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Mobilisation and Political Violence in the Mohajir Community of Karachi

Ideas revolving around exclusion and the wholesale failure of democratic political legitimacy encouraged the mobilisation of Pakistan's mohajirs in an oppositional ethnic identity. From the mid-1980s to the millennium, the Muttahida Quami Movement was engaged in a conflict in Karachi involving high levels of violence with other ethnic groups, rival factions and the state. Drawing on the biographies of a minority of celebrated career "killers", this paper examines how violence emerged as a solution to the mohajir predicament. The biographies contain past and present experiences of perceived humiliation and losses between mohajirs and the state, and fathers and sons, leading to fractured masculinities in which violence is powerfully inscribed. Whilst their participation compensated them temporarily for problems in the family, it also exacerbated and regenerated those conditions under protest.

Mobilisation and Political Violence in the Mohajir Community of Karachi

Ideas revolving around exclusion and the wholesale failure of democratic political legitimacy encouraged the mobilisation of Pakistan’s mohajirs in an oppositional ethnic identity. From the mid-1980s to the millennium, the Muttahida Quami Movement was engaged in a conflict in Karachi involving high levels of violence with other ethnic groups, rival factions and the state. Drawing on the biographies of a minority of celebrated career “killers”, this paper examines how violence emerged as a solution to the mohajir predicament. The biographies contain past and present experiences of perceived humiliation and losses between mohajirs and the state, and fathers and sons, leading to fractured masculinities in which violence is powerfully inscribed. Whilst their participation compensated them temporarily for problems in the family, it also exacerbated and regenerated those conditions under protest.


n eerie reminiscence of the violence dominating Karachi in the 1980s and 1990s, on May 12, a multiparty demonstration protesting against president Pervez Musharraf’s increasingly autocratic rule clashed with a pro-government rally organised by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), provoking killings and the revival of bitter ethnic tensions. Whilst the aftermath provoked speculation about a return to martial law and hostilities, one difference was that MQM, in government for five years, defended institutions it had previously desecrated. One questions whether, in the jostle for a stakehold in power leading up to Pakistan’s general elections scheduled in October, Karachi’s cycles of violence might return? In this paper I revisit the violence of the Karachi conflict to examine its social and political implications for a new generation of potential militants.

The article examines the recruitment to and acquisition of violent male identities amongst political “killers” in the MQM in the Karachi conflict (1984-2002), that is, men for whom killing structured their primary social identity and lifestyle over a period of some years. Violence is framed as expressive of a loss of faith in the state’s ability to provide security and protection from a range of real and symbolic threats to ethnic identity. Although a class analysis of inequity, ethnic fragmentation and political alienation is fully central to the radicalising dynamics of mohajir nationalism [Alavi 1991], this approach fails to account for how the socially contingent nature of mohajir ethnicity [Verkaaik 2004] is transformed by particular contexts, discourses and practices during conflict. By shifting the focus to ethnic identity, more light can be shed on the meaning, interpretation and consequences of dynamic, oppositional processes of violence to its perpetrators. In mobilising Karachi’s mohajirs to ethnic and anti-state violence around the causes of exclusion, MQM shaped the contours of a new ethnic identity. Ethnicity and violence are significantly linked because ethnicity within MQM has been overwhelmingly structured around sets of practices relating to political action and political violence. This article adds to these perspectives an examination of the social and political aspects alongside more personal, private aspects of violence, which are essential to examine in an analysis of political killers.

The article draws on ethnography and in-depth interviews with mohajir “killers” across Karachi and involves the intersection of several themes. Exploring the interface between the individual, social and political processes and violence, it raises specific analytical questions concerning elements of mohajir identity that are thus far relatively unexamined. Arising out of the intersection of contexts of exclusion and recruitment to violence, questions are raised relating to the diverse range of motives for violence and to the way violence is collective, that is political and social, as well as idiosyncratic, private and variegated. Ethnic identity is crucial to understanding how, in a period of continuous crisis and instability, long-term individual participation in violence against the state represented an empowering and transformative kind of solution to a range of threats and humiliations.

The paper relates factors relating to class and exclusion, to violence and aggression in collective and individual identity, incorporating psychodynamic explanations that conceptualise threats to ethnicity [Eriksen 1959] and personal identity [Fonagy and Moran 1993] as a central force for violence. Although the consequences of poverty, exclusion, as well as migration, are publicly and symbolically articulated in political discourse, these elements may also connect with real and inherited aspects of family history that are more private, and assume significance as factors in the recruitment of political killers in poor, lower-middle class neighbourhoods such as Liaquatabad, Malir, Orangi and New Karachi. Although ethnicity has social and cultural aspects, the way ethnicity is foregrounded in this context, for some, is in individual acts of political violence. The article explores the terrain of ethnic identity which, in a range of expressive forms, links to the individual through specific, transformative practices of violence that are also construed as rites of passage to manhood, leading to fractured masculinities in which violence is powerfully inscribed.

Whilst recruitment, gender and the structure and form of violent encounters are important elements, another set of themes in play suggests there may be darker, deeper elements to violence. These relate to the desire to become a killer and to fantasy elements of male violence. Operating within a political imaginary, fantasies and desires revolve around male domination and omnipotence.

In their enactment they can “materialise and become real”, as well as constitutive of political reality and political power [Arextaga 2000:64]. Yet, in acting out desires for omnipotence, horrifying effects may be produced. By examining some of their intensely painful aspects, the analysis reveals how “legitimate” state, and “illegitimate” anti-state killings both mirror and oppose each other in this setting, causing deadlock, more cycles of violence as well as the reproduction of political, class and gender hierarchies. It moves beyond the social and cultural to an examination of the psychodynamic elements, and fantasised psychodynamics of aggression, in play, and to place men’s desires for violence and power reactively and reparatively within the context of problems experienced earlier in the family. The biographies reveal how past and present experiences of perceived humiliation and violence between mohajirs and the state, and fathers and sons, lead to the support for violent solutions that are personal and political. MQM’s premier Altaf Hussain assumes particularistic importance as an idealised, more powerful parental figure. Like their fathers, Hussain is a dominant, treacherous authority. The article concludes with a discussion of long-term involvement in political violence as a transformative experience that galvanises a type of participant to overturn social and political power arrangements.

