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.
Police commandos patrol Karachi’s violent Kati Pahari (Split Mountain) area. One side of the hill is populated by Mohajirs and the other by Pakhtuns.
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.
Karachi’s long Shahra-e-Faisal Road. One of the city’s ‘neutral zones’.
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.
A train carrying Muslim refugees from India arrives at Karachi’s Cantt Station (via Lahore) in 1948.
Hindus prepare to board a ship from Karachi’s main seaport for Bombay in 1948. 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.
Commuters board a tram in Karachi’s Saddar area in 1951: 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.