Karachi, the automatic city

Published: March 30, 2012

The writer is an author, most recently of Slum Child (2010). She has written for numerous publications including Dawn, The Friday Times and Chowk

After the sudden surge in violence Karachi saw on March 27, followed by a day of normality, and then in the evening, another surge of violence, one wonders how it is that a city can go from riots and strikes to instant calm and then back to violence again, as if at the push of a button. There is something about this controlled violence that doesn’t sit well with me at all. Why has it flared up again after a period of relative peace? Who gains from the violence? Who suffers?

Make no mistake: the strikes and riots are meant to distract us from the real problems our country is facing. Inflation, rampant corruption, an ineffective government, social injustice and inequality. When you’re worrying how you’re going to get to work and whether or not you’ll be shot along the way, you won’t have the time to wonder why the price of petrol has risen eight rupees overnight, why Hindu girls are being forcibly converted to Islam, why Osama bin Laden was moving around freely in Pakistan and why his wife was sitting in Karachi. You’ll have remarkably little compassion for anyone’s problems but your own.

Karachi is Pakistan’s largest city, but if you look at it carefully, you’ll see that it’s also its own country. With a population of 18 million people, it’s bigger than a lot of small nations in the world. It has its own culture and ethos, its own rules, its own spirit and its own economy. There’s no other place like it anywhere else in Pakistan. People of all ethnicities, religions, political persuasions and economic classes call it home.

But how do you control the beast? Previously, the city was divided into five districts, each under the relatively effective control of the deputy commissioner’s office. After Pervez Musharraf’s devolution plan, the city was brought under the leadership of a single nazim, similar to a mayor. The nazimship has been put on hold until the next local bodies elections, but the effectiveness of the previous administrative system has never been recaptured. There’s a saying in America: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Now, in Karachi, we’ve got a case of ‘If it’s broke, don’t fix it either.’ And some things, like Humpty Dumpty’s shell, can’t be put back together again.

So instead of good governance and stewardship, our leaders have opted to adopt the method of ‘divide and conquer’. That is, keep Karachi permanently divided — along ethnic lines, along political lines, along gender lines, along class lines — in order to weaken what could be a strong, unified metropolis. Small pieces are easier to control and intimidate. The Romans knew this. So did the British. This is not a new thing: Karachi has always been divided along ethnic lines, ever since Fatima Jinnah fought Ayub Khan in the 1964 elections and ethnic loyalties were brought in to support both candidates. When one prevailed over the other, the ethnic populations took it as proof that ethnicity trumps national unity. And we’ve lived like this ever since.

And Pakistanis are good learners. Not only do our leaders tell us to live like this, but we obey them blindly, like sheep. We talk a lot about the diversity of Karachi, how rich the city is because of its minorities, its Shias and Christians and Parsis and Hindus; its Pathans and its Mohajirs and its Sindhis and its acceptance of everyone who calls it home. But the minute the strings are pulled, we start dancing like puppets. We withdraw, we pull inwards and we start to blame the other. Instead of judging and evaluating our leaders and our colleagues and our teachers and our workers on merit, character, and performance, we refuse to assess them along anything else but family and kinship ties, religion and ethnicity. I couldn’t think of a more backwards way to live.

So, Karachi is a country that seethes with frustration, dissatisfaction, anger and chaos. Until the button gets pushed, and then suddenly everything works, and we go to school, work, concerts, fashion shows, restaurants, the beach. Then the button is pushed again and we burn buses and riot outside the KESC offices. When will we tire of being automatic people, doomed to stay in the spin cycle of riots, strikes, shootings, looting, killing? When will we ever learn to say no and try to regain some agency over our lives?

Maybe when we run out of electricity the plug on this cycle will finally be pulled.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2012.

Reader Comments (35)

  • Parvez
    Mar 31, 2012 - 12:01AM

    You certainly manage to convey a vivid sense of hopelessness and anguish.
    If you start from the highest office in Islamabad to the ministers responsible for Karachi and even casually scrutinise the quality of the people involved it will not be hard to understand why Karachi is as it is.

