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Tribute: Salaam Kurrachee

July 24, 2011


Karachi stands between bookends of Time. The bells in the colonial column of Merewether Clock Tower fell silent when its clock froze decades ago; but the edifice has gazed down from a 102 feet to witness no mean changes —  the Raj gave way to Partition, Scinde traveled into Sindh and Kurrachee became Karachi. However, the one constant is where it stands — the metropolis’ town centre: an epicenter of hope, survival and relentless energy.

It can breathe hard with enthusiasm, and then clench its fists in pain but never says die. This city has a face for every occasion; from a salad bowl to a melting pot to the cauldron of today — the darkest bloodstain on the nation’s conscience. But every bullet, bomb and drop of blood only fuels its resilience some more, to the extent that its characteristic buzz returns within a few hours of a bloodbath.

Ever the nation’s prodigal, errant child, Karachi has weathered much discrimination but continued to lead movements with both defiance and dedication. From being replaced by Islamabad as the capital on the pretext that it was by the sea and open to naval attacks – a reason that to date has not crossed Sri Lankan and Afghan think tanks vis a vis Colombo and Kabul — to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s version of MLR 52, whereby 303 government employees of primarily Urdu-speaking origins were summarily dismissed on mostly unproven charges of bribery and other crimes. Bhutto’s subsequent moves continued to reek of parochial injustice. Take the time when Sindhi was to become our national language.

Renowned poet, Rais Amrohvi’s legendary line ‘Urdu ka janaaza hai, zaraa dhoom se nikle’ (‘tis the funeral of Urdu, carry it out with fanfare’) ignited the wrath of hundreds who lie buried in what has come to be known as Qabristan Shuhuda-e-Urdu (Graveyard of the Martyrs of Urdu) making Karachi’s spirit of resistance the real champion of a timeless culture that constitutes this great language.

Then the same democratic leader also announced the infamous quota system through a 1973 constitutional amendment, which was promulgated for 15 years. This was further extended for another 10 years during the Ziaul Haq regime. It spelt doom for Karachi as until 1999 a mere two per cent employment quota in government institutions was allocated to the city.

The exploitation, sadly, was far from over. Grislier times lay ahead for Karachi’s youth in particular – it was to lose over 10,000 lives in extrajudicial killings during MQM’s battle with the state in the early nineties. This blood spattered spectre lives on to haunt countless homes and neighbourhoods. Many victimised families fled the country and many more took to living by the gun out of either necessity or vengeance or both.

Cut to the present. And a greater tragedy lies in the realisation that the metropolis’ past is far from buried. It seems set to repeat itself; it’s all around like a shroud. The air is once again heavy with gruesome history, ominous of a sullied future. Plagued with turf wars, target killings, ethnic tensions and terrorism, the city is also confronted with governmental prejudice that appears entirely focused on suppressing its voice of dissent and curtailing progress.

Be it the restoration of the old British Commissionerate system that scatters the city into five districts rather than a single entity, or dislodging a successful mayor, Mustafa Kamal, who not only figured in world rankings but also proved his worth in the implementation of development projects and infrastructural growth, to the premature abolishment of local bodies and a continual delay in a mass transit network.

Karachi is clearly the progeny of a lesser god. Most importantly, the fact that it is at the mercy of an apathetic, corrupt police force which is neither indigenous nor decently compensated and therefore has negligible affinity to the city and its denizens makes the metropolis a ticking time bomb, vulnerable to the slightest spark.

Regardless of its scars, the weight of which may be impossible to offload, Karachi is a delightful schizophrenic —  its will to live coexists with a desire to be on the brink of collective suicide. Its insolence in the face of injustice and compassion in times of carnage stems from a simple truth — Karachi’s bane, unlike Bombay’s, is political crime.

It is focused, organised and targets lives of citizens and activists by design. For this reason alone, the metropolis clings on to idealism and empathy. It has always raised the first slogan against bigotry and intolerance – from Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti murders to the Swat deal — Karachi has been pivotal in carrying out protests, signature campaigns, candlelight vigils to collecting aid and foodstuff for strife-torn localities such as the recent massacre at Kati Pahaari.

One of many incidents that depict brotherhood vividly is this: in the recent spate of killings and brutality, a particular caterer had prepared ‘daighs’ for a marriage that had to be postponed. A couple who came as regular customers ended up buying some of his fare to minimise his loss as well as rally round the affectees and he donated the rest to be transported to heavily guarded areas devoid of amenities and sustenance.

Almost every neighbourhood across the city had a kiosk for donations such as groceries and clothes that were being supplied to cordoned off areas. Meanwhile, independent organisations such as Sailani Trust provided free as well as cheap food to impoverished or volatile zones. There are numerous individual efforts such as a lower middleclass lady in New Karachi who sells a homemade meal for five rupees to labourers and the underprivileged. On another end, at Korangi Creek stands a brand new Indus Hospital which provides state-of-the-art healthcare to the destitute.

This was also the only city which hosted sustained, peaceful protests against discriminatory laws and a growing culture of intolerance with an inter-faith evening organised by Humara Karachi which began with qawwali, followed by bhajans and ended with hymns. Another independent association, Citizens for Democracy, Pakistan hosted a day-long festival, Jashn-e-Faiz, to honour the legend and spread his legacy of dissent, activism and secularism. On all fronts, Karachi rose to the occasion with aplomb; people from all strata and faiths turned up to the tune of 30,000, free of fear, defiant and in absolute harmony. In the end, the battle for Karachi is an open one. Looking back, it may have begun with Napier’s seemingly eccentric but deep battle report “Peccavi” --Latin for ‘I have sinned’. And “I have Sind” for Napier. Since then, Karachi’s journey in time — from the Merewether Tower on one end to the new A.O. Clock Tower in North Nazimabad — throbs with a spirit that has defied entire eras.

The question is: has it let us down by standing up for its causes? Or have we betrayed it by not taking complete, unabashed ownership?

The author is a former editorial writer at Dawn