Karachi’s decline

15 Aug 2012

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WHEN the British set their sights on conquering Sindh, it was not Karachi that they sought. In 1843 the working capital for the region was Hyderabad, located on the Indus. It was that city which was the capital of the Talpur dynasty that controlled Sindh.

The British, wishing to add another port to their holdings in the Indian subcontinent, wanted to secure an alternate means of supplying cotton to the new textile mills in Manchester. After the conquest of Sindh, Gen Charles Napier, the conquering hero, is said to have sent a single word to his superiors, peccavi, Latin for ‘I have sinned’.

Of sins and strategy Karachi was born, slowly fed and whetted by the Bombay Presidency’s leavings, the alternate port that received much but not all, growing all the while from village to colonial outpost and finally, in 1947, to capital city.

In the moments of reckoning that arrive every August in Pakistan many analyses are devoted to parsing the annals of history, evaluating decisions made and catastrophes averted in the story of the country. The point is to determine the causes of Pakistan’s current condition, to find a precise date to pin to the decline in the hope that with this exercise some certainty can be gleaned from the past and attached to the future.

This is not often done for Karachi, a mere city in a larger country. For all its millions, few, it seems, wonder whether Karachi’s decline began at its birth when the British decided that a village of a few hundred would be crowned as a city.

Even fewer consider whether that first choice of building a city not for itself but as a route to other places — for British cotton then and Nato supplies today — would doom it forever. Perhaps it was a plan put in place in a hurry to make a city where there was only a village so that the empire could have another port.

Only 10 years after the battle of Sindh, Karachi had a harbour and a cantonment town and the Napier Mole connected Keamari to the mainland. Some say the intent of creation marks the creation forever; others insist on a more universal truth: port cities are always gateways to other places and never loved for themselves alone.

At partition in 1947, the technical date from which we count Pakistan’s beginnings, Karachi was crowned. It was through its streets that the triumphant motorcade of its own child, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, passed. Happy to forgive, Karachi forgot that even this triumphant son was a prodigal one, having left it for Bombay years earlier.

The population of the city at partition was 450,000 and over half of it spoke Sindhi. In the months after partition, 600,000 more arrived, carting with them their dreams and their beds. So did government servants — thousands of them, the Muslim cogs in the vast bureaucracy that the British had gifted to the subcontinent.

Karachi then had plenty of space but few plans for absorbing its people or its newfound status as the capital of a country. Then as now, this absence of plans did not deter those bound for Karachi and everyone came anyway. By 1951, the population of Karachi was 1.1 million. As Arif Hasan recounts in his studies of the city, by that date over 50 per cent of the city spoke Urdu and over 96 per cent identified themselves as Muslim.

Karachi’s anointment as capital city came with perks in addition to people; Pakistan Secretariat was established near Saddar Bazaar and various countries set up their embassies to manage relations with the new and first Pakistani government.

The moments after its creation seemed to belong to Karachi, a spot in time when the old and the new almost loved each other, when empty buildings and the city’s arid land seemed plentiful enough for both.

If there had not been a thriving intellectual life before, it germinated now in cafés and cinemas and clubs and even street corners. Those who remember those moments fondly would mark all future ones against their hopefulness; many others who have trouble imagining them now feel less of a loss but no less of a betrayal.

Karachi was deposed in 1960 when the Ayub Khan government deemed it unworthy as a capital city and decided to take the trappings of power to the north into Punjab, deeper inside Pakistan, perhaps as an emblem of what was truly Pakistan.

It was a conundrum that Karachi would never be able to shed. With the departure of government came the departure of importance and the yearning for it. For the 52 years since, Karachi has been mired in the project of proving its importance despite its intractability, its loyalty despite its geographic marginality and its beauty despite its ugliness.

There are numbers now attached to the task of endearing itself to the rest of the country. One April 2012 report counted the city’s contribution to Pakistan’s GDP as approximately Rs18bn per day; 70 per cent of Pakistan’s income tax revenue and nearly 62 per cent of its sales tax revenue are estimated to come from Karachi.

Behind the hopeful numbers are the hopeless ones of a city gone wrong; nearly 1,800 lives lost in violence related to gun, extortion and land mafias, over 300 killed in political violence in only the last three months.

Those looking at the city at 65 through the lens of these numbers may assert that the crucial moment lies not in the past or the painstaking conundrums of what doomed it, but in the present.

Regardless of how the age of the city is marked, through the lens of country, conquest, betrayal or deposition, its crises today are those of a nation, representing in their complications of ethnicity, their vexations of lawlessness and the creeping ascendance of militancy a story whose end, if unwritten, seems terribly close.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com