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  • fus
    Mar 31, 2012 - 12:10AM

    Very nicely written and so true.

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  • karachiite
    Mar 31, 2012 - 12:20AM

    agree on this.
    you actually make me think about this push button ! I wish each of us living in karachi could see this.

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  • Mirza
    Mar 31, 2012 - 12:30AM

    Sad to admit but on one hand we condemn the tribal and clan politics in the other parts of the country and look down at them as uneducated and backward people but at the same time we practice the clan and ethnic based politics. All the good things about Karachi and being a cosmopolitan city take a back seat when it comes to the clan interests and qabza groups. We do not stop criticizing (rightly so) the govt but we change our behavior at the drop of a hat. It is sad to see my mother burning and we cannot do anything to save her. The gun and revenge culutre among Pakistanis must stop now. This is an appeal to the common sense of residents and nothing against anybody or group.

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  • Ammad
    Mar 31, 2012 - 12:51AM

    Karachi is a cosmopolitan city, a very big city, that accommodates everybody who calls it his home. But the only way to go is if we show tolerance. As big is the city, as big should be the level of tolerance. We should discourage its division on ethnic grounds but should rather take steps that foster harmony and peace in the city. We should learn to live and co-operate with each other, this is the only way it can go forward. I propose that everybody be given a part in running the administration of the city. Also jobs for anybody on merit. Living and doing politics in the city is everybody’s right. No one should claim to be the owner of it.

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  • Muhajir
    Mar 31, 2012 - 1:07AM

    Karachi was quiet and peaceful before Mr. Altaf Hussian started his partyRecommend

  • Sanaa
    Mar 31, 2012 - 1:59AM

    sad bt true :(

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  • Sanaa
    Mar 31, 2012 - 2:24AM

    کراچی بہت ڈھیٹ ہے

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  • fus
    Mar 31, 2012 - 2:36AM

    @ Muhajir, year right? you should say it was peaceful until the educated and literate middle class of Karachi raised their voice against discrimination and for what was done with thenm in 70s, 80s and hatred spread during Ayub Khan’s time.

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  • Babar Ansari
    Mar 31, 2012 - 3:18AM

    Well its true we the people of pakistan being well educated, we trust blindly on our leaders and even we know that they all are doing wrong even though we follow our own communist party and all the political parties are indirectly communist based parties that boost different communities like Mohajirs, punjabi, Sindhi, baloch, pathans and lots of minorities all are attached to their respective parties, so whatever their party does they keep calm.This all works and the writer mentioned about same policy of Britishers of Divide and rule..same happens here..

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  • Kaydo.
    Mar 31, 2012 - 3:44AM

    What a shame for Quaid azam Jinaah country and big shame is they killed the poor
    of poorer vegitable vendors, Rickshow Driver, Road side restaurant owner, day labourer, bus
    contuctors, why dont they killed Devils leaders.Recommend

  • Shabber Abbas
    Mar 31, 2012 - 4:28AM

    Technically Shias are not declared a minority in all of Pakistan including Karachi for that matter. I think this is a point worth considering, because being declared a minority confers certain privileges under the law (ie, special seats in Parliament, special laws, etc.).

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  • common pakistani
    Mar 31, 2012 - 5:25AM

    @muhajir
    I am old enough to remember that Mr Altaf’s party got such overwhelming public support because the city had lost the peace already. Pls get your history right.

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  • Adeel Syed
    Mar 31, 2012 - 5:57AM

    @Babar Ansari: I think we can agree that PTI is the only party that transcends all boundaries and does not play the race card. It is the only truly national party in the country. This country can take a turn for the better if we make an effort to vote for the right people on election day.

