receded in memory. Pakistanis may find it easier to understand the ruthless killings in other conflict-ridden countries, but to clinically understand and discuss the killings within Pakistan would be a monumental task.

All that notwithstanding, Nichola Khan’s exposé of the thoughts and feelings of some killers in their own words is eye-opening.

Says one killer: “By 1997, life was unbearable. Many loyalists died. There was immense government pressure to eliminate us. Many top-class boys were martyred. I left for South Africa on fake papers. My friends remained, but I built a good business there. Why stay and be killed?”

Says another young MQM man: “Nobody murders for nothing. Circumstances forced us… After my brothers and brother-in-laws were killed in 1996, I fled to Bangkok. On my return in 1998, the police remanded me for 14 days. They registered 33 false murders against me. Those I had committed, they weren’t aware of ! I received bail and fled to Bangkok. I’m keen to forget that life.”

There are also narratives of how a pregnant woman was decapitated in her house and how workers sleeping on Karachi footpaths were gunned down. Orders were given, received, and acted upon, but the book does not describe the source of these orders. There is also an account of a ‘friendship’ between two rival militants — one from the MQM and the other from the Jamat-e-Islami. This relationship reveals a human dimension that is retained through the madness, despite the gross inhumanity engendered by the men’s actions. What sense/meaning can be derived from this reality? The reader is left to draw his/her own conclusions.

This book is a ‘must read’ for all those keen to understand the MQM. But it would perhaps be most beneficial for MQM supporters and workers, not least because the book lays bare the suffering that violence inflicts on the militants themselves and their families.

This book review was originally published in the May issue of Newsline under the headline “Pathways to Violence.”