‘Solutions’ to Exclusion: Joining the Party

Those men who became political killers were seeking a solution to problems they experienced relating to poverty, unemployment, reduced opportunities for social mobility and military authoritarianism, especially brutal police practices and repeated military crackdowns. These problems are cited in analyses of widespread mobilisation to MQM in Sindh in the aspiring mohajir petty-bourgeois classes from the mid-1980s, and attributed to structural biases in Punjabi-dominated prerogatives of power, wealth and opportunity, as well as to economic stagnation arising from Pakistan’s dependence on foreign aid, its high defence budget, inflation, endemic corruption and the collapse of the taxation system [Alavi 1991]. In this article the emphasis is on the political subjectivities emerging out of the felt effects of these inequities, experienced as a sense of injustice, humiliation and deep insecurity about the future, and their role in mobilising Karachi’s mohajirs to violent identities in the ensuing conflicts.

Structural factors were interpreted within MQM as exclusion and injustice in political discourse and ethnic identity, forming an interaction of structural and symbolic violence [Bourdieu 2001] that played out on an “everyday” continuum and structured the appeal of “political” violence in protest [Bourgois 2001:496]. Whilst the extent of exclusion in the civic amenity and employment problems facing Karachi’s mohajirs is debated [Ahmed 1999:279], their effects were interpreted as unconscionable; Arshad illustrates: “I was qualified but couldn’t get a job. What’s more, my Punjabi class fellow had a lower grade certificate and got a job. I would have to pay a bribe of five lakhs.” Political discourse and ideas of humiliation and injustice meshed with individual setbacks, strengthening mohajir collectivity and political agendas for change: “Altaf Hussain showed us we were defenceless against the Punjabi bureaucracy and police because we had no unity” (Faisal). These agendas, directed towards improving ethnic identity and opportunities, cite the need for mohajirs to regain their losses of privilege and outline real and symbolic conditions of loss and humiliation requiring redress.

Differentiating Alavi’s (1991) characterisation of MQM as a broad-based middle class party, these notorious “killers” lived in poorer, radicalised neighbourhoods. Family circumstances of indigence feature in all accounts of joining the party: “By the time I was born we had nothing. We shared one bedroom” (Arshad) – and in gratuitous aggression preceding political mobilisation: “Our financial position was awful. I eventually got work as a bus conductor but fought everyday with the passengers, drivers or traffic police, who treated us inhumanely” (Shakeel).

Despite the high educational provision for Karachi’s mohajirs, in many poor mohajir families nursing middle class aspirations, acquiring the status of adulthood, for example in a good marriage, could exceed 30 years. Political mobilisation in these communities conveyed a message to the “Punjabi state” about the consequences of repressive realities and practices. In articulating their violent response, MQM’s early reform agendas transformed frustrations into possibilities for reversing the social order of hierarchies and relations of domination.

“Altaf Hussain arrived on the scene talking about my experience exactly. He urged us to unite and fight the system. He showed that because 2 per cent of the population ruled over 98 per cent, a lower-middle class, educated, intelligent boy couldn’t become a general or reach a high post in Pakistan. That’s why I joined. I was 18 or 20” (Arshad).

Not all militants cited ideological belief or financial hardship; for Shehzad, respect and status were paramount: “We idolised MQM workers and envied their respected position”. Desires to improve social identity reverberated intensely with individuals’ problems, sometimes “exactly”. For those for whom escalating violence and military repression coincided with nascent adulthood, political mobilisation and violence were envisioned as a “way out” that could resist symbolic violence, reinstate hope for the future and confer power, respect and masculine authority and respect: “Before MQM, Pakistanis called us Hindustani – we were recognised as Hindustani. Even though I was born in Sindh, nobody called me Sindhi – they called me Hindustani, or abusive names. Politicians gained influence by power, money and how many boys they had. There was no law. Political parties, who had been enemies, united against MQM in their hatred of us. Our only choice was to kill” (Faisal).

Educating Men for Alternative Solutions

The recruits acquired the desired status of militants through variegated degrees of participation in violence. Peteet (1994:40) has shown how the ritualised beatings and detention of Palestinian youth in the second intifada are constructed as performative rites of passage central to the formation of adult male selves. Her emphasis on social separation in the construction of militant manhood resonates with the process of acquiring adult respect and political agency, involving alternative modes of education and employment, for Faisal and Arshad, that centred on “weapons training” in Afghanistan. The violent form of adult male authority and status they acquired dovetailed with the MQM’s violent political agenda. This section explores Faisal’s recruitment to manhood as a professional killer. Faisal “worked” with Arshad in a unit of mercenaries based in Liaquatabad, for around eight years.

Adapting Van Gennep’s (1961:45) discrete stages to classic rites of passage: separation, transition (liminality) and incorporation (post-liminality), training was transformative for Faisal.

As a novice recruit, Faisal was separated temporally from childhood, and physically from his family, community and the mainstream moral conventions of society and political participation. Groups charged with implementing collective revenge are often prepared during a period of social separation, a period which can foster “declarations of war” [Van Gennep 1961:39], as Faisal illustrates: “Our official noticed us and said ‘Don’t struggle alone. Join us and we’ll fight this (mohajir-Pakhtun) violence together’. So I joined MQM.” Entry into the transitional, liminal period was precipitated by his commitment (“I agree”). “So I joined MQM. But we weren’t professionals and couldn’t use our weapons properly. We needed training. He selected four of us to go to Afghanistan. I said ‘I agree’. We stayed with a tribal leader for eight months and trained with AK-47s, mortars and GP7 rocket launchers. It was not like army training. There were so many weapons, we just learnt from people who could use them.” Liminality takes the physical form of a new restricted environment (in Afghanistan) and includes conditions of invisibility, peripherality, weakness and passivity [Turner 1977:99]. During this stage Faisal acquired the credentials of alternative education and employment through becoming versatile in using weapons. The oppositions of liminality to normal social life [Turner 1977:114] are evident in the suspension of societal conventions (“not like army training”) and hierarchies of age, class and ethnicity. Training also constitutes liminality because “communitas” is achieved through the emergence of new normgoverned relations and status hierarchies that elevated for militants a dominant masculinity based on the suppression of fear and vulnerability, contradictory aspects of the self (needs, desires) and the ability to kill, lead and sacrifice.

