THOSE of us who have seen Empress Market develop over the years into the vibrant heart of Saddar in Karachi wonder about its fate after the anti-encroachment drive of recent days.

At the risk of repetition, it may be relevant to recall its glorious past. It is believed the British used this space to execute freedom fighters after the uprising of 1857, and that the ground on which it stands is hallowed by the blood of martyrs. Those who were not hanged or sent via Karachi port to Kala Pani, as the prison in the Andaman Islands was called, were tied to the mouths of cannons and blown to smithereens as a message to anybody who dared risk mutiny.

However, legend has it that every morning the British found the massacre ground strewn with rose petals — the red of the petals signifying the blood of the freedom fighters. Fearing the space would become a permanent memorial to the martyrs, they decided to build a monument on the site dedicated to Queen Victoria, Empress of India.

Empress Market was not meant to be a museum.

Empress Market was built as a market, a bazaar. It was not meant to be a museum or gala dining room. And it developed as a thriving bazaar in which items of daily use, including some exotic ones, were available under one roof. It was a shoppers’ paradise visited by people from even distant neighbourhoods. Around it sprang up vegetable, fruit and tea markets, and the fabulous bird market where one could buy pigeons, parakeets, parrots and many rare birds. The shopkeepers were a multi-ethnic community, something to cherish and celebrate. Poor-friendly hawking also developed in the lanes and by-lanes around the market.

Empress Market has great political significance for our country. It has been a meeting ground for countless political rallies and demonstrations. It was also the focal point from where the leaders and activists of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy against Ziaul Haq courted arrest in 1983. The eateries and cafés within and around it were frequented since Partition by young progressives, some of whom rose to political eminence.

The marketplace became a transport hub from where the youth boarded buses for their schools, colleges and universities. The University of Karachi’s point buses started and ended there. Transport from distant parts of the city converged in front of the market to connect the poor to their livelihoods in Saddar.

It is true that the area was very congested, but who was responsible for that? Why and how did this state of affairs develop? The rich had long stopped visiting Empress Market. They had their own bazaars in their neighbourhoods. Will there be any accounting for the successive administrations which turned a blind eye to this expansion and congestion and failed to provide alternative employment and incomes? Some shopkeepers claim to have lease documents but almost all of them, including hawkers, have paid extortion money for decades to petty officials throughout Saddar. Moreover, one should remember that many ‘world class cities’ give space to small vendors on the footpaths of their streets. Witness Oxford Street in London and many such locations in New York.

However, a caring administration — good governance is a much used phrase — would have exercised due diligence and taken the trouble to document the shops which were razed to the ground, if only for historical record and to facilitate resettlement.

The brutality of the anti-encroachment drive was unwarranted and it may not now be possible to identify all the dispossessed and find alternative locations for them. It is said that new bazaars will be built in various parts of the city for these shopkeepers and hawkers, but even if that happens it will take years to accomplish. In the meantime, they will be left without any source of income.

One wonders what is in store for Empress Market. There are rumours — hopefully untrue — that it will be transformed into a museum or a high-end eating place for the affluent instead of being a meeting place for small trades and businesses for the less well-heeled. The future of Empress Market should be based on an understanding of its historical significance and its economic, cultural and political role in our country. Let it continue in its traditional status as a bazaar. The freedom fighters who died there would have surely wanted it to remain as a space for ordinary people.

A word about James Strachan, the municipal engineer who designed and constructed Empress Market between 1884 and 1889. He was the architect of many buildings in Karachi, including the iconic Merewether Clock Tower. In days gone by, a grateful city had named the road now running along PIA’s main reservation office in Saddar as Strachan Road and so it continued even after Partition. But an overzealous administration later renamed it to honour the eminent scholar Deen Muhammad Wafai, who could have found a place on any other major road. Thus poor Strachan is mentioned nowhere in the city which he helped build.

The writer is a former cabinet secretary and ambassador.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2018


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