Karachi confuses people – sometimes even those who live in it.
The capital of Pakistan’s Sindh province, it is the country’s largest city – a colossal, ever-expanding metropolis with a population of about 20 million (and growing).
It is also the country’s most ethnically diverse city. But over the last three decades this diversity largely consists of bulky groups of homogenous ethnic populations that mostly reside in their own areas of influence and majority, only interacting and intermingling with other ethnic groups in the city’s more neutral points of economic and recreational activity.
That’s why Karachi may also give the impression of being a city holding various small cities. Cities within a city.
Apart from this aspect of its clustered ethnic diversity, the city also hosts a number of people belonging to various Muslim sects and sub-sects. There are also quite a few Christians (both Catholic and Protestant), Hindus and Zoroastrians.
Many pockets in the city are also exclusively dedicated to housing only the Shia Muslim sect and various Sunni sub-sects. Even Hindu and Christian populations are sometimes settled in and around tiny areas where they are in a majority, further reflecting the city’s clustered diversity.
Most of those belonging to clustered ethnicities, Muslim sects, sub-sects and ‘minority’ religions reside in their own areas of majority and they only venture out of these areas when they have to trade, work or play in the city’s more neutral economic and cultural spaces.
The survival and, more so, the economic viability of the neutral spaces depends on these spaces remaining largely detached in matters of ethnic and sectarian/sub-sectarian claims and biases.
Such spaces include areas that hold the city’s various private multinational and state organisations, factories, shopping malls and (central) bazaars and recreational spots.
Whereas the clustered areas have often witnessed ethnic and sectarian strife and violence mainly due to one cluster of the ethnic/sectarian/sub-sectarian population accusing the other of encroaching upon the area of the other, the neutral points and zones have remained somewhat conflict-free in this context.
The neutral points have enjoyed a relatively strife-free environment due to their being multicultural and also because here is where the writ of the state and government is most present and appreciated. However, since all this has helped the neutral zones to generate much of the economic capital that the city generates, these neutral spaces have become a natural target of crimes such as robberies, muggings, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, etc.
The criminals in this respect, usually emerge from the clustered areas that have become extremely congested, stagnant and cut-off from most of the state and government institutions, and ravaged by decades of ethnic and sectarian violence.
Though the ethnic, sectarian/intra-sectarian, economic and political interests of the clustered areas are ‘protected’ by various legal, as well as banned outfits in their own areas of influence, all these outfits compete with each other for their economic interests in the neutral zones because here is where much of the money is.
Just why does (or did) this happen in a city that once had the potential of becoming a truly cosmopolitan bastion of ethnic and religious diversity, and robust economic activity in South Asia?
This can be investigated by tracing the city’s political, economic and demographic trajectories and evolution ever since it first began to emerge as an economic hub more than a century and a half ago.
Birth of a trading post… and ‘Paris of Asia’
Karachi is not an ancient city. It was a small fishing village that became a medium-sized trading post in the 18th century. British Colonialists further developed this area as a place of business and trade.
‘Paris of Asia?’ – Karachi (in 1910). Karachi was always a city of migrants. Hindus and Muslims alike came here from various parts of India to do business and many of them settled here along with some British. In the early 1900s, encouraged by the city’s booming economy and political stability, the British authorities and the then mayor of Karachi, Seth Harchandari (a Hindu businessman), began a ‘beautification project’ that saw the development of brand new roads, parks and residential and recreational areas.
One British author described Karachi as being ‘the Paris of Asia.’
A group of British, Muslim and Hindu female students at a school in Karachi in 1910: Till the creation of Pakistan in 1947, about 50 per cent of the population of the city was Hindu, approximately 40 per cent was Muslim, and the rest was Christian (both British and local), Zoroastrian, Buddhist and (some) Jews.
Members of Muslim, Hindu and Zoroastrian families pose for a photograph before heading towards one of Karachi’s many beaches for a picnic in 1925: Karachi continued to perform well as a robust centre of commerce and remained remarkably peaceful and tolerant even at the height of tensions between the British, the Hindus and the Muslims of India between the 1920s and 1940s.
A British couple soon after getting married at a church in Karachi in 1927.
A group of traders standing near the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) building in the 1930s.
Karachi Airport in 1943. It was one of the largest in the region.
Karachi’s Frere Hall and Garden with Queen Victoria’s statue in 1942.
A 1940 board laying out the Karachi city government’s policy towards racism.
Lyari in 1930 – Karachi’s oldest area (and first slum): Even though Karachi emerged as a bastion of economic prosperity (with a strategically located sea port); and of religious harmony in the first half of the 20th century, with the prosperity also came certain disparities that were mainly centred in areas populated by the city’s growing daily-wage workers. By the 1930s, Lyari had already become a congested area with dwindling resources and a degrading infrastructure.
