Last week, I went to a photocopier’s shop at Safoora Chowk near Karachi University. I reached there just after the Iftar time. Soon, tea stalls bustled with customers and gradually the atmosphere rang with giggles, loud conversations and obnoxious ringtones. I noticed that a tall young man with a ‘French beard’ suddenly left his chair and came near the photocopier shop. I couldn’t figure out that what compelled him to leave the tea stall. Then I saw a cellphone stuck to his ear. I thought that the chattering noises must have disturbed him. As he was standing near me, I could see his old-type black Nokia and also hear his conversation. He was speaking in Multani Seraiki. I have translated one part of the conversation which I overheard:
“Reach Karachi, it is very cheap.”
“You could live with me at the dera … no expenditure…electricity and gas is jugarr”
“Meals are free. Sylalani Zindabad. But, you should look like a beggar (giggles)”
“Ramzan is a good time… come soon”
“If you have an old woman, bring her along with you… We will manage to find a chowk for her to beg… Only condition is to pay some money to traffic-walla saeen.”
“H*rami, chheti aaja (giggles)”
This conversation has a message. It states that board and lodging in Karachi is cheap, communal and always available, and various utilities are likely to be free. A deep decoding of this message clearly reveals that another system exists, and its apparent elements are corruption, land mafia, nepotism, and misuse of the services and infrastructure.
Now read another type of message which is from the 1990s. It was told to me by one of my friends. In those days, he happened to be in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Sindh Government. The following conversation is from an interrogation of an accused. I am reproducing what my friend told me:
Police: You are a labourer?
Accused: Yes, construction worker.
Police: Why do you steal and burgle?
Accused: …. (Silence)
Police: Are you alone, or do you belong to some tola (gang)?
In the 1970s, a new message roamed the
city: ‘Karachi is
mini-Pakistan’. It continued till the heyday of the MQM
Police: How do you operate?
Accused: We are from different communities. After a few days of committing a crime, we divide the stolen things and cash. Major chunk is kept by the ‘party’. In case of murder or political-related incident, a huge amount is involved. In either cases the ‘party’ immediately leaves Karachi and moves to their native places.
Police: Why do you do that?
Accused: Ustad told us that in Karachi ‘theft-snatch-burgle’ was one of assured ways to become rich. Sahib, it is luck. Sometimes we go to jail, or have no work for six months.
Analysis of the above narration tells us that Karachi’s city governance offers foul means to become rich. Or at least there are chances to make attempts. The crime is organized and patronized. This perception about the city needs to be explored. However, it must be noted that both perceptions are prevalent in Karachi.
But in the decades before the above conversations, there were other introductions of the city. One of the popular messages was: ‘Karachi, Roshnioon Ka Shahr’ (Karachi, a city of lights). It was a popular message of the late 1960s. However, in those times, the lead sources of Karachi’s shining lights were from the Karachi Port, Karachi Airport and its Industrial areas. This type of message gave new identities to the city: ‘Karachi is a modern city’, ‘Karachi is a city of convenience and comfort’ and ‘Living in Karachi is a status symbol’. Consequently, a considerable number of landlords, jagirdars, and retired bureaucrats and retired military men purchased properties in Karachi. These new ownerships and tenancies brought an old-fashioned culture into the city. Soon, it was noticed that their culture was not matching with the freshly rooted service-class culture. Social coherence in neighbourhoods was under strain. It happened due to various reasons. But it must be realized that the newcomers reached Karachi as a result of the messaging of ‘Karachi,Roshnioon Ka Shahr.’ Therefore, they just wanted to be there – so as to avail the services or raise their social status, and impress their rural constituencies by having a house in the city. Interestingly, few if any of them invested in Karachi till the 1970s. They remained rent-seekers and idlers. They came, stayed, enjoyed and left.