The trainees’ re-entry (incorporation) into Karachi society was signified by a celebratory meeting (“graduation ceremony”) with their leader. “We were taken to meet our leader. He said ‘Congratulations! You are helping to build mohajir unity. Now you must teach other boys, we cannot send every boy to Afghanistan’. We became his bodyguards. We went everywhere with him; to rallies, speeches or to meet politicians and ministers. Our photographs were in all the papers. We became respected and famous.”

Their leader confirmed the initiates’ new status by outlining new duties and promoting them as his personal bodyguards. Their status as estimable men was affirmed through interactions with the community and media. They displayed mastery and authority by permanently carrying weapons and dressing in white ‘salwar kameez’ for public engagements, white signifying the colour of ‘qaffin’ (burial cloth) and their ideological commitment. In promoting conventional concepts of physical strength and reiterating war-like metaphors common to MQM’s political rhetoric, the trainees’ preparation to overthrow repressive power arrangements describes their initiation into an underground leadership cadre. Whilst training mobilised militants to confront repressive arrangements, it also had critical consequences for political consciousness and agency and reproduced dominant hierarchies of power and gender.

In forcing themselves to become brutal and dominant, fear and vulnerability were not easily repressed. Although their reward was a masculine self in command of greater symbolic capital and status, the process illustrates a paradox of male domination described by Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992:273) as “the domination of the dominant by his domination”, conceded to by Faisal as family concerns: “Although I understood we should sacrifice for future generations, I was terrified for my family. I protected our leader but who would protect them? I felt so divided but the corruption and injustice were so severe I risked all our lives. We all felt the same.”

‘Hypermasculinity’ and Killing

Arshad and Faisal returned from Afghanistan and joined ethnic and political conflicts as part of a vanguard of militants. Others, Shakeel and Shehzad fought factional battles against the Haqiqi. Militancy was an all-male affair. Men, on foot, motorbikes and from the rooftops of houses and buildings menacingly policed, patrolled and demarcated the boundaries of community and gendered spaces, issued threats and enforcing strikes. As men were overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence, its gendered dimensions must be viewed as central to claims [Tambiah 1996:221] that violence was the primary structuring agent for conducting politics, reproducing ethnic identity and maintaining solidarity during the Karachi conflict.

At the height of conflict, MQM’s violent politics promotes, following Toch (1998:175), an extreme “hypermasculinity” typified by virility, prowess and physical aggression. It rewards the violence of macho youths with collective admiration, encouraging them to eclipse the violence of their peers. On a continuum of political violence in MQM, the ‘deshatgard’ (terrorist) or ‘qatil’ (killer) represented the apex of hypermasculinity, and the full desired potentiality of political agency as violent reversal. Whilst the activists do not make explicit statements concerning masculinity, all demonstrate the characteristics of a hypermasculinity that glorifies killing and asserts the right for men to terrorise and violate other people in order to dominate and survive during conflict: “I knew I was in a war situation and so many innocent people had to die”. It promotes violent solutions to oppression and supports dominant metaphors of war as well as discourses of self-sacrifice: “I’ve killed many people, I can’t remember how many, but never dishonestly. It was a war.” It permits attacks against property and members of rival ethnic and political groups, and stratifies male-male relationships competitively through violent domination. As such, it serves dominant groups and males and reproduces hegemonic gender constructs and the form of state violence under protest: “I was convinced killing was the way to make changes”. Within militant communities, hypermasculine violence also constituted a form of “hegemonic masculinity” which emerges from relations of hierarchy and exclusion amongst men and may express the most honoured and desirable, but not necessarily most common, form [Connell 1995:50]. Whilst men may experience tense, oppositional and divided relations to hegemonic masculinity, these killers promote themselves as exemplars and strove rigorously to embody it. Reputations are articulated through a contrived indifference to killing, evident in Arshad’s nonchalant claim of having killed “more than 400”.

Love, Glory, Brotherhood

After “training” in Afghanistan, Arshad and Faisal joined a powerful, elite militia of seven “bodyguards” that conducted high-level assassinations and kidnappings. They lived together, fulfilled orders on their own initiative and rarely visited their families. Their leaders lived elsewhere and issued instructions daily. The bodyguards were not involved in small-scale “everyday” confrontations in their communities but were sent further afield to provide military assistance to larger-scale conflicts as they erupted, for example in Orangi, New Karachi or elsewhere in urban Sindh (Pakka Qila), or to disrupt opposition rallies with firing, or raise funds through robberies and kidnappings. They also “guarded” political leaders at rallies and official events. Thus, “bodyguard” is a euphemism for a range of violent activities.

Militants lived together as brothers (‘bhaiyoun’). The militia mimicked the family and allowed deep commitments to be formed between militants in isolation from their original families. These revolved around quasi-sibling fratriarchies (‘biradari’) that excluded women and contrasted usual patriarchal practices wherein men’s relations to other men are defined hierarchically through women (as fathers, sons, brothers) or in subordination to elder men [LeFebvre 1999]. In living, working together and depending on each other for protection and survival, the militia provided many accoutrements of an alternative lifestyle (home, employment) as well as, in fighting the police and other groups, cosupportive, egalitarian socialities for enacting heroic masculine ideals, “outside and above conventional categories” in wartime [Leed 1989:177] of ethnicity, family and society. The attachments generated mirror family ties but, in risking their lives and even dying for one other, the bonds created were stronger. Violence, amplifying and enhancing shared experiences between men [Mitchell 1993:351], also mediated more private articulations of loyalty and love.

Two of our boys were homesick – one was crying for his girlfriendand the other for his mum. It’s strange? Sweet guys, us killers!You know, Nadeem’s girlfriend married someone else. He madeus decorate the wedding hall for the groom and guests. He wasso innocent and sweet. If he hadn’t prevented us, we would haveshot the groom (Arshad).

