Asia Life

The Hides Can’t Hide from Pakistani Politics

The collection of animal hides is a political issue in Karachi.

The Hides Can’t Hide from Pakistani Politics
Credit: Flickr / Kashiff

Recently the government of Sindh, one of the provinces of Pakistan, has banned the collection of animal hides after the Id-ul-Adha festival. This order may be a political tool shaped to hurt a particular party.

Each year millions of animal are slaughtered in Pakistan during the Id-ul-Adha festival (“Id” is also spelled as “Eid” and “Adha” as “Azha”). This major religious event, celebrated by followers of Islam across the globe, commemorates Abraham’s sacrifice for God. The Pakistan Tanners Association estimate that in 2016 more than 10 million animals – cows, bulls, goats, sheep and even some camels – were killed in Pakistan for the occasion. While the meat is consumed, shared and gifted, there is one thing that remains after the hecatomb: the animal skins. And this is where politics steps in–at least in the city of Karachi.

Possibly as early as the 1940s, some people in Karachi came to the conclusion that a few hides left from the slaughter are usually useless for the household that had ordered the animals but, if collected from a number of houses, they could be sold for considerable profit. The idea was likely spread by Islamic charity foundations that would send volunteers to visit each house, asking people to donate the hides. The money obtained from their selling could then be utilized to expand the activities of the charities. Yet, as always, various people got wind of this process and used the idea for their own benefits.

One of the major parties in Karachi is the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). Although it is mainly associated with the Muhajir minority (the descendants of Muslims that had migrated to Pakistan from India during the partition of the two states in 1947), it has achieved powerful influence in Karachi, becoming a force none in the city can ignore. Just like other parties, the MQM recognized the benefits of collecting hides and has been doing this through its charity wing, the Khidmat-e-Khalq Foundation. Although it was one of the many organizations (parties, charities, Islamic schools) to join the collection competition, MQM’s popularity and power allowed it to marginalize rivals. Reports of stopping volunteers from other charities and of exercising forced collections have emerged here and there. Eventually it became common knowledge that not only the party’s electorate but most of the city’s inhabitants are “expected” to “donate” the hides to the party. As Karachi is a port city and Pakistan’s most populous agglomeration, the benefits from selling animal skins are immense and until recently they were estimated to be one of the most substantial sources of income for the MQM. A 2015 estimate – which I can’t verify – claims that the gain from selling hides by all political parties active in Karachi could have been more than $20 million. It is safe to assume that MQM received the biggest portion of this cake.

The annual hide collection had become big business and an area of fierce contest. Growing problems spurned city authorities into asking organizations to stop door-to-door collection, instead encouraging people to bring the hides themselves to the place of their choice. As early as 2005, collectors were asked not to “display” weapons or iron bars while going about the city to collect “donations.” In 2015 alone the Karachi security forces announced that they had arrested some 600 individuals (members of MQM as well as other organizations) for “snatching” hides. The MQM must have also realized that the forced collections could dent its image and thus the party declared, both in 2015 and 2016, that it would stop its hide collection drive. The decision could also have been explained by the party’s decreasing power.

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While it is still rules the roost in Karachi, the MQM left the coalition government in the province of Sindh in 2014. It is also in the opposition at the national level. Thus, for the last three years the party has been under growing pressure. Some of its supporters and members were arrested and its activities were restricted (and when it comes to the hide collection, MQM claims that some of its trucks carrying the valuable commodity were seized by paramilitary forces). The situation was made even worse when the party started to head towards an internal split. In 2016 its chief, Altaf Hussain, made an anti-Pakistan speech (Hussain himself has been living in London for many years and is trying to control the party with a remote control). It is visible that the party is on the decline, although with its level of entrenchment it may survive the pressure anyway.

Thus, when in August 2017 the Sindh government announced that it is completely banning the collection of hides in Karachi after Id-ul-Adha, the decision was probably linked both to the law and order issue and to the political situation. The fact that the provincial government has also banned forceful collection (as if it was legal before) and carrying weapons is also telling. The way some of the organizations had “asked” for “donations” must have become a nuisance for common people. But it also may be assumed that this measure will be yet another blow to MQM’s power. One can assume that despite its earlier announcements, the MQM has not ceased collecting “donations.”

There is, however, at least one bright spot in this rather grim story. Politicians all over the world often take away the main spoils and leave the scraps to the people. At least in the case it is opposite: the people consume the most important parts, while the politicians are fighting for the leftovers.