THERE are few cities in the world hosting such rich cultural diversity as Karachi — a diversity reflected in the multiplicity of languages spoken across cultural and ethnic divides. Karachi always had been a cosmopolitan city, hosting at the time of Partition people belonging to the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Zoroastrian, Sikh, Jain, Jewish and other religious identities. While religious plurality declined after independence, Karachi soon started attracting people from all parts of Pakistan because of the economic opportunities it had to offer. It assumed the title of ‘Mini-Pakistan’ — a pulsating crucible of sociocultural, linguistic and ethnic pluralities.
In such cities, efforts are made to leverage demographic diversity to create a vibrant, resilient society. Unfortunately, now for reasons mostly political, this diversity, instead of acting as a source of celebration is increasingly serving as the fault line of contestation and fragmentation, reflected not just in social and communal distancing but also in spatial segregation.
This growing fragmentation often manifests itself in violence. The Afghan war gave birth to the ‘Kalashnikov’ culture. One damaging consequence of our involvement in the war was that Karachi became a hotbed of religious extremism, where radical forces with political agendas tried to pit communities against each other based on religious identity, the most common being efforts to distance the Sunni and Shia communities.
These fissures were instigated by fringe elements within the religious divides and not reflective of the views of the larger communities. However, a fear scenario was created, resulting in social and spatial distancing. Religious minorities, while less a victim of actual violence in the city, nevertheless are discriminated against in matters of access to housing, employment and education. Of late, a troubling element adding fuel to this divisive scenario is that political parties are being associated with ethnic identities with the costs manifesting themselves at the policy and institutional level such as in preferences in public hiring and contracts, control over land, services and violence.
Few cities are as culturally diverse as Karachi.
These are troubling scenarios. However, cities in much greater stress have bounced back, leveraging ‘culture’ as a ‘bonding’ force. One example is that of Medellin City in Colombia. Medellin, not too long ago, was known as the ‘Machine Gun City’ — the base of Pablo Escobar, head of a leading global drug cartel and considered the most violent city in the world. However, after undergoing an urban transformation based on the philosophy of ‘social urbanism’, it is now a tourist haven. The conflict the city faced was largely rooted in the decades-old civil war fought between government forces, far-right military groups and crime syndicates that had engulfed Colombia, pitting communities against each other. A major catalyst for the successful social urbanism experiment was a cultural policy introduced by the government to leverage Medellin’s cultural diversity for bonding communities that were earlier in conflict.
The cultural policy, a participatory initiative, based within the framework of cultural, territorial and city planning, created an interface of political and cultural thinking. Specific objectives included consolidating a culture of peace, based on dialogue, andpeaceful resolution of social conflicts, promoting access to cultural goods, services and ensuring policy, financial and institutional spaces for the creation and dissemination of productions and copyright. At its core was a conscious effort to promote tolerance and facilitate emerging expressions with active engagement of multiple actors in urban cultural development.
Another successful case study is that of Los Angeles City, the first US city to have a non-native mayor and where 56 per cent of the population speak a language other than English at home. Various initiatives had been taken to use diversity as a force of bonding rather than conflict. In April 2017, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission (now Department of Arts and Culture) released the Cultural Equity & Inclusion Initiative report to ensure that everyone in LA County had equal access to arts and culture, improving inclusion in the wider artistic community. The Countywide Cultural Policy was enacted to foster an organisational culture that values and celebrates arts, culture and creativity, strengthening cultural inclusion. LA has proven to be a city that builds resilience and vibrancy through celebrating cultural diversity.
We can take inspiration from such cities that, in terms of cultural diversity and a history of violence, probably exceed even the Karachi experience. Policy-based initiatives, followed by appropriate financial, institutional and programmatic arrangements can help heal the growing societal fissures that threaten this city’s peace and future sustainability.
The writer is an urban planner and CEO, Urban Collaborative.
Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2021