Performative practices of veangance and loyalty transformed and reaffirmed their new status, investing them with the male honour that Bourdieu (1977:12) writes resides in the riposte to a worthy challenge. Arshad demonstrates: “Only one of us died. P-was ambushed when he and S-visited his sister. The Pakistan People’s Party boys were waiting with five cars. S-killed three of them, but P-got killed. The bullets tore him in two. We found his killer, killed him and four more of his boys.”

In the highly charged atmosphere of brutal domination, such performances, if cast as relations of power, structured a political agency with immediate consequences for conferring power dominance and agency on its militant participants. It provided a vehicle for desires for positive reconstitution to materialise, as well as for overturning the real and symbolic legitimation of the dominant state, and of rival sets of actors: “Basically, we were very good – us seven boys, we played the game of death and life together many times. We fought the police and army

– so brave, not one of us was injured” (Arshad).

As their primary group of reference, the militia constituted a “parallel world” that enabled militants to destroy any empathy for future victims and orient themselves towards perceptibly legitimate, gratifying acts of violence ahead [Elworthy and Gabrielle 2006:30]. The support of the group was crucial in their acculturation and in galvanising radical tendencies. Shehzad demonstrates: “The first time I killed, I was scared for my family or of being arrested or killed, but my friends consoled me and I grew stronger. Soon we were entering enemy neighbourhoods and killing by the dozen.” For Shakeel, desires to form a militia (“team”) were not driven by ideological conviction but by desires to benefit financially from the situation of continuous instability and crisis, through the idealisation of weapons and violence:

I started working with MQM boys to form my own team. I was obsessed with forming a team. First I needed weapons and for that I needed money. We began robbing guns. We worked for MQM but undertook ventures to meet our personal expenses. I became leader of my group.

Newly acquired reputations rewarded the militants’ courage, sacrifices and physical and mental ability to outdo other militias and militants in violent extremes.

There is one incident for which I was tremendously praised by my higher-ups. I was on cloud nine! The effect of people praising my work was addictive. The Haqiqis had invaded a neighbourhood in Pak Colony and our superiors wanted them evicted. I was determined we do the job. We seized their guards and reached their hangout. There were about 14 of them. We made each one stand against the wall and fired, killing all. It was a massive achievement.

Mimesis, Deadlock and Disappointment

In the militia, the acting out of violent hypermasculinities was necessary, not only for resisting assaults on individual and collective identity, but for ensuring survival. One consequence of the cultural production of exemplary masculinities, and the idealisation of weapons during wartime, is the maintenance of hegemony in the gender and institutional order [Connell 1995:214]. This applies to the way MQM militants were in ideal terms, by definition, ideally positioned to contest the violence of state repression and factional conflict within the same violent terms of “terrorism” and brutal repression as those decried in political speeches. More particularly, it relates to the issue of mimetic violence between militants and the state. Whilst Shakeel and Shehzad received high praise and public validation for killing police agents, this was tied to their capacity to mirror and outdo the state’s methods of violent repression. One consequence of these mirror practices in conflict was to integrate militants and police into a vicious circular dynamic, where it was difficult to tell who was mirroring whom, as Shehzad describes.

Our group was renowned because we carried out so many retaliatory killings. That’s why I was famous. We identified eight influential police chiefs who killed our workers. We killed them and became extremely popular overnight. A reward system was posted for Karachi’s most wanted; my name was included. The papers reported our activities daily. The police reacted strongly and implemented a severe strategy. Seven of my friends were martyred in one operation. I became alarmed at the rate the forces were killing us. I decided to kill the police’s spies. We kidnapped and killed them, tied them up in bags and disposed of them. We became more popular.

MQM activists also destroyed government institutions and personnel as a legitimate, even politically-enlightened response, to the abhorred practices of violence and exclusion associated with the state. This included attacks on government property (police stations, buses, banks) [Abbas 1998], on “Punjabi” groups such as the Punjabi-Pukhtoon Ittehad (PPI) (Arshad, Faisal) as well as on the partisan police, who replied with violence, extrajudicial killings, dawn raids on homes and the mistreatment of arrestees [Malik 1999]. “The Punjabis had many weapons and we started killing each other. They attacked us under police escort so we had to fight the police too” (Arshad). Police stations and police practices are central symbols of the organisation and cultivation of state repression [Fanon 1967]. In Karachi, they were key targets for militants and tied to the formation of political violence. The construction of meaning in such attacks required acuity in their display, representation and protection. Whilst in the realm of public discourse and media, parallel conflicts of representation were fought over “legitimate state violence”, “stateterrorism”, anti-state “terrorism” and “criminality” [Abbas 1998], in ground battles specific tactics of violence were emulated on both sides. These confrontations were characterised by escalating ferocity, reluctance on both sides to retreat, leading to the normalisation of brutality and deaths, as Faisal tells: “If there was violence against mohajirs anywhere in Karachi, we would follow instructions to kill those people and return to base. This continued for some years. I don’t remember each incident but this is the kind of life I lived.”

Shakeel illustrates how competitive indifference to the numbers of dead produced an “ethos” of violence [Scheper-Hughes 1992:280].

We frequently heard of MQM workers being killed by the police, Rangers or Haqiqis. It was a war. Our neighbourhood was a “nogo area”. Any stranger was interrogated. Anyone who persisted in withholding information suffered it. Some confessed their association with the Haqiqi, police or other agencies. We used torture to extract information about their operations. We used means like drilling, amputating arms and legs, chopping dead bodies into smaller pieces and hanging them upside down. They were killed, put into bin bags and thrown away in dumps. It was a police tactic we copied to chop up dead bodies since this is what they did, especially in police encounters. We would attach a chit to the bag reading ‘The result of spying’ as a lesson. “When you want revenge, right and wrong don’t exist”.

