The Lesser Observed Sides of Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan in Oskar Verkaaik’s ‘Migrants and Militants: Fun and Urban Violence in Pakistan’ and Laura A. Ring’s ‘Zenana: Everyday Peace in a Karachi Apartment Building’
By Nabeeha Chaudhary
Ethnic conflict and violence is not an issue to be taken lightly, but it might be valuable to think of the “casual” ways in which it manifests itself and its link to what Oskar Verkaaik calls “fun”. In recent years, Pakistan has seen a sharp rise in ethnic conflict. Tolerance among all levels of society — regardless of education level or socioeconomic status — seems to be at an all-time low. Understanding this phenomenon requires a multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted approach; it cannot be explained through politics or religion alone, because these forces do not act in isolation but feed off of deeply rooted historical and cultural biases and fears. Take, for example, Oskar Verkaaik’s ‘Migrants and Militants: Fun and Urban Violence in Pakistan‘ and Laura A. Ring’s ‘Zenana: Everyday Peace in a Karachi Apartment Building’, books that look at the picture from different angles and are valuable for understanding the present situation in Pakistan.
Both Verkaaik and Ring look at ethnic violence from around the political lens, rather than directly through it. Published within two years of each other, both are ethnographic studies dealing with a very specific section of Pakistani society: the urban, middle-class, Karachi-based, domestic women in ‘Zenana’, and the urban, middle-class, Karachi and Hyderabad-based, young MQM (Muttehida Qaumi Movement) men in ‘Migrants and Militants’.
Whereas the former is focused on a domestic, private space, the latter is more concerned with public spaces and happenings. Ring’s book explores how the private space of home contributes to what happens in the public space of the city. She talks about private space being essentially the domain of women, though many of their actions may be dictated by the desires of men. Verkaaik looks at the men’s side of the story, specifically how it relates to spaces outside the home, including streets, parks and college campuses.
‘Migrants and Militants’ argues that one of the main reasons why MQM  supporters are drawn to the controversial party is not because of their oft-voiced concern of ethnic discrimination, or simply because they are frustrated with their lack of power within the state, but because the party provides an avenue of thrill, excitement, adventure and fun, along with an opportunity to emphasise their individuality while being part of a collective movement. He takes care to point out that, even during public MQM meetings, though there is a sense of collective action and an aspect of peer pressure, it is not just herd mentality syndrome that marks these events. “There is plenty of room for individual wit, recklessness and bravery during MQM public meetings,” he says . Questions of identity and individualism are important for the MQM’s ideology and recruitment, and the author suggests that one of the reasons for Altaf Hussain’s popularity is that multiple identities can be mapped onto him. By presenting himself as an ordinary man “almost without character traits of his own,” he enables his followers to project their own interpretation of what constitutes “Muhajirness” onto him.
The MQM focuses on, and sometimes exploits, the needs of Muhajirs for its own gains.
As a child I was often puzzled about why people in a city like Karachi were not more cosmopolitan, and so obsessed with ethnic identity when it is a multi-ethnic city, as compared to a place like Lahore where the majority of people are all Punjabis. “Should they not be used to differences by now?” Was one of my questions. Humeira Iqtidar, in ‘Secularizing Islamists?: Jama’at-e-Islami and Jama’at-ud-Da’wa in Urban Pakistan’, points out that pre-partition Lahore was largely free from inter-communal violence because it was such a multi-ethnic society.
That goes sharply against the common explanation provided of there being less ethnic strife in Lahore today because it is not multi-cultural. Ring offers an explanation — people in Karachi are not what they are supposed to be, which makes them misfits and even more conscious about their ethnic identities. As one of her characters proclaims: “If you want to know about real Punjabis, you have to go to Punjab… The Punjabis here, they’re not real Punjabis.”
The people who move out of villages and homogenous communities to come to a multi-ethnic, urban city like Karachi are considered “different” by their new home communities. For good or evil, their ideas and lifestyles change and they are unable to fall into neatly defined categories. Yet, or perhaps because of this, even when the city is steeped in blatant acts of ethnic violence these heterogeneous communities manage to live together in peace. The situation is very complicated, and Ring correctly states that we do not know much about “the micro-mechanics” of day-to-day coexistence amidst civic strife.
The day-to-day activities of the MQM youth are a different story altogether. Exaggeration, absurdity, tamasha (spectacle) are all part of the appeal that lies in the party. For the MQM youth, being funny/witty is one way of gaining esteem. Starting right from the party leadership who hire copywriters, poets and songwriters to come up with witty slogans and catchy lyrics, down to a young Muhajir child at a public meeting who cracks a joke that ridicules her own community — it’s all about being funny within the party.
As far as outsiders are concerned though, it is, for the most part, presenting a violent, angry young man image. These people are not in on the joke, the joke being that there is nothing special going on inside. At various instances in ‘Migrants and Militants’, Verkaaik talks about the role of the media in making the MQM, and some of their activities, seem much more exciting than they actually are. The party oath, for instance, is said to be “a rather dull ceremonial affair,” , but over time enough hype was created over it by outsiders, including the press, to make it out to be something scandalous and exciting. It was associated with a state of trance, with worship of Altaf Hussain, and with shirk, among other things. The controversy surrounding the MQM and the moral indignation of the press made MQM membership seem much more adventurous than it was. 
The topic of media irresponsibility is also brought up briefly in other places in the book, one instance being the Karachi riots of 1985, which initially did not have much to do with ethnic differences. When ethnic factors did come into play, rumours and newspaper reports oversimplified these riots as ethnic strife without portraying the complexity of the matter or the numerous parties involved. 
The fun, then, is more about appearances than reality. However, at times, these boundaries tend to become blurred and fun turns into violence, or violence becomes fun.
One individual’s narrative that helps illustrate the fluidity of these boundaries is that of a young man, Najeeb, who is persuaded to buy a gun but does not know how to use it. He does not need to know how to use the gun, he is just expected to show it off to scare away anyone who might want to harm “the leader”. With no clue as to who the leader is, Najeeb does what he is told. When a man with a video camera passes by, Najeeb cannot resist the temptation to take the gun out, pose “like Sylvester Stallone,” and shout “Take my picture! Take my picture!” Later in the book Najeeb recounts an occasion when he and his friends went to a mithai shop and ate their fill, then told the shopkeeper that their money was outside in the rickshaw. Taking the shopkeeper outside, they scared him by showing him their rickshaw full of ammunition, so he told them they did not have to pay. The way Najeeb relates the incident makes it sound like a harmless, fun-filled outing with a group of young friends; the harrowing twist is taken out of it altogether. Versaaik remarks that such was Najeeb’s way of narrating the story that on first hearing it he actually laughed, “realizing the brutality of the story only later.” 
It becomes easier to see then, how these young men, even among themselves, reach a point where differentiating between fun and violence becomes difficult.