Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper interrogates the ambivalent legacies of leftist thought and political praxis in contemporary Pakistan. The marks left on Pakistan’s culture and society by its leftist intelligentsia, organizers and activists are indelible (Ali 2015). However, in the aftermath of brutal repression by the country’s military junta, its subsequent lineages have capillaried into a diversity of social formations that includes sub-nationalist liberation movements, and strains of Islamism (Iqtidar 2010). One such equivocal manifestation of this lineage have been the notorious gangs that “ruled” Karachi’s Lyari neighborhood. Gang bosses took on the epithet of ‘comrade’ and ‘tribal chief’ (sardar) to mediate on behalf of ‘the people’ with ‘the elite’ (Suhail 2015). At their zenith, Lyari’s gangs were considered the most violent and disordering force to have plagued the city of Karachi, purportedly causing more casualties than the Taliban insurgency. On this pretense, in 2014, the Pakistani army began an even bloodier military operation in Lyari: disappearing, arresting and killing young men in the name of order. These purges echoed the way Pakistan’s left had been decimated in the 1980s. Drawing on ethnographic research on Lyari’s gangs, this paper reflects on the lineages of leftist dissidence on their modes of organization and praxis. In doing so, it challenges the simple causality drawn between gangs and social disorder. It further reflects on what emancipatory horizons these lineages of the left hold for Karachi’s urban futures and its people’s quotidian struggles to survive drastic ecological, economic and cultural shifts underway in contemporary Pakistan.