Clustered diversity

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.
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’.
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.

The II Chundgrigar 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.

A Pakhtun rickshaw driver at Karachi’s Clifton Beach in 1962. 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.

A 1963 newspaper clipping with a report on how Pakistani pop fans gate-crashed their way into a bar at the Karachi Airport where members of the famous pop band The Beatles were having a drink. They had arrived in Karachi to get a connecting flight to Hong Kong.

A local pop band playing at a nightclub in Karachi in 1968: 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.

Western tourists shopping in the city’s Saddar area in 1966.

A donkey-cart owner and his son in Lyari (1967): 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 like this one 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.

Police and military troops patrol the streets at Karachi’s Club Road area during a 1968 strike called by opposition parties against the Ayub government. 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

Chairman of the left-wing PPP, ZA Bhutto addressing a rally in Karachi just before the 1970 election. 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. It 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 1973 Karachi brochure for tourists who were visiting Karachi in the 1970s.

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 …

From ‘elitist’ nightclubs …

… to seedy ‘low/middle-income’ dance and drink joints, Karachiites looked to escape a melancholic existence by heading towards the city’s many recreational outlets in the 1970s.

A 1973 press ad (in DAWN newspaper) of one of Karachi’s many famous nightclubs of the 1970s, The Oasis.

Nishat Cinema 1974: Cinemas in Karachi were usually packed with people in the 1970s.

Playland 1975: One of Karachi’s most famous recreational and amusement areas for families was the (now defunct) Playland.

Students at the Karachi University in 1973.

A group of students at the Karachi University in 1975.

Urdu news being delivered from Pakistan Television’s Karachi Studios (1974).

Crowd at a cricket Test match being played at Karachi’s National Stadium in 1976.

Karachi’s congested Merewether Tower area in 1976. 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.

The rupture

Protesters go on a rampage during the anti-Bhutto movement in Karachi’s Nazimabad area (April 1977). 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.

A policeman beats up a protesting shopkeeper in the city’s Saddar area during the PNA movement ( 1977). 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.

Future MQM chief Altaf Hussain on a Karachi University bus (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.

Prosperity, piety, plunder

The American contingent parade past spectators at the 1980 ‘Karachi Olympics’: Zia’s dictatorship managed to strengthen itself soon after the Soviet forces invaded neighbouring Afghanistan in December 1979. Once the US resolved to oppose the Soviet invasion, it (along with Saudi Arabia), began pumping in an unprecedented amount of financial and military aid into Pakistan.

Foreigners enjoy a cruise on the waters of Karachi’s Kemari area in 1982.

Future US President Barak Obama visited Karachi as a visiting university student and stayed with a roommate of his in Karachi (1981).

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…

The Taj Mahal Hotel 1982: A number of newly-built hotels sprang up in Karachi during the economic boom of the early 1980s. However, many critics were of the view that most of them were built with ‘black money.’

Poverty and drug addiction saw an alarming increase in Karachi in the 1980s.

1985: School and college students chant slogans against the government and Karachi’s ‘transport mafia’ the day after a Mohajir student, Bushra Zaidi was run-over by a bus. The accident sparked a series of deadly riots between the Mohajirs and the Pakhtuns of Karachi.

Front-page news reports about the deadly 1986 Mohajir-Pakhtun riots in Urdu daily, Jang. As the armed student groups fought each other to near-extinction on the city’s campuses, the violence, now heightened by sophisticated weapons, became the domain of criminal gangs in the city’s Baloch and Pakhtun dominated areas. Most of these gangs had been operating as hoodlums peddling hashish, smuggled goods and running illegal prostitution dens in the 1970s. After the sale of alcohol (to Muslims) was banned in April 1977, they added the business of making and selling cheap whisky to their enterprise before they discovered the profitable wonders of selling guns and heroin. They were sometimes also used by political parties, as well as intelligence agencies for various political reasons.

Military personnel arrest a rioter in Karachi’s Orangi Town area in 1986. Working-class and lower-middle-class areas like Lyari and Orangi were the first two sections of the city to be hit by gang violence and heroin addiction in the 1980s.

The suddenly rich: Huge bungalows came up in the city’s ‘posh localities’ in the 1980s. A booming economy based on the continuous flow of financial aid arriving from the US and Saudi Arabia and generated by a somewhat anarchic form of capitalism paralleled urban prosperity with growing class disparities. It encouraged a free-for-all rush towards grabbing the chaotic political and economic fruits of such an economy.

