Footprints: Karachi's fallen Empress

Updated November 18, 2018

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THE area behind the butcher’s section at Empress Market lies in rubble after an anti-encroachment operation was carried out earlier this week.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
THE area behind the butcher’s section at Empress Market lies in rubble after an anti-encroachment operation was carried out earlier this week.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

LIKE the Four Horse­men of the Apocalypse, four bulldozers stand in the rubble of what was once Empress Market. While the original structure of the pre-Partition building survived the anti-encroachment drive, there is nothing left of the large market that was built in and around it.

Built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887, the site is said to have had historical significance in the 1857 mutiny as well. Architect Yasmeen Lari, who has written extensively on Karachi, claims that sepoys were executed here, before the market was built.

“It has historical significance,” she says. “It was a cantonment area, and when the mutiny occurred, sepoys were strapped to cannon and blown up. Empress Market was built by James Strachan, who also built Merewether Tower and several other buildings here. The original structure was divided into four quadrants or gardens which linked it with Jahangir Park. If they can bring it back, it would be fantastic for the city.”

The ongoing citywide anti-encroachment operation is a joint effort by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation and other civic bodies, backed by law enforcers, on the directives of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The move has affected more than a thousand shops and small businesses.

Shopkeeper Ahmed feels that the market is going through a dark time: “A couple of days ago people came here to light candles and remember the sepoys who were killed in the mutiny. I feel like history is repeating itself — they haven’t killed us, but our livelihood is gone forever.”

For people such as Mohammad Sadiq, the anti-encroachment drive was a rude awakening. “I received a call in the middle of the night and was told to rush here and pack up my shop as the bulldozers were being revved up,” he muses. “It was so unexpected. I only managed to get half the goods out in time. The rest were destroyed. My father opened a shop here back in 1952 when the rent was Rs10. Our shop was inside the market, not outside. We weren’t encroaching on anyone’s land, so why did they do this to us?”

Mohammad Sadiq believes that the people behind the operation want to turn the market into a museum and park. But, he adds, “These rumours have been circulating for a decade now.”

A few men sit outside the once renowned butcher’s market. They claim that their knives, deep freezers and other items have gone missing while the old doors, windows and seals on the gates have also been removed.

“But Liaquat Ali Khan gave us permission to set up shop here,” says one man. “If this were illegal, why did the government take rent from us? Why is the chief justice not taking notice of what they have done here?” asks a man.

B. D. Setna, a grocer, set up shop in Empress Market in the early ‘70s. “The labourers you see here, I’ve worked with their fathers and grandfathers. I’ve worked with the macchli wala, the sabzi wala … we were like a family here,” he mourns. “The people who came to demolish the market were trying to steal everything. They would have tried to take this gate away if they had had the chance. I understand they want to remove encroachments, but we are inside the market. We have a stay order from the high court but no one was listening.”

Pointing to a young man near the butcher’s market, Setna adds: “You see this man? His grandfather was a butcher here. They used to bring meat in at 3am in the morning and it was of fine quality.”

“Empress Market catered to different types of households. Where will those people go? Where will all these shopkeepers go? Karachi-wallahs too should think about Empress Market, it is not just for the people who have shops here. The entire city has a collective responsibility for this place,” chimes in Mrs Setna.

Heritage consultant Marvi Mazhar explains that through follow-up interviews, it was learnt that no notices were issued regarding the removal of encroachments, and neither were any surveys carried out.

“There was no documentation of the area,” she says. “No discussion or debate about who the hawkers are and whether or not they fall under the category of encroachers. No statistics were finalised. Plus, there were no notices in newspapers — which is standard practice.”

Haji Mohammad set up his shop in the early 1950s. Selling utensils and crockery, he did quite well for himself. “I used to give the city authorities Rs6,000 in rent annually,” he says. “Inflation did increase the rent, but business was good. Now I am at a loss. I don’t know what to do or where to go. We didn’t even get a call. Someone said that they had heard the market was going to be demolished but I didn’t think this could happen. Some of us had legitimate businesses here.” As men rush in and out of the market with rubble, electrical supplies, ladders, goods and other products, a young man sits on the ground, watching the grand market fall — waiting to pick up the pieces.

Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2018