Karachi, Karachi

By Rifa’at Hamid Ghani

‘Karachi, no one owns this city’, is yet another of the doleful explanatory clichés about the metropolis. Yet Karachi might be better off if it was left alone for a bit – at present it continues to be what it has long been: a battleground for civic and political ownership. Despite the pitiable state it has been reduced to by its varied custodians it remains a prize — demographically and thence politically — and always geo-strategically — as a port.

The proverbial ‘twenty families’ names and number may have changed but they have intra-provincial economic anchorage here. There must be some factor that keeps drawing people to Karachi, for it’s not just a failure in promoting contraception that keeps its population growing: Low-income people continue coming here for work – there is no lid on expansion. But alas there is also no reason for reliance on civic infrastructure or keeping up with public utility services where gated communities and generators and water-purchase are the preferred mode. What do common, not hothouse-garden Karachi-ites, feel living here: A sense of belonging or a sense of abandonment, which is the other side of non-belonging? Decidedly not! For, however woeful the civic state the whole point of Karachi is that anyone can belong – the city is essentially cosmopolitan.

But in an absurd folly the attempts to establish a monopoly of political ownership, ‘own’ it and thereby control the whole city; the approach is of exclusivity rather than inclusion. And if elimination proves impracticable, divisiveness becomes the tactic. Karachi is pushed into being at odds with itself.

It ceased to be the federal capital under the watch of the martial president Ayub. Perhaps he was essentially a ‘Pindi boy; but the rationale given the move was that the political power centre and administrative services needed to be distanced from the seductive corrupting industrialists in which Karachi abounded. The fiscally corrupting cancer in civic life, the canker of neglect that eats the heart out of the city, is presently officially ascribed primarily to the PML(N) federally and the PPP provincially. This is a rather conveniently limited focus.

Ayub also believed in centralization; and after West Pakistan was declared One Unit Karachi ceased to be even a provincial capital (no province – no capital). Yet nothing could keep it from remaining a capitalists’ abode; and thereby the stickiness of the label economic hub. Pakistan’s nascent years were largely overseen bureaucratically by the subcontinent’s Muslim immigrants, Mohajirs, settled in Karachi, Pakistan’s first but now former capital.  Ayub was too canny to lose out on Mohajir mandarin-expertise and the big shots shifted with the headquarters; but he also promoted the Punjabi civil servant in the CSP. The Mohajir nose wasn’t officially put out of joint, but it was sharing space (tantamount to losing). And when One Unit was undone, Karachi was merely Sindh’s capital.

In obtaining Ayub’s retreat, Bhutto, emerged as the adored federal democratic leader with a massive vote bank in Punjab — albeit a son of Sindh himself. His talented cousin was appointed Sindh’s CM. The domicile factor along with the new constitution’s quota system diluted the factor of intellectual superiority (often predominantly Mohajir) as an entrée to civil service and administrative management. The Urdu-speaking immigrant felt further disadvantaged when Sindhi was declared an official provincial language. The horrific atrocities in language riots between the proficient Urdu-speaking, primarily urban Mohajir settlers, and native Sindhis in Karachi and Hyderabad added weight to Karachi’s tragic decades-old legacy from the Lalukhet carnage of a victory procession patronised by Gohar Ayub, President Ayub’s unexpectedly industrially talented (and thereby early-retired army captain) capitalist son. Blood was roused because Karachi’s Mohajirs had had the temerity to vote for Miss Jinnah rather than General Ayub. The Mohajir sense of injury and dislodgement in the city they thought of as ‘home’ in Pakistan has old roots that are not merely ethnic.

Willy-nilly, the Sindhi patent was conferred upon the metropolis. And spontaneous efforts to resist it or uphold it, are less to blame for the polarized, often violently antagonistic, state of the city than maliciously conscious efforts to enlarge and manipulate these differences, quash parties and create factions by military political marauders like General Zia and General Musharraf. And though the endgame may move towards Islamabad it starts in Karachi, Karachi . . .

Increasingly, the separateness of urban Sindh and its interior are acquiring a potentially implosive temper, with repercussive implications for the wellness of the entire federation. Yet nationalist factors and Mohajir grievances are still recklessly used by sundry adjutants – often offstage — as pawns as well as bogeys in central power-games with provincial-party politics.

Today, taken alongside PTI moves to silence dissent and a distortion of legal process – to say nothing of a reception-hall sized kitchen cabinet paralleling parliamentary assemblage — these manoeuvres appear to be aimed at constructing a totally pervasive unchallengeable party force, deriving from and dependent on factors other than the untampered will of the democratic vote. That would change the ethos of conceptual Pakistan.     [1]