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  • liberalpak
    Mar 31, 2012 - 8:50AM

    @fus:
    What..??Do you mean MQM is Mohajir party? I have been hearing this news propagated in Media that MQM is party of every ethnic and religious group. Watch your words and they prove your mindset.

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  • liberalpak
    Mar 31, 2012 - 8:53AM

    A Vicious cricle may be: Sindhis kicked british raj out of Karachi, Sindhis were kicked out by Mohajirs, MOhajirs are now being kicked by Pakhtoons. Tit for tat!

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  • Mar 31, 2012 - 12:25PM

    in 1947,it was never written that millions of hindi speaking people will move to pakistan,if some body is still muhajir after 60 years,than better he should move to his orginal hindi lands.to me urdu is islamisation of hindi language,watch shah rukhs hindi movies,u won’t see any difference between hindi and urdu,india did great job by sending here its hindi speaking agents.

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  • zalim singh
    Mar 31, 2012 - 1:19PM

    Dear Bina

    good of you that you mentioned the Hindu girls who are being converted forcibly. This can hardly be a subject now- scores of people dying. At least the Hindu girls are still alive- alibet raped and leading second class life somewhere- as subdued wives of some radical madrassa students. But still living.

    Hope Pakistan will sort its problem first and sort out the problems of Hindus- like those of those unfortunate girls who were converted forcibly.

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  • Babar Ansari
    Mar 31, 2012 - 2:57PM

    @Adeel Syed..
    yeah ..at present we have the only choice that is PTI..but still i dun think k PTI will sweep..
    becuase in karachi they have to face MQM, in interior sindh there is PPP, they will win some seats from punjab and khyber pakhhtunkhwa and also from gilgit baltistan..

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  • sameer
    Mar 31, 2012 - 3:24PM

    @ali jaan: After reading ur comments I have Astonish that who send all the leaders to go in central india and organize and doing their political activities
    And it is a big question mark that the people of places which could never be in a Pakistan were supported all these leaders

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  • sameer
    Mar 31, 2012 - 3:30PM

    ther were never a sindi dominance in this city , ALL MOHAJIRS COME TO KARACHI BKOZ QUAID E AZAM ALSO COME TO THIS CITY

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  • Mar 31, 2012 - 3:46PM

    i think your knowledge about history is very poor,before 1947,karachi was sindhi majority sindhi dominated sindhi city,quade azam was mis sindhi gujarati,not muhajir as people claim.@sameer:

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  • Ali S
    Mar 31, 2012 - 6:06PM

    @ali jan:

    And what was Karachi before we settled here? That’s right, a fishing port no one gave two craps about

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  • Mehran
    Mar 31, 2012 - 6:47PM

    @Ali S:
    LOLX.if It was crap city, why was it made a capital of Pakistan? Did any crap city possess Trams, double Decker buses at that time? It was one of the developed city of Sindh. Read some history book. People of Sindh allowed your ancestors to live and prosper in urban city, they thought that being Muslims, you will be more nice and kind people. But Post MQM, there is increasing violence and hate in Karachi. Now Islamabad is capital and if any one has problem with Sindhis. They can happily leave our soil and go to Islamabad. Pakistan does NOT end in Sindh.

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  • jock
    Mar 31, 2012 - 6:49PM

    @Ali S:
    Karachi was a 300k plus city even then. That is after, the Hindu exodus. The largest in united Pakistan. Including Dacca.

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  • Socialist
    Mar 31, 2012 - 6:51PM

    Ali S & Sameer: You even don’t know what you are blabbing about ?
    Karachi was a Hub of economics & prosperity back in the eighties, Its always been one & FYI it was under the Sindhi’s rule although majority of them comprised of the Hindu-Sindhis but they were Sindhis. You guys are so ill read regarding to the history & the ground facts of the land in which you dwell into.
    You know what, Even under the British raj even the designated British officer was bound to learn/Speak/Write the the indigenous language aka ”Sindhi” in 6 months.
    Get Your Facts Right Kiddos !