Shifting sands: Karachi becomes part of Pakistan
Karachiites celebrate the creation of Pakistan (August 14, 1947) at the city’s Kakri Ground: The demography and political disposition of the city was turned on its head when the city became part of the newly created Pakistan. Though much of India was being torn apart by vicious communal clashes between the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs at the time, Karachi remained largely peaceful.
To the bitter disappointment of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah (a resident of Karachi), the city witnessed an exodus of its Hindu majority. Jinnah was banking on the Hindu business community of the city to remain in Karachi and help shape the new country’s economy.
As if overnight, the 50-40 ratio of the city’s population (50 Hindu, 40 Muslim) drastically changed after 1947. Now over 90 per cent of the city’s population was made up of Muslims with more than 70 per cent of these being new arrivals. A majority of the new arrivals were Urdu-speaking Muslims (Mohajirs) from various North Indian cities and towns. Since many of them had roots in urban and semi-urban areas of India and were also educated, they quickly adapted to the urbanism of Karachi and became vital clogs in the city’s emerging bureaucracy and economy.
Karachi’s rebirth as the ‘City of Lights’
Karachi’s Burns Road in 1963: It grew into a major Mohajir-dominated area. By the late 1950s, Karachi began to regenerate itself as a busy and vigorous centre of commerce and trade. It was also Pakistan’s first federal capital. It was the only port city of Pakistan and by the 1960s it had risen to become the country’s economic hub.
Karachi 1961: Brand new buildings and roads in the city began to emerge in the 1960s. The government of Field Martial Ayub Khan that came into power through a military coup in 1958 unfolded aggressive industrialisation and business-friendly policies, and Karachi became a natural city for the government to solidify its economic policies.
The II Chundrigarh Road in 1962: It was in the 1960s that this area began to develop into becoming Karachi’s main business hub. It began being called ‘Pakistan’s Wall Street.’
1963: Construction underway of the Habib Bank Plaza on Karachi’s II Chundrigarh Road. The building would rise to become the country’s tallest till the 2000s when two more buildings (also in Karachi) outgrew it.
Saddar area in 1965: Trendy shops, cinemas, bars and nightclubs began to emerge here in the 1960s and it became one of the most popular areas of Karachi. With Karachi’s regeneration as an economic hub, its traditional business and pleasure ethics too returned that consisted of uninterrupted economic activity by the day and an unabashed indulgence in leisure activities in the evenings.
Though the Ayub regime moved the capital to the newly built city of Islamabad, the economic regeneration enjoyed by Karachi during the Ayub regime’s first six years attracted a wave of inner-country migration to the city. A large number of Punjabis from the Punjab province and Pakhtuns from the former NWFP (present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) began to arrive looking for work from the early 1960s onwards. But with the seat of power being moved from Karachi to Islamabad by the Ayub regime, the Mohajirs for the first time began to feel that they were being ousted from the country’s ruling elite.
It was during the Ayub regime that the term ‘City of Lights’ was first used (by the government) for Karachi as brand new buildings, residential areas and recreational spots continued to spring up. Karachi once again became a city of trade, business and all kinds of pleasures, and yet, the industrialisation that it enjoyed during the period and the continuous growth in its population began to create economic fissures that the city was largely unequipped to address. The economic disparities and the ever-growing gaps between the rich and the poor triggered by the Ayub regime’s lopsided economic policies became most visible in Karachi’s growing slums.
Many shanty towns sprang up in the outskirts of Karachi in the 1960s. Criminal mafias involved in land scams, robberies, muggings and drug peddling in such areas found willing recruits in the shape of unemployed and poverty-stricken youth residing in the slums.
Resentment against Ayub among the Mohajir middle and lower middle-classes (for supposedly side-lining the Mohajir community), and the growing economic disparities and crime in the city’s Baloch and Mohajir dominated shanty towns turned Karachi into a fertile ground for left-wing student groups, radical labour unions and progressive opposition parties who began a concentrated movement against the Ayub regime in the late 1960s (across Pakistan). Ayub resigned in 1969.
Sleaze city: Fun and fire in the time of melancholia
The PPP became the country’s new ruling party in 1972. After the end of the ‘One Unit’ (and separation of East Pakistan), Karachi became the capital of Sindh. Bhutto was eager to win the support of Karachi’s Mohajir majority. In various memos written by him to the then Chief Minister of Sindh, Bhutto expressed his desire to once again make Karachi the ‘Paris of Asia.’
Karachi’s ‘Three Swords’ area in 1974 was ‘beautified’ during the Bhutto regime but today has become a busy and congested artery connecting Clifton with the centre of the city. It was during the Bhutto government that the city’s first three-lane roads were constructed (Shara-e-Faisal), dotted with trees; the Clifton area was further beautified; foundation of the country’s first steel mill laid (in Karachi); and the construction of a large casino started (near the shores of the Clifton Beach) to accommodate the ever-growing traffic of European, American and Arab tourists.
