Karachi will, for time and memoriam, be divided along lines of caste and ethnicity

Published: January 31, 2016

Karachi gazes at the smog filled sky in despair, watches the blurry outlines of the setting sun sink into the blue sea and braces herself for showers of bullets and rivers of blood. PHOTO: REUTERS

find it rather problematic to fashion a semblance of a concrete structure from the conundrum that is Karachi’s metropolis. The metropolis I speak of comprises not of sky-scrapers and high-rise buildings that brush against the clouds and billboards lit with neon lights. On the contrary, the metropolis that harbours the heart of Pakistan lives and breathes, just like you and I.

She breathes with the quivering, ragged gasps of an invalid. She inhales mouthfuls of air contaminated by generations of ignorance and growing dissent, and punctuated by the overpowering stench of rotting human remains. The city that once stood as the jewel in the crown of a nascent country – a beacon of hope, of growth, of a united mass of young men and women dissolving the divisions of ethnicity, caste, and creed for the purpose of striving towards building the foundations of a nation – now gazes at the smog filled sky in despair, watches the blurry outlines of the setting sun sink into the blue sea and braces herself for showers of bullets and rivers of blood.

This piece shall be based upon patterns of identity and discourse within Karachi, how these patterns have evolved over the course of the past few years with respect to Karachi’s rapidly burgeoning and vastly diverse demographic and why, amidst clouds of chaos and escalating civil strife, Karachiites find themselves struggling to identify themselves as citizens of a nation of 180 million individuals.

For the sake of simplicity, I shall broadly divide this troubled city not along a geographical context but along the lines of the paths and rifts that have been erected betwixt the city’s burgeoning populace. Mohammad Waseem, in his working paper for the Saban Centre at Brookings titled Patterns of Conflict in Pakistan: Implications for Policy, states that,

“Every fifth household in Pakistan, every fourth in Punjab and Sindh provinces, and more than half in Karachi are ‘migrant’.”

By ‘migrant’, Waseem is referring to the Urdu-speaking migrants or the mohajirs from North India that settled primarily in Karachi following Partition. The other half of Karachi’s demographic comprises of a lethal cocktail: a mixture of four different ethnicities, a rallying cry against suppression at the hands of a dominant majority, a far cry from the cosmopolitan melting-pot of cultures and faiths that Karachi once was.

An article published by the New York Times in November 2010 for instance, very blatantly claimed that Karachi was Pakistan’s “most deadly place” after its actual war zones. But, the threat Karachi faces is starkly different from the Taliban insurgency being battled by the Pakistani army up north. On the contrary, the article claimed,

“Far more common [in Karachi] have been killing by gangs affiliated with ethnic-based political parties hunting for turf in a city undergoing seismic demographic change.”

Three years forward, Karachi’s woes have not dissipated.

In a recent press conference, the leader of a Pakhtun political party claimed that leaders of his party were receiving death threats and that “extremist elements” were still operative within Karachi’s Pakhtun-dominated areas.

Karachi is a city that struggles to thrive and survive amidst barbed wires and makeshift battlefields littered with shoes and stones and streaks of blood. But, why do Karachiites seem acquiescent of the fact that Karachi will, for time and memoriam, be divided along the lines of cast and ethnicity?

I answer this pressing matter of concern via research that I based upon the aim of unearthing the state of mind of the average citizen of Karachi in order to understand and comprehend the divisions that exist betwixt a sample size of eight Karachiites and how these divisions translate to ethno-political rivalries in a larger sphere. My sample size comprised of affluent members of society between the ages of eighteen and twenty one. The reasons behind choosing this particular sample size are two-fold: Karachi’s affluent civil society is a) devoid of the passionate class-based ethnic rivalry that exists amongst members of Karachi’s working classes and is more likely to look upon Karachi’s growing instability and political strife with an objective view and B) responsible for the mass political movement that sprung up before the 2013 General Elections and was geared towards alleviating Karachi from the stronghold demagogic influences.

Karachiites struggle to identify themselves as citizens because the problems that plague them on a daily basis are several steps away from those that the rest of Pakistan faces. My sample size unanimously agreed upon a focal factor responsible for Karachi’s woe: Politicisation of the masses, from university based student unions to workers unions to politicised police and law enforcement agencies. The desire for self-fulfilment overpowers the need to recognise and work towards the greater good of society.

But what makes Karachi significantly different?