Shakeel’s reference to “dumps” refers to Kaji Ground in Pak Colony, a notorious dumping ground for bin bags containing dead bodies in the mid-1990s. Used by the police, MQM and the Haqiqi, according to Faisal, it was located nearby a working class Punjabi neighbourhood where many residents were also killed and dumped. The shared use of the dump highlights the mirror interlinkage of violence between police and militants, which assumed particular prominence in conflicts over community spaces.

As a result of these activities, many avowed activists commanded fearful respect. For notorious killers, respect and reputations were tremendous. Thus, considering the state apparatus, its methods of maintaining security and the militants are all violent, I wonder: was MQM’s politics of violence genuinely transformative or regenerative of the same conditions and social power relations? Despite the “anti-establishment” rhetoric, much of its violence mirrored that of the “establishment”, “reproducing” the violence of the dominant [Bourdieu 1977] in ways that appear conventional rather than radical. Seeking to mirror as well as eclipse the state’s brutal methods of military repression, militants became locked into a cycle of escalating violence. This raises serious questions concerning the helpfulness and rationality of violence to MQM’s agenda of societal and political transformation. Violence is not irrational, however, if MQM’s real goals revolve around the subversion and acquisition of power, and desires to “win”, rather than the remedy of inequality and hardship. MQM’s pursuit of power vis-à-vis the state resulted in the deep disappointment of activists with their cause as well as increased social and financial stresses. As Faisal points out, the consequences of violence for the party differed from those for its militants and citizens.

Altaf Hussein spoke powerfully but was not committed to solving our problems. His demands escalated. If the army refused he announced a strike. Not one vehicle moved on the roads. Who was affected? mohajir shopkeepers, taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers. The violence was relentless, we were no nearer to our goals. We kidnapped rich people, robbed banks. We gave everything we robbed to the party, something was wrong.

The deadlock and perpetuation of long-term conflict sustained by equivalent practices of violence between well-matched opponents produced widespread disillusionment. For many militants, attempts to force the destruction of their living conditions and bring the desired future into the present conflicted with ways that MQM’s leadership appeared to have vested interests in violence and to be mirroring the corrupt practices of the state. Arshad came to regret many killings.

I was convinced killing could make changes…it didn’t bother me at all. Since, I feel we were used. I’ve seen terrible things with my own eyes. MQM preached one thing but didn’t want to change the system at all. Altaf wanted to be powerful and live like a god. So I fled to Mumbai. I couldn’t sleep. I realised I had killed so many innocent people. Mine is a sad story. I joined MQM and fought for them but discovered they sold my efforts. I was a criminal, not a revolutionary.

Violence undoubtedly works: not, for example as Fanon (1967) argues it should in forcing the revolutionary emancipation of the oppressed, but in forcing the redistribution of power in community and political power relations. Although the conflict damaged the MQM’s reputation, the military and political hold MQM secured in Karachi society led the party to provincial government. In this sense, MQM won the war. To the extent it conflicted with genuine desires to challenge and transform the structure of ethnic class and political power relations and improve opportunities for militants, violence was irrational. The visible practices of state repression and anti-state violence police reinforced and helped maintain people’s suffering, their belief in violence as well as its destructive consequences. Its effects were felt in a “banalised maelstrom” of everyday aggression as well as less visible, internalised positions of fear and inferiority [Bourgois 2001:426]. It “filtered through” (ibid:427) to the political formation of gender, where militants were drawn largely unquestioningly to a heroic hypermasculinity that conventionalised brutality but also reproduced, rather than radically transformed, the alienation and police brutality it protested.

Defacement and Horror

Thus far I have been concerned with procedures of recruitment to the status of political killer and the kinds of practices political violence entailed. Unemployed and despairing of change, for some mohajirs killings could provide adult respect and social mobility that could be sustained, in large part by the close ties forged between fellow militants, in some cases over many years. Although militants boasted indifference to the numbers they killed, the acquisition of manhood entailed great physical and psychological risks. I turn now to examine some effects of violence which were transformative in unpredictable ways, generating unbearable feelings of punishment and humiliation arising from the deadlock and intensity of conflict.

Each interviewee found the intensity of the violence impossible to sustain. The disappointment of the two “bodyguards” relates to their expectation of violence to destroy oppressive power relations, and their “discovery” that MQM was more concerned with achieving power than improving conditions for mohajirs. This disturbing revelation constitutes a hidden paradox in the ideology and use of violence, raising questions relating to its darker, more painful aspects. An important consequence of the violent enactment of desires for power, authority and respect through violence for these militants was the “impossibility” of acquiring these traits as a permanent identity or state of selfattainment. This realisation represents a major turning for Arshad. It revolves around the circumstances surrounding his decapitation of the wife of a “Punjabi” police superintendent.

I went in. I saw she was pregnant and stabbed her with a knife in her belly. “For the name of God don’t kill me”, she said. The details were so horrible. I killed her with a knife, then took off her head and put it on top of the refrigerator. I made it horrible so that when it was reported in the papers MQM’s enemies would be afraid. Well, it worked. Now she comes in my dreams, I can’t get rid of her.

Taussig (1999) queries what kind of transformation occurs when something precious, such as the human body, is defaced? For Taussig the act of defacement is simultaneously an act of revelation that joins truth and secret, that destroys the surface meaning of things, and that gives space for the “secrecy at their depth” to surface and become truth. In revealing secrecy as truth, defacement does justice to the secret. In this sense, “Defacement is like Enlightenment” (p 2). Although decapitation is more than an act of defacement, being also dismemberment, bodily mutilation and defilement, Taussig’s construct of defacement as ushering in a revelation of truth offers useful insights into Arshad’s murder of the police superintendent’s wife. This killing was designed to be a highly public event that, through the newspapers, would communicate the vengeful organisational power of MQM vis-à-vis the state across Karachi. Dismembering bodies after torture was routine for all killers and this particular killing was routine amongst innumerable others for Arshad. The act has similarities with the English medieval practice of drawing and quartering, a practice which is also dismemberment, and which symbolises the dismemberment of the state’s enemies. Yet this murder stands out as an act that was conceived of to humiliate and punish the state but which profoundly, unpredictably, destroyed Arshad’s own stability and political conviction. In the woman’s decapitation lies a set of metaphors about power, display and punishment. It was: a symbolic beheading of the hegemony of Punjabi power, an obliteration of the state’s domination and in the sense that it responds defiantly to the thousands of extra-judicial killings, disappearances and arrests of MQM workers by the state [Amnesty International 1997-98], also a form of capital punishment.