A newspaper report on the 1972 ‘Language Riots’ in Karachi: Bhutto failed to get the desired support of the Mohajirs. This was mainly due to his government’s ‘socialist’ policies that saw the nationalisation of large industries, banks, factories, educational institutions and insurance companies. This alienated the Mohajir business community and the city’s middle-classes. Also, since Bhutto was a Sindhi and the PPP had won a large number of seats from the Sindhi-speaking areas of Sindh, he encouraged the Sindhis to come to Karachi and participate in the city’s economic and governing activities. This created tensions between the city’s Mohajir majority and the Sindhis arriving in Karachi after Bhutto’s rise to power.
The insomniac metropolis: The city that never slept
Karachi in the 1970s gave a look of a city in a limbo – caught between its optimistic and enterprising past and a decadent present. It behaved like a city on the edge of some impending disaster or on the verge of an existential collapse.
Most Karachiites would go through the motions of traveling to work or study by the day, and by night they would plunge into the various chambers of its steamy and colourful nightlife …
A badly managed economy (through haphazard nationalisation), and the reluctance of the private sector to invest in the city’s once thriving businesses strengthened the unregulated aspects of a growing informal economy that began to serve the needs of the city’s population. The flip side of this informal economic enterprise was the creeping corruption in the police and other government institutions that began to extort money from these unfettered and informal businesses.
In 1977 the city finally imploded. After a 9-party alliance, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) – that was led by the country’s three leading religious parties – refused to accept the results of the 1977 election; Karachi became the epicentre of the anti-Bhutto protest movement.
The protests were often violent and the government called in the army. The protests were squarely centred in areas largely populated by the Mohajir middle and lower middle classes. Apart from attacking police stations, mobs of angry/unemployed Mohajir youth also attacked cinemas, bars and nightclubs; as if the government’s economic policies had been the doing of Waheed Murad films and belly dancers! The bars and clubs were closed down in April 1977.
As the PNA protests led to the toppling of the Bhutto regime (through a reactionary military coup by General Ziaul Haq in July 1977), within a year a group of young Mohajirs were already exhibiting their disillusionment with the ‘PNA revolution.’ In 1978 two students at the Karachi University – Altaf Hussain and Azim Ahmed Tariq – formed the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organization (APMSO). They accused the religious parties of using the Mohajirs as ladders to enter the corridors of power while doing nothing to address the economic plight of the community.
Apart from the fact that Karachi’s university and college campuses exploded with protests against Zia (and then violent clashes between progressive student groups and the pro-Zia right-wing outfits), the city largely returned to normalcy and its status of being Pakistan’s economic hub was revived.
The continuous flow of aid helped the Zia regime stabilise the country’s economy. But underneath this new normalcy something extremely troubling was already brewing.
Since most of the sophisticated weapons from the US (for the Afghan Mujahideen) were arriving at Karachi’s seaport, a whole clandestine enterprise involving overnight gunrunners and corrupt police and customs officials emerged that (after siphoning off chunks of the US consignments), began selling guns, grenades and rockets to militant students (both on the left and right sides of the divide) and to a new breed of criminal gangs.
From the northwest of Pakistan came the once little known drug called heroin, brought into Pakistan and then into Karachi by Afghan refugees who began pouring into the country soon after the beginning of the anti-Soviet Afghan insurgency in Afghanistan…
Hell on Earth?
When the MQM was regenerating itself during the Musharraf regime, it did not completely dismantle its problematic wings – despite the fact that the party’s appeal began to cut across all ethnic groups in Karachi during Kamal’s mayorship.
However, by 2008, the growth in the city’s Pakhtun population managed to give the Pakhtun nationalist party, the ANP, a greater sense of power in Karachi. To ward off the perceived threat from MQM and the growing tussle between the city’s Mohajir and Pakhtun communities over Karachi’s economic resources, ANP too decided to compete with the MQM at its own game.
The PPP, the third major political power in the city already had violent elements in its midst and even though all three parties were in a coalition government, they often fought for political and economic control of Karachi. Many members of the parties’ wings also began getting involved in major crimes, so much so that it became tough for even their party bosses to rein them in.
The PPP tried to dismantle its wing but by then the wing had already gotten embroiled in the vicious ‘gang wars’ in Lyari. The gangs got involved in drug and gun running, kidnappings, theft, muggings and ‘target killing.’ They often fought one another and the police.
ANP’s wing was wiped out along with the party in the areas where they enjoyed influence. This was not done by MQM or PPP, but by various groups of extremist and sectarian outfits that had begun to establish themselves in Karachi from 2009 onwards. They right away got involved in the many illegal activities and crimes that witnessed a dramatic increase, making Karachi one of the most crime-infested city in South Asia.