Friday, December 28, 2012

In Karachi, All Life is Cheap

I wrote this piece as a commissioned rejoinder to the article in yesterday's Express Tribune about the death of Shahzeb Khan. The op-ed was meant to run today, but was pulled late last night for reasons that haven't been made clear to me. So I am publishing it here on my blog instead, in the name of freedom of expression.



In Karachi, All Lives Come Cheap

Shehzeb Khan, who was
murdered on Christmas Day
My sincere condolences go out to the family of Shahzeb Khan, the young man who was killed in Karachi on the 25th of December,  as he returned home from a valima. He should never have died in this way, at the hands of a cruel, heartless criminal. The streets of Karachi have become the killing fields, where life is cheap and nobody is safe. 

Shahzeb Khan was allegedly killed by Nawab Siraj Talpur, the son of a petty landlord from somewhere in Sindh; reports state that he stood up to his murderer because the murderer’s servant was sexually harassing his sister.  The murderer, who took offense, chased Khan down with the help of another friend, Shahrukh Jatoi,  also Sindhi, then one or both of them sprayed Khan's car with bullets and then allegedly fled to the interior of Sindh, where they are using his connections to escape the consequences of their crime. 

Two days previously, I visited a Karachi restaurant where the manager asked me how my work was going at the Consulate (I don’t work for a consulate), and then proceeded to tell me how he was hoping to move his family away to Canada. “We are Christians. We don’t have any rights anymore. All of us want to leave.” He invited me to the Midnight Mass at St. Antony’s Church but told me to be careful, as people were being shot everywhere these days, especially at night.

The news of such a random, senseless crime is difficult enough to stomach. A young man, at the peak of his life, was murdered because he defended his sister against sexual harassment; we should all be in mourning for that. And then, when I read the headline that accompanied the news story, I felt a different sense of dismay: “For Sindhi Feudals, Karachi Lives Come Cheap”.

Coming from a Sindhi feudal family myself, I’m often overly sensitive to the resentment that people in Karachi bear against Sindhi feudals. To me, it is comprised components of bigotry, racism, and class hatred. I can understand the disgust that people feel against our leaders, influential people, and the rich and powerful in the country; Pakistan is slowly dying under their hegemony.

But to paint this murder as this murder as a general trend – to say that Sindh's feudals come to Karachi and kill non-Sindhi people of Karachi for sport – is sheer irresponsibility on the part of the newspaper, the last thing we need in these days of crisis and killing. This overgeneralization about any ethnicity is certainly  not what we needed to see on the fifth anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s death, which plunged the country into the most difficult phase of its existence.

Many feudals, or more accurately, many powerful landowners in Sindh and Punjab, by exploiting their connections to political power for personal gain, have contributed to the murder of our country, there’s no doubt about it. But so have generals, warlords and slumlords, and militants of all ethnicities. And find me any young man, Sindhi or non-Sindhi, feudal or non-feudal, whose father or uncle or brother is "someone important"; and who doesn't swagger around like a power-drunk fool, fighting, shooting, causing fatal car accidents, taking lives. This is what Pakistan has become, and the young men know it.

It's quite obvious that most urban residents of Karachi display a deep resentment of Sindh's feudals, hating them for the stranglehold they imagine the feudals have over the hapless peasants of the countryside. I've written before about how that is a distorted picture, and that very few people from Karachi bother trying to gain a more balanced perspective.

According to Sindh Police, this is one of
Shehzeb Khan's killers,
 Shahrukh Jatoi, the son of a businessman and industrialist. 
But why drive a wedge between Sindhi and non-Sindhi Karachi residents, when the truth is that Sindhis, feudal and non-feudal alike, have been a peaceful part of Karachi's social fabric for decades? Sindhis with ties to the interior love Karachi as much as any other ethnic group living here. They have brought their families to live here, contributed to Karachi's economy through their agricultural activity, added to the diversity that is part of our great city.

Karachi’s criminals come from all ethnicities, all walks of life. Their victims do as well. While we mourn the death of Benazir, who was the daughter of a Sindhi feudal, yet is considered the Daughter of the Nation, perhaps we should contemplate a headline about all the people who are killed in our city - something like, "In Karachi, Sindhi lives come cheap". Or Pathan lives. Or Baloch lives. Or any life at all.