A Foucaultian analysis (1985:229-32) views punishment as intrinsically linked to the exercise of power, serving to consolidate relations of domination. These may be expressed nonverbally as disciplinary procedures, routines, technologies and tactics and are not neutral, but rather diffuse through social practice by creating idiosyncratic, subjective forms of thought, feeling and desire. Punishment, and the power of punishment, are established, consolidated and implemented through the production of discourses and ideologies that reside institutionally, according to Foucault, in the domain of the law. They are embodied in a range of sovereign institutions concerned with the practice of torture and imprisonment. As forms of disciplinary power, these exist within a climate which is at once institutional, physical, regulated and violent. Foucault argues that where disciplinary or punitive power is exercised at its extreme points, it is always less legal in character. His conceptualisation of punishment as a violent form of domination, and as a technique for consolidating power bears on this killing which attacked the sovereignty and power of the state. Placed on the refrigerator, the decapitated head was displayed as a symbol of disciplinary action and punishment to an intended audience. It was a trophy; at once unsacred, humiliated, domestic and also macabrely ridiculous. Moreover, through defiling the body of a mother and her unborn child in their home, Arshad symbolically attacked the male honour in Pakistani society invested in the militarism of the state, and its Punjabi male agents, and highlighted their failures to protecting their women citizens. Whilst Foucault shows how subjectivity, as an effect of power, has a social history, writing on Irish nationalism Arextaga argues that he may be less convincing “on how that history moves, or how discourses and practices are in turn transformed by the subjectivities they enable” (1997:19) – a criticism which is illustrated in the way political subjectivity for Arshad was profoundly altered and disempowered, by the practices it entailed.

In killing the Punjabi woman, in defacing and mutilating her body, Arshad experienced the revelation of a paradoxical truth that destroyed his ideological belief in “good” violence and his “good self”. As Taussig argues, defacement works on objects like a “funeral pyre” destroying established truths and bringing out their inherent magic, “thanks to an inspired act of defacement, beautiful in its own right: violent, negating and fiery” (1999:2). For Arshad, the act of dismemberment animated a truth which was treacherous, malevolent and which worked its full spectral and disciplinary punishment not so much on the object of hegemonic Punjabi power under attack, as the defacer himself. Taussig also argues that defacement may express partial exposures of a “public secret” or “that which is generally known, but cannot be articulated” and gives an example from Colombia’s “dirty war” when the unspoken secret beneath the surface act of people being taken off buses, searched and stripped of weapons at military roadblocks was that the police were as complicit in gunrunning and terrorism as the guerrillas (1999:5-6). The way defacement does justice to the secret in the Karachi example bears similarities with the safely-unarticulated public truth, revealed to Arshad, that in using violence to establish dominance and win power, MQM was no less ruthless than the establishment it fought. In failing to dispel those early psychic injuries that Arshad professedly, sought to stabilise through violence in the first place, it also destroyed his own illusion of himself as a “good terrorist”, destabilising him.

Via the revelation of MQM and the state as “the same”, I return to the earlier discussion of mimetic killing. Militants received tremendous praise and public validation for killing police agents. This was tied to their capacity to mirror and outdo the state’s methods of violent repression. Yet, mimetic violence also has fantasy elements beyond the physical relating to militants’ desires to become heroic and omnipotent. The adoption of violent solutions to personal and political problems, and to defeat the militaristic, brutal state in equivalent terms, means that violent fantasies of male power were also militaristic and brutal and mirrored those constructed of the state, and in their violent enactment, could become real.

Hearn (2006:40) emphasises that hegemonic masculinity is a political category expressing an aspiration or desire rather than an identity that can be attained as a permanent state. His emphasis on desire is relevant to Arextaga’s (2000:63) argument that desire, whether it be to become the other in order to appropriate the power of the other, or omnipotent, successful, or modern perhaps, is central to forms of resistance to power and the discourses that accompany them. Arextaga (pp:60-3) draws attention to the excitement (jouissance) that springs from appropriating, through mimetic action, the power of the afeared and admired other, in this case the institutional power of the Pakistani state. Excitement arises both from the terrorist’s perception of the state and vice versa. It does not matter that “mimetic identification does not demand exact reproduction” as it is not terrorism that is copied, but rather “the desire for the omnipotence of desire” or the desire to take hold of the power that stands as an obstacle to success (ibid:61). Thus: “it is the power surging up from mimetic action, the enactment of the desire to become the terrorist that matters” (p 61). In conflicts with the state, the mirror fantasy of power is constituted of feelings of outrage and enjoyment and is most perversely exciting to those “radical nationalists” most involved in the destruction of dominant power relations. As it is they who, at the margins of legality in the state’s exercise of power, “are the ones to experience the effects of the state most strongly in the form of arbitrary arrests, tortures and assassinations”, they are also those, through subverting the monopoly of state violence, those best-positioned to delight in the exposure of the “posturing of the body politic” (p 64). Arextaga emphasises how practices of state terror and their resistance produce a political imaginary filled with mirror fantasies of violent nationalism and state terror, or “a shared space of social fantasy within relations of power can be imagined and materialised” (p 64). What is also produced, unpredictably, is the reverse of excitement; an unfulfilled desire that perpetuates cycles of conflict and entrenches despair.

