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Split personality

December 06, 2015


Writer is a lawyer and academic.
Writer is a lawyer and academic.

THE recent spike in attacks on security forces has yet again exposed Karachi’s vulnerable security environment, prompting the provincial government to add more anti-terrorism courts, prosecutors and police personnel. However, it bears thinking whether these actions are sufficient to meet the security challenges that are rooted not only in terrorism but, more significantly, in the three constants of Karachi’s body politic — identity, ownership and governance.

Identity: Karachi was initially a small but cosmopolitan city, where various communities lived in harmony. But after independence, the city’s socio-cultural and political complexion kept changing because of four successive influxes. First, from 1947 through the 1950s, Karachi came to be identified as predominantly Urdu-speaking. Thousands of people from the Indian provinces of UP, Bihar and what was then known as Central Provinces, settled in the city while a large number of Hindus and Sikhs left for India.

In the 1960s, Karachi received the second wave of immigrants, mainly Pakhtun, from the then NWFP. As they entered the labour market particularly in the construction, transport, security and ports and shipping sectors, the city’s ethnic relations came under strain and riots ensued.

The third influx found its way to Karachi in the 1980s following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many of these Afghans even received local residencies, thanks to state patronage and connivance of local registration offices. Indeed, the ‘Afghan factor’ combined with Gen Ziaul Haq’s policy of dividing political forces in Sindh along ethnic lines to weaken the PPP’s urban appeal, drastically transformed the city’s face and security environment. The city saw an emergence of an arms-and-drugs market and the attendant political and criminal militias controlling various territories through violence.

Karachi is a melting pot of competing interests.

The last and ongoing wave of settlers comprise the IDPs from Fata/KP, economic migrants from south Punjab and the interior of Sindh and illegal migrants from Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. As a result, though Karachi’s lingua franca continues to be Urdu, its population has undergone a sea change. Indeed, it is today the largest city of the Pakhtun- and Seraiki-speaking. Given the deteriorating agronomic infrastructure and social mobility in rural Sindh, it will soon also be the largest city of Sindhi-speaking people. There are sizeable numbers of Punjabi, Kashmiri, Baloch and other communities here as well. No wonder, Karachi has a multi-split personality with resulting tensions.

Ownership: Being a city of migrants, the ‘ownership’ of Karachi’s land, jobs, offices and financial resources has become an increasingly contentious issue among its various ethnic, political, corporate and institutional interests, causing friction and even violence. The Urdu-speaking community stakes its claims to ‘ownership’ on its numerical strength in the city as well as the historical narrative of ‘sacrifices’ given in the struggle for Pakistan. The Pakhtuns, meanwhile, base their claim to the city on the ‘services’ they have rendered in its construction, if not the ‘sacrifices’ in the fight against terrorism.

Similarly, the city’s Sindhi-speaking community claims its ownership of the city on historical and constitutional grounds, that is, as Sindh’s capital and part of its history. The Baloch, Kutchi and other old Karachiites also consider Karachi their ‘historical’ abode. The Seraiki-speaking community, being politically less strong, hasn’t yet asked for a piece of the pie, but eventually it will also do so. The Punjabi-speaking, meanwhile, seem to be quite content with the lion’s share in the city’s financial and industrial interests, if not the civil and military bureaucracy.

Governance: Karachi has lacked governance. Instead the city, if not the province, has long been ruled by a troika of local corps commander, chief minister and governor, which protects certain institutional and political interests rather than the interests of the public at large. As a result, notwithstanding the fact that the city has numerous masters and minders — district administrations, metropolitan police, the Rangers Sindh, cantonment boards, district councils, metropolitan corporation, building authorities, defence authorities and so on — its security environment and quality of services remain far from satisfactory.

The answer lies in equitable, efficient and representative governance. At least that’s the lesson drawn from other melting-pots where ethnic tensions, criminalisation of politics, corruption and inefficiencies were overcome by a combination of political, economic, legislative and administrative strategies.

The stress was on targeting structural problems and socio-political inequities to craft a harmonious and complementary environment based on a simple logic: the more people receive equal treatment and share in the city, the less they are likely to be divisive and hence be proponents of identity and ownership politics. But alas, here an opposite approach seems to have been adopted: plant more fissures into Karachi’s body politic and serve narrow, selfish interests.

Writer is a lawyer and academic.

Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2015