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  • Bin Basrah
    Mar 31, 2012 - 6:58PM

    While we all bicker along Shia – Deobandi, Pathan – Muhajir and other divisive lines, the encirclement of Pakistan becomes remarkably complete. You have to be retarded to believe that Karachi is not part of Sindh, this is clearly far from reality. The problem is that Sindh is increasingly drifting away from Karachi and NO ONE seems to come forward and own up. I fail to understand why the Pashtun’s are being championed by Sindhis as the counter-weight to Urdu-speaking as both by strict nationalistic principles are alien to the land of Sindh.

    But then again, who is a TRUE Sindhi? Almost 80% of the landed class of Sindh is non Sindhi (The Magsi, Marri, Chandio, Jatoi and others are Baluch, The Mirza’s are Turks from Georgia and the Syeds/Shahs & Abbassi’s are Arabs). This great land of Sindh has played host of all who have come and settled and embraced them with open arms.

    Today Pakistan is a financially failing state, with deep divides, not a single strong institution (the courts are a mockery, the army on retreat and the politicians circling like vultures) and arguably 180 million of the world worst defeatist personalities…….

    The violence in Karachi is nothing new or special, it is just a small taste of how badly we as Pakistanis have wronged each other and our country.

    The Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar on the eve of Pakistan’s independence had declared that today the borders of Arab & Islamic lands have once again been re-erected on the edges of the realm of Hindustan, and that a mighty fort has unfurled the flag of Pakistan. It is painful to see the fort capitulate to Hindustan for its inhabitants could never demonstrate their worthiness as a people and as a nation.

    What is a Pashtun (aren’t the Pashtun in Karachi also Muhajirs?) and what is a Muhajir? what is a Shia (the Shia are Shia-e-Ali as in partisans of Ali) and what is a Deobandi (Isn’t Ali the universally accepted 4th Caliph and thus EVERY deobandi is also a Shia-e-Ali)?

    We as a people and nation have descended into a childish debate of genealogy, ethnicity and sectarianism…meanwhile the encirclement of our land seems remarkably complete. I do not fear what is happening today in Karachi, but I do fear what is about to happen to Pakistan. May Allah help us ALL!

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  • Socialist
    Mar 31, 2012 - 7:06PM

    More so over when the immigrants came over, They started plundering, looting & massacring the common peace loving sufi indigenous Sindhis (Hindu) & took over their properties, lands, factories & what not, After that they rejected & repented the indigenous people rich history, language, culture, rights & exploited their hospitality for like 25 years.
    For 25 years Sindh was under the rule of Immigrants, Who’d not even attach to the customs, language, culture of the indigenous people as if they (Immigrants) were some sort of Invaders.
    Alas, Yet still the people who’d been living here in the land of Sindh yet still call themselves Muhajir, Ali Jaan is right, If some one proclaim him/herself a muhajir he should better go back where he’d came from.
    & The one who does not should take the indigenous land/language/culture/history as of their own as it should have been as had always been in the other part of the worlds. Cause they are born of Sindh & should better start owing it. Or else the only the third party (Centralist/Establishment) would gain out of it, like always.
    Bw,
    It was mqm who helped Pathans/Pujanbis/Giglgiti/Hazrawaal/Bengalis/Bermans to get settled here in urbanized part of the Sindh Karachi/Hyderabad/Sukkur just to keep away & keep alive the alienation among the indigenous people, Now the very same people are playing havoc.

    Like they say.
    Tit for Tat.

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  • Mar 31, 2012 - 8:24PM

    man it was city with 347000 people ,largest city of sindh,with wide roads,more clean railways,sindh madressah,vibrant port and trams,in india uttar pardesfh,bihar are are stiil bacward areas ,this where these people came from,and muslims of that region were swiming agaist the tide of history,turkish muslims under the leadership of kamal turk were getting out of obsolete khilafa and were thankful to young atta turk,but indian muslims were running khialafa tmovemen to restore itt,what a nonsense it was@Ali S: these same were people who declared sir syed as kafre azam,go and read some history
    .