The impossibility of defeating the state through mimetic violence represents a frustrated desire which plays out in the realm of fantasy. Despite his efforts to live out his fantasy of heroic omnipotence, Arshad found it impossible to become the desired terrorist/killer. The damage to his sense of purpose and rectitude arising from his murder of the superintendent’s wife and his disillusionment with MQM in fact destabilised his sense of self. In thinking about Arshad’s experiences, I also consider that fantasies of power, violence, and enjoyment, may be concretely tied to oppressive political realities, made of historically entrenched power relations and public representations “without”, but also to biographical experience and oppression (threats) in the psychodynamic “within”. Fantasies of power and violent domination for Arshad and these killers are tied to assuming the omnipotence of the state, the afeared enemy, and respond to the mohajirs’ real and symbolic problems of exclusion, humiliation and losses in ethnic politics and society. Crucially, they are also tied to desires to overcome threats and disruptions to selfhood and personal identity that have their origin in family history. As such, they reflect psychodynamic explanations that emphasise fantasies of retribution, humiliation and punishment, and desires for wholeness in selfhood in individual aggression [Fonagy and Moran 1993]. In this equation, violence does not just respond to humiliation and losses but also to domestic violence and neglect in childhood. In examining what is distinctive about these killers, and how they differentially rationalise extreme violence as necessary and desirable, a biographical approach can shed light on the interaction between collective and individual ideologies, fantasy and representations more particularly.

Families, Fathers and the Search for Perfection

These sections expand the systemic approach of several studies in the Kleinian tradition [Mitchell 1993; Fonagy and Moran 1993, 1995] which claim that developmental history shapes formations of selfhood and that violent identities must be analysed from a family perspective. Whilst large-scale recruitment to the conflict occurred amongst Karachi’s mohajirs, only some men became “career” killers. Through examining individual biographies it is clear that emotional and material deprivation, early affective experience, and boys’ relationships with their fathers [Fonagy 1995], may all have contributed to an aggressive adult identity. These case studies suggest that it is men for whom articulated early experiences of parental violence, violently humiliated parents and paternal or parental absence, combined with poverty, unemployment and conflict who, additionally galvanised by political discourses of violent reversal, adopted killer identities. Practically and ideologically, this occurred within small groups of individuals with compatible motives. By joining militias, young men compensated for everyday problems in the family but also reinforced and reproduced such experiences, exacerbating family difficulties. Furthermore, by adopting MQM’s often fatal “solution” to problems in society they submitted to a new, more powerful patriarch. For those bodyguards closest to Hussain, relationships with Hussain mirrored the paternal mode and were characterised by domination, filial submission and idealised love. For these militants, Hussain was cast in the parental image of perfection, as able to provide the identification and emotional fulfilment they failed to receive from their own fathers.

The case studies reveal everyday childhood injuries in the form of domestic violence, paternal humiliation and parental absence and show how childrearing practices reflect the social organisation of power within families. As the enforcers of social patriarchy, fathers are important in explaining their sons’ transitions to political violence and are predominant in militants’ accounts. In “teaching” his son to acquire a culturally-adaptive dominant male self able to repress hurt and humiliation, for Arshad paternal violence was synonymous with love.

My father loved me so much. I have beautiful memories of him from my childhood. He could die to give me everything, he was just strict about manners. We lived in a poor area and if I played with the boys on the street, he slapped me. That helped me become a good person. He’d beat me, but afterwards would take me and lie down with me. I wouldn’t be in this trouble if he was alive. He’s my hero.

Each killer cites forms of brutalisation endured in childhood that may have posed threats to selfhood. Interacting later with poverty, real and imagined exclusion and terror, childhood injuries experienced in relationships with fathers played out in the dynamics of conflict. Militants’ identification and love for their father, and subsequently Altaf Hussain, correspond with Freudian accounts of aggression in individuation [Fonagy 1995:496]. Freud views the father-child dyad as the primary object relationship wherein the formation of psychological selfhood, and subsequently becoming a man, involves instinctual identification with the aggressive father. In extreme cases, which I do not suggest apply here, violence typifies paranoid-schizoid functioning and a psychopathological response to a threatened masculine self (ibid:477). Although Klein views aggression is related more environmentally to threats to the self, including paternal abuse or neglect, Arshad’s experience accords with both Freudian and Kleinian perspectives where violence can be a core constituent of male identity, particularly when interacting with cultural ideas of masculine desirability, paternal aggression and external threats.

Family norms may also contribute to cultural attributes of the Indian psyche [Kakar 1981]. Kakar suggests the abrupt severance of the maternal relationship, especially if it is traumatic, can result in a “narcissistic injury of the first magnitude” precipitating the boy’s radical change of lifestyle and his deep disappointment in perceiving his father as an observer rather than an ally in the world of older men (pp 128-33). This is more severe when the boy is unable to identify with a father who may love him, but be emotionally unavailable to help him with this transition. As may apply to Arshad’s experience of being propelled towards his father at four years following his brother’s birth, Kakar argues that early blows, including the symbolic loss of the father, can form the basis for unconscious tendencies to submit, in fantasy and in external social worlds, to a powerful idealised figure whose perfection the boy can adopt as his own. Shehzad’s father “disappointed” him through being unable to provide for his family, and beating his son, and his mother did not protect him. Hussain’s promise was to heal these wounds and to represent a mirror image of his own desires and fantasies of male power and perfection. Moreover, Faisal’s father sanctioned the use of violence, providing the basis of identification and idealisation he craved: “My father saw the gun in my hand but said ‘We have no choice’ ”. For Shakeel, fatherless, Hussain promised to provide the guidance, authority and worldview necessary, Kakar (1981:128) suggests, to restore love and intimacy.

Everything I’d heard about Altaf was true – that he’s a great leader and if you listen to him once he will change your life forever. He was perfect. His words were like magic. They went straight into my heart. He didn’t give false hopes. He said ‘We can try, but our dream may be impossible. Or, maybe it will be so hard we will die. So prepare yourself to die if you want to change this system.

These men’s experiences concur with Fonagy (1995:496) that childhood experiences of violent humiliation by a father and a violently humiliated father may lead to violent identities later on, and also with the impotence and humiliation of parents cited by Elworthy (2006:30) as a key motivation for killing in the second Palestinian intifada. Faisal, who describes his father as violent disciplinarian, witnessed him being violently humiliated by “Punjabi” police outside his home and often cited this childhood memory to justify his violent hatred of Punjabis. Although Fonagy emphasises that the experience of a humiliated father cannot of itself generate individual violence, Faisal’s experience suggests that individual and paternal experiences of humiliation, intersecting with ethnic humiliation and ethnic threats, may exacerbate violent tendencies: “We were goats. We couldn’t stand up for ourselves. We needed unity and weapons.”