Team of PTV’s social satire show, ‘Fifty-Fifty’ often parodied the rise of greed and corruption and the social idiosyncrasies of the ‘nonveau-riche’ that emerged from the 1980’s anarchic brand of capitalism.

Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) chief, Altaf Hussain, speaking at a large party rally in Karachi in 1987. The mohajirs claimed that Karachi’s transport and real estate businesses had been taken over by gangs of Afghan gun and drug mafias and that the Mohajirs were being forcibly ousted from various areas of the city by refugees arriving in Karachi from Afghanistan. MQM decided to organise the Mohajir community into a cohesive ethnic whole.

A 1987 hoarding in Karachi’s Mohajir-dominated Nazimabad area. The deadly 1986 riots triggered the gradual formation of the city’s clustered diversity (see first section) as Karachi’s various ethnicities began to reside in areas where their respective ethnicities were in a majority.

A wall in Lyari plastered with PPP posters in 1988. Lyari remained to be the party’s main support base in Karachi. It also saw a number of anti-Zia protests throughout the 1980s.

Ziaul Haq during a visit to Karachi’s busy shipyard: In the early 1980s, though Karachi did return to becoming the country’s economic hub again, this time much of its booming economics was based on a parallel ‘black economy’ fuelled by the large amounts of money floated by drug, land and gun mafias. Instead of addressing such issues, the regime stuck to offering moralistic eyewashes through highly propagated and hyped postures of piety and certain draconian laws that were imposed in the name of morality and faith …

Women activists protesting against Zia’s ‘moral policing’ outside the Sindh Chief Minister House in Karachi (1986).

Chairperson of the PPP and Zia’s leading opponent, Benazir Bhutto, waves to the crowd during her wedding ceremony (held in Lyari) in 1986.

In 1987 a massive bomb exploded in the busy Saddar area of the city, killing dozens of people. This was the first such incident in a Pakistani city and Karachiites were left shocked and badly shaken. The regime accused ‘communist agents.’

As the exhilaration of the superficial and contradictory economic boom experienced by the city in the early and mid-1980s began to recede, Karachi looked like a city in shambles with a rapidly growing population and a crumbling infrastructure. Its slums and many low-income areas were now crawling with drug peddlers and drug addicts and its lower-middle-class areas taken-over by armed youth, patrolling the streets, extorting money in the name of protecting the areas from possible hostile infiltration by members of ‘enemy ethnicities.’ Prosperity had mutated into becoming paranoia.

Descent into chaos

A young MQM supporter wearing an Altaf Hussain T-Shirt in Karachi’s Liaqatabad area (1989). When the MQM swept the first post-Zia election in 1988 in Karachi, this was the first time (ever since the city’s status as capital of Pakistan was withdrawn in 1962) that its representatives became a direct part of the government at the centre and in Sindh. The PPP had been returned to power in the election and it formed a coalition government with the MQM.

Benazir and Asif Zardari meet Altaf Hussain in 1989 to form PPP-MQM coalition governments in the centre and Sindh. The new government struggled to come to grips with the shock that the country’s economy and politics experienced after generous hand-outs from the US and Saudi Arabia began to dry out considerably at the end of the so-called ‘anti-Soviet Afghan jihad.’

A Pajero belonging to a leader of a religious leader in 1990 in Karachi: The cultural dynamics of the society had been radically altered. Amoral and cynical materialism nonchalantly ran in conjunction with a two-fold rise in the need and impulse to stridently exhibit ones ‘piety.’

Najeeb Ahmed – the Karachi President of the PPP’s student-wing, the PSF – during a press conference in 1990. He was killed in an armed ambush: The permanent matter of Karachi’s ever-growing population, depleting resources and tensions between its various clustered ethnicities soon triggered a wave of violence as MQM and the PPP went to war in the streets and campuses of the city. The violence in Karachi became the pretext of the dismissal of Benazir Bhutto’s first regime and the controversial election of Mian Nawaz Sharif as the new prime minister in 1990.

Nawaz, Altaf and Jam Sadiq at a rally in Karachi in 1991: Sharif vowed to turn Karachi into an economic hub again and for this he chose a former PPP member, Jam Sadiq Ali, as Sindh’s new Chief Minister. Jam had been a member of the PPP till he was ousted by Benazir in 1986. Sharif used his grudge against the PPP to undermine the party’s influence in Sindh. In Karachi, Jam gave a free hand to the MQM. Though MQM used this opportunity to launch a number of developmental projects in the city’s mohajir-majority areas, at the same time it unleashed its activists against Jam’s ‘enemies’ (both real and imagined).