Later in the 1970s, a new message roamed the city:‘Karachi is mini-Pakistan’. It continued till the heyday of the Muhajir Quami Movement (MQM). It is argued that after Bangladesh’s separation, the ‘Islamic brotherhood’ slogan became irrelevant. On the other hand, Karachi’s well developed infrastructure, coastal location, seaport, airport, industry and barren hinterland compelled the powerful groups to come up with a new message. So they devised ‘Karachi is mini-Pakistan’. The message promoted a psyche that the city belongs to all. It created a moral justification for the people from other provinces – in fact, even from Afghanistan and from other South Asian countries – to come and settle in the city. But the post-1979 Afghan war proved a bad omen. It brought drugs and weapons in the city. The inclusive message faded away.
The messaging of the pre-Partition era called upon potential investors to ‘forget’ European cities and invest in Karachi
Subsequently, another group emerged with the support of civil-military bureaucracy and infrastructure-financing donors. The group’s lead message was ‘Karachi Ko Apnao, Karachi Ko Banao’ (Own Karachi, Build Karachi). Coincidentally, along with the entry of the message, the lands around Karachi city were open for the sale without considering how long the province and its city would be able to bear the socio-economic burden. On the other hand, the anti-encroachment drive operated at a full scale. This phenomenon was the outcome of both messages – ‘Karachi is mini-Pakistan’ and ‘Own Karachi, Build Karachi’. The realization of these messages stressed infrastructure, and lowered the quality of social services, and burdened the budget of the province.
But what about the pre-Partition messaging around Karachi? Some of the earliest structures of the city were built in the 1840s and Karachi’s major development infrastructure started in the 1850s. When the Karachi port became one of the busiest ports of the British Empire, it gave a new introduction to the city.
Karachi’s strategic location suited three continents. It was connected through railways to North India, Balochistan and Iran, and Jodhpur-Bikaner. Likewise, through airways it was connected to Europe, via Egypt and Baghdad, and Northern India via Nasirabad-Delhi. On the other hand, through the sea/Karachi Port, the city was linked to Europe via Port Said and Aden, Mesopotamia via Persian Gulf, and India. Other routes were Far-East via Bombay (Mumbai) and Colombo, and the East and South Africa as well as via Mauritius.
Commercial organizations and newspapers in those days issued supplements and advertisements. The messages of those editions called upon potential investors to ‘forget’ European cities and invest in Karachi. Another set of messages gave an impression that Karachi’s social life was second to none. The image of the city was promoted through advertisements about various services available at city’s hotels, bars and clubs. It would be appropriate to quote some of the messages related to social image of the city: ‘Bristol Hotel Karachi: First Class, Every Comfort & English Bath’. Other messages in the same category stated: ‘The Carlton Hotel, Karachi: Entirely Under European Management’. Other messages were about spirits and drinks, promising good whiskey and cigars. On the other hand, for excursion and travel, vehicles were available with the message: ‘The Green Taxi Co., Large and Luxurious Cars and Powerful Motor Lorries’.
Private publications prepared and issued books and directories on Karachi. One of the regular publishers was The Daily Gazette, Karachi. Its 1922-23 handbook on Karachi was edited by Sir Montagu de Pomeroy Webb. In the directory, he has built the image of the city through seven messages: “the city has a good climate, availability of good food and water, healthy location, scaled up recreations, cheapest trading facilities, a unique geographical position, and opportunity of growth – land and harbour.” These messages of Sir Montagu about Karachi were a true reflection of colonialist Charles Napier’s vision: ‘(Karachi) Thou shalt be the Glory of The East.’
Karachi’s peace and social fabric, like that Lahore and Delhi, was wounded in the 1947 Partition. But other cities have healed their wounds. Sadly, Karachi from 1947 has been repeatedly wounded. The city has learned to live with its wounds. I am afraid that it is temporary. If we are really serious in giving Karachi a new introduction, then the solution lies in the constitution. Pakistan should be envisioned as a federal state, and the uncontrolled population shift to Karachi should be reconsidered. Local governance in true sense should be implemented. The housing scams should be exposed and legal action should be taken against them and their financers.
If, somehow, we fail, then vested interest groups will continue to describe the city with their self-serving vision and messaging.