The status available in killing compensated for physical and symbolic humiliation and also for the challenge to patriarchal authority constituted by family problems with housing, education and finances. These accounts suggest killing is related to having dominant or absent fathers unable to resolve family problems of economic hardship, social stigma or protect members from attack, or may express attempts not to recreate parental experiences. As militants, sons may both repair and “escape” the shame of paternally borne and paternally inflicted humiliations by acquiring the respect attached to violence, usurping their fathers and becoming themselves respected men.

Submission and Desires for Freedom

The bodyguards’ fantasies of male power involved adopting the idealised omnipotence of Altaf Hussain [Malik 1997:226] as their own. These fantasies of omnipotence, involved identification with their leader but also practices of mimetic violence via which they hoped to make real their fantasies to become powerful men. In also responding to external contexts of structural and symbolic violence [Bourgois 2001], the enactment of violent psychodynamic fantasies also reflects explanations of Karachi’s conflict that emphasise threats to ethnic identity as a key motivational force [Tambiah 1996, Verkaaik 2004]. More specifically, the militants’ fantasies for achieving dominance in the situation involved appropriating the combined power of the idealised father, Altaf Hussain and the state. Although Hussain’s leadership is undoubtedly paternalistic in character, patriarchy and the role of fathers can only metaphorically explain his unquestioned authority in MQM’s power structure and his wider capacity to rhetorically encapsulate people’s transcendental desires for recognition and higher purpose.

The submissive stance taken by Faisal and Arshad to their leader mimics domination and submission in family relationships but also provides a way for them to mirror Hussain’s perfection and win his approval and protection. Through the act of staking their life, violence also binds militants to each other and to their leaders via a master-disciple relationship that is central for both parties in confirming identity. The militants’ idealisation of their ‘pir sahib’ as a secular icon epitomising extraordinary ethical power and their willingness to submit unconditionally to his will may also reflect submissive ways learnt of dealing with authority during childhood, where defiance was not tolerated.

Altaf was such a good speaker. I had already killed and could seethat the system was very corrupt and when he spoke to us he couldmake us so emotional. We would do anything, his words werelike magic, he could make us cry, make us very emotional.

Embodying many of the qualities of good and evil projected onto the father, Hussain is an object of reverence and love. He is also seen by followers and enemies as potentially treacherous and unpredictable [Gayer 2003:21]. Whether through terror, coercion, devotion, reverence or terror, his ability to hold Karachi to ransom and create violent chaos and mayhem arguably persists, with grave implications for stability in the post-conflict situation.


Analyses of class and ethnicity may be generally important in determining those mohajirs in greater need of status acquisition, but cannot explain why all boys from deprived backgrounds do not become career killers. What features distinguish these killers? These killers reflect a substratum of other “types” [Lewin 1935] of killers, and categories of violence, about which I only speculate. Yet, in the case of these men, who assumed the identity and lifestyle of political killers over several years, there are some distinctive features. Firstly, psychoanalytic explanations that invoke threats to self distinguish extreme violence as typical of paranoid-schizoid functioning, where male identity will be linked with a reactive defence of selfhood [Fonagy 1995:477]. Although this may explain some cases, it does not accurately reflect these men, all of whom appeared articulate of the social and political bases for their actions. Whilst all experienced identity-related threats in the form of early affective and environmental distress, which are significant to why they adopted killer identities, the resulting violence, I suggest, is not psychopathological. For them, killings structured the basis for acquiring alternative forms of education, employment, manhood and social respect and mobility. Nonetheless, would they have become killers of a different kind in another context? Without the parallel formation of a collective identity constituted in multiple historical terms by forms of humiliation, injustice and exclusion, interacting with a wider culture of violence, a radical political platform and the collaborative support of militia groups, I suggest not.

For these men killing was not just a violent reaction to the political imaginings of humiliation and loss, or unemployment and poverty, but also to being severely beaten, neglected and traumatised in their families. All four killers experienced dominant, tyrannical, and emotionally or physically absent fathers and sought to escape and fulfil rebellious desires for stimulation, camaraderie and a purpose outside the family. MQM provided many desired family characteristics: a patriarch, home, brothers and love.

These threats to selfhood form individual identities constituted by violence that appear logical in the context of Karachi politics and society. After the mid-1980s MQM could galvanise violent ideas about ethnic identity and nationalism. Military repression and ethnic conflicts resulted in insecurity and the increased vulnerability of citizens in and outside their homes. Hardship, combined with real and perceived threats and humiliations, disrupted patriarchal family structures and propelled rebellious youths into militias that consolidated violent ideologies and close ties outside their families. Killing was the apex of a powerful, self-enhancing logic of violent liberation that addressed mohajirs’ hopes for the future and their profound need for status and dignity. Its psychology should be understood as normative in this context. Whilst the killers were those who had the most to prove, they arguably also had the most to lose, and ultimately all suffered from the “impossibility” of pursuing violent solutions to their problems.

Whilst chronically entrenched inequalities and the military authoritarianism of the Pakistani state coexist alongside the alienation of so many citizens from the formal structures of power, and a status quo which normalises and valorises violent solutions to conflict across the social spectrum persist, the destructive logic of violence may continue to powerfully mobilise tactics and identities of opposition and protest. Crucially, in addition to a remedial approach to these factors, the identity basis to political violence must be reformed at individual and collective levels for the appeal of killing to cease. The peace achieved since MQM’s advent to provincial government in 2002 is relative and critically depends on MQM remaining in power. Recent events in 2007 have shown how, in a profound turnabout, mohajir violence has become directed at preserving the power of the military. During the mainstay of MQM’s office this presented one basis for continued stability and of ensuring the exclusionary basis to mohajir ethnicity is less deadly. Yet, the party’s interests in the renewed civil society struggles to change institutional power relations in the run-up to Pakistan’s general elections may mean sustained peace versus a cessation in violence is less likely.




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