Karachi: A City at War with Itself

In the streets of Karachi, Pakistan, mutilated corpses are common sight.  Over the past year, the city has descended into chaos as ethnic-based political warfare has claimed the lives of over 1,400 people.  The violence seems to only get worse—indiscriminate kidnappings, killings, and torturings occur everyday as the city’s political bosses, gangsters, and clan leaders vie for power.  Ambulances and hospitals are now ethnically segregated, and the city morgues are full.

With a fast-growing population of 18 million people, Karachi is one of the world’s most dynamic and dangerous cities.  The metropolis has been labeled “Pakistan’s New York,” the melting pot where people across the troubled country migrate to seek economic opportunity and social mobility.  The city “officially” generates approximately 25 percent of Pakistan’s GDP, 65 percent of government revenue, and 63 percent of its labor force; it is also the country’s largest port, financial, and manufacturing center[1].  Karachi is the engine of Pakistan’s economy, yet it is in danger of boiling over.

To understand Karachi’s current plight, one must examine its extraordinary growth and development over the past 60 years.  At the time of India’s partition in 1947, Karachi was a mid-sized port city of 450,000 people.  Religiously, the city was evenly split: 51% Hindu; 42% Muslim.  By 1951, however, the city ballooned to 1.1 million people, of whom 96% were Muslim.  Moreover, the city became majority Mohajir, the ethnic group composed of Muslim migrants from north and central India), adding to the already diverse mixture of Sindhis, Punjabis, and Balochis.

For the first 30 years after partition, Karachi prospered.  Karachi enjoyed a fast-growing economy and a diverse, secular, relatively tolerant atmosphere, even after the Pakistani capital moved to Islamabad in 1959.  Karachi was a model for developing cities across the world, as well as a popular tourist destination for young Americans traveling on the “hippie trail,” seeking alternative lifestyles and cultures.

However, Pakistan’s 1977 military coup transformed both the city and the nation.  The military dictatorship closed Karachi to tourists and put the brakes on its developing economy.  Tensions heightened between the Mohajir majority and Sindhi/Punjabi-dominated local, regional, and federal governments, leading to the formation of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Karachi’s first ethnic-based political party, in 1984.  MQM has since dominated Karachi politics, entangled in an ongoing power struggle with the regional and federal governments.

More recently the MQM’s hegemony in Karachi has been challenged.  Karachi’s demographics are rapidly changing—whereas Mohajirs were once a dominant majority, rapid urbanization over the last 30 years has attracted a diverse array of immigrants from across Pakistan and beyond.  These immigrants were lured to Karachi by the prospect of economic opportunity and in hope of escaping the instability brought by Soviet and American invasions of Afghanistan, as well as natural disasters such as drought, floods, and earthquakes.  Today Karachi has 13 million more residents than it did in 1981, and many of these new residents reside in ghettos and slums.  Mohajirs now only make up roughly 45% of the population.  The second largest—and fastest growing—group in Karachi is the Pashtuns (25%), migrants from Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan.  Punjabis (10%), Sindhis (5%), Baloch (5%) and numerous other groups further add to the ethnic complexity of the city.  The religious composition is similarly changing—many Pashtuns and Balochs follow the more fundamentalist Wahabi and Deobandi Sunni sects, while most of the Mohajirs, Sindhis, and Punjabis are part of the more moderate Barelvi Sunni sect (though a sizeable Shia minority exists as well).  These ethnic and religious changes have placed Karachi’s single-party political system under threat.

Due to the lack of political representation and economic equality, non-Mohajir groups have organized into two oppositional parties: the Awami National Party (ANP), supported by Pashtuns, and the Pakistani People’s Party (PPP), supported by the Punjabis, Sindhis, and Balochis.  Demographically, these parties should be able to obtain a substantial share of local and regional power, but the MQM has begun waging war on these dissident parties in order to preserve its political monopoly.  Claims of “Pashtunization” and “Wahabization” of Karachi are common MQM talking points, designed to spread fears of a Talibanesque takeover of Karachi politics.

Ethnic-based political violence has become the norm in Karachi.  Each party’s henchmen indiscriminately kill people based on their ethnicity, regardless of party affiliation.  Kidnappings and torture are also on the rise, even in the wealthier, westernized Defense and Clifton districts.  Political violence in Karachi has killed more people than terrorism in all of Pakistan this year.  With a highly politicized police force, criminal gangs, drug cartels, and Islamists groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda also in the mix, Karachi has become a warzone.

Killings in Karachi by district. Source: Dawn
An approximate map of ethnicity in Karachi

Presently, the fighting on Karachi’s streets shows little sign of abating.  Each party denies any involvement and decries its rivals for fueling the conflict.  Without a stabilizing force to address the violence, there has been a growing call for military intervention.  However, Pakistan’s military is already spread thin, and the army is not accustomed to urban warfare.  Moreover, previous military action in the city yielded only a temporary break in political and ethnic violence.  The resolution of the conflict will likely necessitate a political compromise, but given the present circumstances, it is difficult to envision anything soon.

The violence and instability in Karachi has far-reaching consequences.  Pakistan has relied on Karachi as its primary source of revenue, growth, and opportunity.  Continued unrest would further destabilize the nation’s fragile economy and government.  Karachi’s problems serve as a microcosm for the failures of Pakistan as a whole: government corruption, over-population, pollution, ethnic and sectarian divisions, weak law and order, and widespread poverty.  Addressing these problems in a megacity of 18 million people is extremely difficult, but warring political parties will make the task impossible.  For Pakistan to succeed as a state, it needs a safe, prosperous Karachi.

Further Reading: The Friday Times, Dawn

By Daniel Jacobson


[1] All statistics in this post should be taken with a grain of salt given Pakistan’s rapidly changing conditions and lack of government resources.

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