The overwhelming difference between the proportions of people involved directly into politics and the common citizenry that is influenced into pledging allegiance. In order to reinforce my claim, I spoke to Chambeli*, a Hindu resident of Karachi’s Shireen Jinnah Colony, who very vociferously claimed that political workers showed up during Diwali and Holi festivities close to elections in order to win hearts and minds and votes. And although every five years, members of predominant parties have promised and pledged to provide water and sanitation to members of the locality, their words are always in vain. Most of Chambelis’ family and friends have stopped exercising their right to vote because they claim that political workers “can speak but can’t act upon their words”.

I shall close this article not with a fervent repetition of what has been said time and time again, but with a journey. Bus M4 travels from Hyderi to North Nazimabad to Gurumandir to Shahra-e-Faisal’s wide boulevard to Defence’s repertoire of bungalows and neat picket fences and perfectly manicured gardens. It stops at rickety excuses for bus stands, weaving through honking cars and bumper-to-bumper traffic, picks-up the maid that toils away in House 23/A each day, the factory worker, the clerk, the young student with the unkempt hair and the furrowed brow, the mochi with calloused fingers and clothes that smell faintly of leather, the mother whose laden with groceries bought from Sabzi Mandi and carries a young child in the crook of her arm, the poet lost in thoughts that float back to a time of idyll and peace and harmony. The bus stops at its final destination and the passengers disembark – the maid, the factory worker, the student, the mochi, the mother and her child, the poet – and turn their frenzied eyes towards the horizon. In the backdrop of the setting sun casting rays of gold across the clear sky, they assimilate with the masses. They let their feet sink into the soft sand as the roaring waves crash against their forms and they sway, only to be held firmly by those behind them. A binding, strengthening chain of humans. And in that moment, the disparities that threaten to overpower and separate Karachi into a million fragments fade away.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of people interviewed.

Zuha Siddiqui

Zuha Siddiqui

The author is an undergraduate student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences with a major in Political Science. She tweets as @SiddiquiZuha (twitter.com/SiddiquiZuha)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • One

    It is not the problem of Karachi only, but the whole Pakistan is infected by the cast and ethnic chauvinism disease, which doesn’t let the Pakistan stay united. This problem can only be solved, if ,our biased views about the other casts and ethnic people change. A nation, who once touted themselves as one nation(Muslims) are now suffering the huge problem of ethnic and cast divide.Recommend

  • http://thoughtsandotherthing.blogspot.fr/2015/09/hyderabad-as-i-know-and-feel.html Supriya Arcot

    Sorry, don’t want to nit-pick , but is it ‘caste’ or ‘cast’ in the heading ?Recommend

  • Sami

    Well yes every fourth household in Punjab may be of a migrant background. But they do not got any problems as most of them migrated from Indian Punjab, Kashmir upto Delhi and Himachal Pradesh regions. Even in most parts of Kashmir people speak Potohari Punjabi that is easily understood in Punjab. They integrated very easily in Punjab and their current generation simply identify with locals and call themselves Punjabis. My family migrated from Indian Himachal Pradesh to Pakistani Punjab.
    Even personalities like Khwaja Saad Rafique ( Current railway minister ) and Zia ul Haq are sons of migrant families from Indian Punjab. But everyone identify now with the locals.

    Lastly intermarriage simply changed everything. By intermarrying among locals no Melting pot emerged and one unified identify came forward.

    But in Karachi the situation is different. Sindhis and Urdu speakers do not marry each other ( Only very few exceptions). Most people who inhabited that city were from UP. They are different from local Sindhis. As a result the tug of war started and two distinct ethnic groups emerged in Sindh. The model of integration remained very successful in Punjab, but in Sindh it failed. But i will blame both Sindhis and newer migrants for this divide.

    Now Karachi is a divided place and it will be like that. Melting pot type regions are a hindrance to progress, as many group try to get hold of power and this cycle continues.Recommend

  • Parvez

    That was nice but a bit flowery……the problem of Karachi which is about 20 million diverse people is that it is managed by two political parties the PPP and the MQM…..ones leader lives in Dubai and the others in London….need one say more.Recommend

  • Ab-e-Sin

    What does the author mean by “caste”, most Pakistanis and Karachiites in particular don’t know what the caste system is in Indian context. We don’t know what the Varnas are or the what the caste names are (There are 4 varnas that Pakistanis don’t know about). I believe she’s conflating biraderism with “caste”, your surname is not your caste, please educate yourself what “caste” actually is before making sweeping statements and ignorant statements on what you think “caste” is.Recommend

  • Yazdani

    It’s quite an ignorant piece written by a Lahore-based writer.

