The problem with peace in Karachi


“What do you want? War or peace?” The choice is not simple when the question appears on gunny sacks that carry mutilated dead bodies. Dead bodies that have been beheaded, or their eyes gouged out, or their noses and ears cut off, or their limbs and genitals severed (and if they are lucky, it is done in that order).

Many of these bodies are so brutally mutilated it is impossible to tell which of Karachi’s warring ethnic communities they belong to – the indigenous Sindhis who were originally rural, or the educated Mohajirs who came from India to fill in the gap in the city’s economy left by the emigration of the Hindus, or the Pashtuns from the northwest who took petty jobs in construction, textile and transport to make the prosperous 1960s possible, or the Baloch of Lyari who have fished in the port city for centuries. It is ironic, because these bodies are not just waste products of turf wars between ghettoised rival ethnic communities. They are among the various sites on which these wars are fought.

Corpses as postcards:

To mutilate a body is to cut – to deprive the whole of its part – or to disfigure – to make the perfect imperfect. That is different from a birth defect that has always been there (so Rehman Malik’s alleged congenital lying problem may be eventually be excused), or from a medical condition for which quarantine is necessary (so people from rival ethnic communities are safe as long as they stay enclosed in spaces assigned to them) – because in mutilation, the defect is brought about by an external force. And that is what makes the mutilation of dead bodies symbolically charged.

It signals control. One ethnic group has control over the body of a member of the other. In that way, mutilation is like writing. “Look, dear enemy, we are in control.” (This is different from rape because it does not specifically choose genital areas as the site of inscription.) A handwriting analysis of this inscription shows these mutilations carry the surplus angst of warring ethnic groups in a metropolitan.

Politics and economics of mutilation:

1) The rivals are seen as infiltrators, who blend in and cannot be told apart. Inscription serves to mark their bodies, so that they can be cognised and recognised. That signals a kind of administrative authority similar to that being exercised in a government census – they are declared minority, managed, and assigned spaces that they must not violate. That can also be compared to the branding of cattle.

2) This signalling is meant to be seen. It is a) public, and b) visual (it was often filmed with mobile phone cameras and spread around, including via the internet). And that is because it is meant to bring shame. It publicises disfigurement and imperfection – things that are not meant to be seen.

3) The mutilated bodies are packed into gunny sacks that are meant for commodities. And that points out the economics of it all. The dead bodies have an exchange value. Some of these killings are meant as revenge of previous killings (the number of corpses sent out must always be more than the number of corpses received). Others are done in exchange for the city’s resources that the rival community is seen as stealing from. Like Shylock’s loan in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, these resources are, in the words of Karl Marx “transformed through consumption of the means of subsistence into flesh and blood”.

The problem with peace:

When people die at the hands of members of a rival ethnic group, it hurts the whole community. The community is itself mutilated (An external power has deprived the whole of its part). The dead individual cannot be shamed. His community is shamed because a) the body of one of its members is in control of the rival group (hence the need for more influence), and b) it does not have the power to save or rescue him (hence the need for more turf). A new power dynamic is established and it is not acceptable to the victim’s community.

And then the question is, “What do you want? War, or peace?” The problem with peace is, it comes with certain conditions that have oppression inherent in them.

The writer is a media and culture critic. He just began tweeting @paagalinsaan, and can be reached at [email protected]