COAS General Asif Nawaz (left) and Nawaz Sharif in Karachi in 1992: By 1992, with the country’s economy still showing no signs of recovery, and the corruption that first began to rear its head in the 1980s was continuing to grow, Karachi now truly looked like a crumbling city held hostage to the whims and tantrums of the MQM-Jam nexus. Alarmed by the situation, the military forced Nawaz to launch an operation against extortionists and MQM activists. Nawaz reluctantly agreed and in 1992 the operation was launched.

Cops encircle a dead body of an MQM activist in Karachi’s Burns Road area during the Govt-Military operation in Karachi in 1992: Karachi would see a total of three intense operations against the MQM across the 1990s. This decade is still said to be the most violent in the city’s history. Hundreds of civilians, cops and members of paramilitary forces lost their lives.

Pakistan playing against South Africa at Karachi’s National Stadium during the 1996 Cricket World Cup.

A pop concert at Karachi’s KMC Complex in 1996.

1996: By the end of the 1990s, the city’s infrastructure had almost completely collapsed, crippled by ethnic and political violence, strikes and curfews. Major businesses began to move out from the city, factories began to close down and incidents of extra-judicial killings, revenge murders, extortion and kidnapping became a norm. Heaps of garbage dumps unattended for months symbolised what had become of this once ‘Paris of Asia’ and a bastion of economic ingenuity. The turmoil in the city finally came to a sudden end when General Pervez Musharraf toppled the second Nawaz Sharif government in 1999.

A brief interlude: The lights shine again

Musharraf distributing gifts to a child from one of Karachi’s slum areas in 2003. This was the year when the MQM regrouped and regenerated itself and got into an alliance with the Musharraf regime.

A fashion show being held at a Karachi hotel in 2003: In the first five years of his dictatorship, Musharraf managed to inject a sense of stability. Ethnic violence greatly receded, the economy bolstered, and neo-liberal capitalist manoeuvres strengthened the economic status of the middle-classes.

Karachi’s Seaview area in 2004.

The mall by the sea: The city’s largest shopping area, the Dolmen Mall, began being built during the Musharraf regime.

Karachi’s massive Bin Qasim Park was completed during the Musharraf era.

The Karachi Stock Exchange: During the first five years of the Musharraf regime, Karachiites were doing more business.

MQM’s Mustafa Kamal: As Mayor of Karachi during the Musharraf regime, he was largely successful in not only launching numerous developmental and recreational projects in the city, but also turned Karachi into a vibrant city once again.

The bubble bursts

Karachi, May 12, 2007: Body of a young man lies on a road. He was one of the many who died during clashes between MQM, PPP and ANP militants during Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s aborted visit to Karachi. By 2007, the upbeat economic and cultural disposition of the Musharraf regime and its achievements began to steadily crumble due to the gradual erosion and rollback of the economy. In 2007, this polarisation came out with a force when the economy began to fold and a wave of angry religious conservatism began to sweep the country. The regime came under attack from two sides: A powerful political movement (‘Lawyers Movement’) and the private media outlets on the one side, and a more violent and assertive brand of religious extremism on the other. The MQM did not support the anti-Musharraf movement.

The aftermath of a suicide bomb blast that targeted the procession accompanying Benazir Bhutto on Karachi’s Karsaz Road (2007). Dozens were killed in the carnage. Though Benazir survived the attack, she was finally taken out by terrorists in December 2007 in Rawalpindi. The Karsaz attack was also one of the first clear signs that banned extremists/sectarian organisations had begun to use Karachi as a base of their operations.

MQM supporters celebrate MQM’s victory in Karachi during the 2008 election. The party formed a coalition government with PPP and ANP in the centre and Sindh.

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 …

ANP’s Shahi Syed being welcomed by ANP supporters outside Karachi’s Jinnah Airport. Syed and ANP enjoyed a brief rise to power in Karachi after the 2008 election but was brutally cut to size by various extremist organisations that began to infiltrate the Pakhtun-dominated areas of the city.

Rangers get hold of a trouble-maker in Lyari – an area plagued by poverty and violent ‘gang wars.’ Though Lyari is a PPP strong-hold, action here was approved by the PPP regime in Sindh.

Fire rages from a naval base in Karachi that was attacked by extremists in 2012.

A Ranger’s van patrol one of Karachi’s many sensitive areas.

Hoping for a better tomorrow: Women waiting to cast their vote in Karachi during the 2013 election.



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