    Karachi has many bad parts and but also has some good parts and many “moderate” parts too, I’ve had Punjabi,Sindhi,Pashtun,Baloch,Memon,Kashmiri,Hazar, Urdu-zaban and neighbors and friends of various ethnic and religious backgrounds and have seen inter-marriages, and i’ve lived in the mostly middle class or upwardly middle class neighborhoods of the city.

    Don’t generalize a city sitting miles away like how western authors make generalizations of the country as a whole sitting miles away. You wouldn’t like it if Karachiites generalized the beautiful city of Lahore based off Gullu Butt and Mumtaz Qadri.


  • Chitral wala

    Most of the problems of Karachi are directly related to the bigoted, racist,
    corrupt, communal Sons of the Soil. Punjabis, Sindhis, Pathans and
    Balochs. They never accepted the Urdu speaking Muhajjirs as Pakistanis.
    The Muhajjirs were NEVER allowed to integrate. And were reminded at
    every turn, of their ‘Indian Background/Origins’. They were, and still are,
    very heavily discriminated against. After 68 years, their children, are
    still considered ‘Muhajjirs’
    Karachi is divided along ethnic and even sectarian lines. There is even a
    Afghan Basti [city] on the outskirts of Karachi. Full of Afghans, who are
    part and parcel and instigators of a deadly toxic mix of every kind of crime
    imaginable. Running the gamut from bank robberies to religious sectarian
    violence and everything in between. They number about a million
    The author never mentions this potent deadly ingredient in the ethnic cocktail
    of Karachi.
    Karachi is the one and ONLY financial hub of the Land of the Pure.
    And it is time for a separate province, for Urdu speaking Muhajjirs of Indian origins. Long, long overdue.Recommend

  • Sami

    By looking at your language one can safely assume that who is bigot and intolerant. Also no one is forcing you not to integrate, but you do not want to. Why you will not find any Urdu speaker who try to learn any local languages?. Hazara and Pushtoons and people in Punjab live together as they learn local languages.
    But Urdu speakers refuse to be like locals and then claim they are being discriminated.? You do not want to be identified with locals then what is the fuss?.

    Also Urdu speakers have names for Every ethnicity, This is to show Superiority over others. The word Paindo and Dhagga is reserved for Punjabis. Similarly Sindhis and Pushtoons are mocked. Even Baloch have different names among Urdu speakers. So who is creating this bigotry by Name calling?.

    I have met many Urdu speakers who claim that since they belong from Superior culture so they cannot be like other Pakistanis. So who is a bigot in this case?. Also victimhood card by bashing others do not work all the time.

    You want to tag yourself differently. Otherwise others are ready to embrace you, but your superior culture theory of UP is a hindrance in this case.Recommend

  • Sami

    Maybe Karachi based caste system would be different than India but it is definitely there. Half of the population of Karachi whose parents migrated from UP are apparently Syeds, Hashmis, Qureshis and so on. Just try to marry among them. You will see that what she meant to say. I am sure 90 percent of these Arab origin theories are man made , but it is ingrained in the mentality of Karachi based families and it is discussed a lot. It is more easier to marry a so called Syed in Punjab, but in Karachi it is like a no go in 99 percent cases.Recommend

  • Ali

    She isnt wrong. There still exists a caste system in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Ali

    So you’re saying not to discuss Pakistans endless problems? Recommend

  • Gullu, Guddu and Gomnath.

    It should have been caste. You are observant.
    Thanks for pointing out the spelling error.Recommend

  • Chitral wala

    Your comment is childish. Does not hold any water.
    You are very good at twisting facts. Typical Punjabi trait.
    Keep ‘meeting’ and keep ‘dreaming’ your convoluted stories.
    Now, you are an expert, on Muhajjirs, Karachi and Sindh.
    Wonder what your consciousness think of the Kalash,
    Swatis, Baltis, Brusho, Hunzakuts, Chitralis, can’t be much.
    By the way, majority, here, are Shias, for your information.
    All the Super Good Sons of the Soil, collectively, sprang from Punj Nehr.Recommend

  • Swaadhin

    That hurt, any comparison with India especially hindus hurts.Recommend

  • Swaadhin

    Interesting name, it is like Gafoor, Gazanfar and Ghulfam put together.Recommend