Karachi, known as “The City of Lights”, is the most diverse city of Pakistan and one of the biggest metropolises in the world. Karachi’s population comprises many different ethno-linguistic and religious groups. The major ethno-linguistic groups include Urdu-speaking migrants from India, Sindhis, Punjabis, Pakhtuns, Balochis, etc. Major religious groups include Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Parsis, and Bohris among many others. Due to its diversity, and being the financial capital of the country, Karachi has been both a melting pot for multiple cultures and a hub of ethno-political conflict since the creation of Pakistan.
Consequently, over the past few decades, the city that once accommodated and gave space to expressions of multiple shades of life has resorted to excluding many and silencing dissident voices. In the recent past, "unidentified gunmen” have been responsible for the murder/attempted murder of prominent civil society activists such as Sabeen Mahmud and Perween Rahman, and journalists such as Wali Khan Babar, Aftab Alam, and Hamid Mir among many others. Those targeted in these cases have been involved in challenging the status quo, such as exposing the land mafia in Karachi, holding talks on the controversial issue of Baluchistan, and questioning the military and Intelligence agencies of Pakistan.
The “status quo” whose vested interests are threatened by the dissident voices and need to be protected through the action of “unidentified gunmen” is not a fixed entity. Very often it is argued in the international circles that the State of Pakistan is responsible for silencing the voices of dissent. The issue is, however, a lot more complex than that. While the state (usually referred to as 'establishment' by critics), the military and the intelligence agencies (or the deep state) certainly engage in actively protecting the “national interests” by curbing the voices that dare to differ from or question their authority on defining the national interest — they are not the only stakeholders.
In the wider context of Pakistan, and particularly in the case of Karachi, the “status quo” is also shared by other power brokers, such as the landed aristocrats, industrialists and owners of other means of production, as well as the religious elite. While the religious, economic, political, and institutional elite of Pakistan are linked together in intricate networks of power and influence, they all have their own means of silencing any critical voices that rise against them. There are also instances when these centers of power are posed against each other and their conflicts are shadowed by the price of freedom and life paid by common citizens.
In such circumstances then, it is extremely hard to freely express one’s socio-political and religious opinions in an increasingly polarised society. Those who dare to do so, have either paid the high cost of freedom of thought and expression or continue to live under threat from multiple sources.
Another important element that has increasingly curtailed the ability to engage in critical discourse within Pakistan and caused the democratic space of discussion to shrink significantly is the un-accountability of extremist elements. Individuals and groups who do not necessarily belong to any of the elitist power circles mentioned above, but are motivated by the extreme right religious politics usually accompanied by lack of proper education and economic deprivations, have also been involved in labelling and executing individuals who express liberal and progressive ideas in the public.
The free flow of weapons in the informal economy of Karachi further enables and empowers these extremist elements to take destructive actions. As a consequence, the diverse and multicultural city of Karachi has been blanketed by an atmosphere of fear, where anyone from a street vendor or a cleric to the higher ups in the state machinery can choose to punish the dissenting ones without being held accountable for their actions. Hence, although Pakistan has recently made a successful democratic transition and the military has taken a back seat as far as the civilian governance is concerned, yet the space for critical democratic dialogue has been shrinking. We have reached a stage where any intellectual dissent is suppressed to support the ideological domination of particular right leaning groups over the public ‘democratic’ space.
Despite such strong suppression of the progressive members of civil society, there are many who continue to risk their lives and struggle to make Karachi a better city. Muhammad Jibran Nasir, a Karachi-based civil society activist has been actively engaged in promoting critical discussions of government policies, agendas of political parties, ideological domination of the religious right, thus challenging the status quo in several ways. He has received direct threats from militant groups and encountered hostility from various groups of people, nevertheless, he continues to dedicate his efforts to open up the space for free democratic discussions in the country.
Another recent example is that of Alamgir Khan, the leader of the 'Fix It' campaign. He started by painting the face of the Sindh’s CM, Qaim Ali Shah, near the open manholes in the city of Karachi and inscribing the words “Fix it”. The campaign soon grew into a wide agenda pointing out the problems of a common man in Karachi, calling out the Sindh government for its negligence and urging them to “Fix It”. Many young men took to streets to fix the manholes and other common issues that needed attention, to further highlight the disregard by government authorities. However, as one could predict, challenging the authority in a place like Karachi does not come without its costs, hence Alamgir Khan was arrested by the Police in February this year. He was released on bail due to pressure from the civil society.
However, given the marginalisation (at the least) and elimination (as the extreme) of the nonconforming and challenging individuals in Karachi in the past, the environment is highly unfavourable for the likes of Jibran Nasir and Alamgir Khan.
The writer only wishes to be identified by her first name