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  • Irshad Khan
    Mar 31, 2012 - 9:37PM

    Karachi expended in all directions ie economically, industrially, socially, educationally etc till the Karachites were responsible for running the administration of Karachi. It was called city of lights. But since the time of Ayub Khan and successively governments adopted ethnic based policies of anti-karachites this city has become trouble spot. This is a very unique matter that administration and Police is mostly not from Karachites and comprised of of personnels who are not familiar with areas and people of Karachi and thus treat them as aliens. Jirga system, tribal system, Sardari nizam, Winnie, Karokari, poligamy, murder in the name of Inteqam and arms mongering etc were not known to Karachites. Land grabbing, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, kidnapping, water mafia and many other such professions are never adopted by Karachites. In recent past while the youngsters of Karachi/Hyderabad got a chance to run the administration for a short time they made miracles and changed faces of both cities from slums to most modern cities and also examples of peaceful life. There were no ethnic killings or what-so-ever in the time of Mustafa Kamal and his party; as these people are highly educated, specialised in their fields, capable, disciplined, honest, sincere and devoted and loyal to the country.

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  • Bilal
    Mar 31, 2012 - 9:52PM

    Karachi is this city built by Urdu speaking population.

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  • Bilal
    Mar 31, 2012 - 9:54PM

    Before independence Karachi was Hindu, Gujrati and Parsi majority city

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  • Daniyal
    Apr 1, 2012 - 2:29AM

    The point of this article is not to ignite a debate on ethnicity. Karachi will always be a host to multiple ethnicities. However, as of late, a working solution has not been able to calm politics that tugs ethnic lines. The author refers to the nazimship that has had a longer than expected hiatus. Ultimately, the fate of Karachi lies in the hands of its citizens, and a local formula has been devised that empowers each one of them to the fates of their streets, neighborhoods, districts, and the city. Time and time again Karachi is up for grabs at the hands of parties that talk of ethnic superiority, but only fill their pockets.

    As an Urdu speaker, I’m tired of the MQM claiming to support us, when bit by bit it has destroyed the city our parents and our grandparents built. They brought along with them dreams form India and put this city on the map. It wasn’t through fighting with the inhabitants of this land, but by incorporating and compromising. Yes, in the 1980 and 90s we experienced wrongs at the hands of politicians, but the MQM continues to let these wounds fester without finding a working solution. This was the city that was truly pluralistic and meritocratic in its character. If the MQM is in power, why is it not working towards creating such a medium? If it truly claims to represent us, then let it work on the dreams of our grandparents who trekked to this dusty land in search of hope.

    As a Karachiite, multiple parties claim to support us but what is support when you don’t know if you’ll come home the same evening, or that you can’t get food because of a curfew. Life has become hard because of these parties (that goes for PPP, ANP as well).

    Ultimately, a solution by the people of Karachi needs to be devised. The local government ordinance seems to have done that but it’s been placed on hold because it didn’t appeal to the rural governments in Pakistan. Karachi is vastly different and it’s sad that 60 years later we haven’t found a grassroots democratic system of representation for our city.

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  • Aamer
    Apr 1, 2012 - 11:06AM

    Karachi is a place with big heart and acceptance for all ethnic groups, whether it be urdu speaking, pathans, sindhi, or punjabi. It is just that it is currently being controlled by wrong hands (who are in minority and who will soon fall).

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  • Nadeem
    Apr 2, 2012 - 3:23PM

    Karachi is the host of many ethenic population.Nobody is the native of this land ,either muhajirs, pukhtun,padhan , baloch or sindhi. Each has come here at some point of time –making good fortune . Each belong to their own parties.These parties claimed their sole right over this city but neither is capable of bringing piece to this city.Every party is cable of how to destroy the life of this city .

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