In the context of Pakistani history, Karachi occupies a unique position. The country’s capital upon independence in 1947, Karachi was also the target destination for Indian Muslim migrants, called muhajirs, who crossed the newly established border from India to Pakistan to re-establish their lives in the newly anointed homeland for Indian’s Muslims. 1 Oskar Verkaaik characterizes the Karachi of 1947 as belonging to a “period [of] mythological time because the memory of it is deeply structured by stories that describe a conveniently arranged city that, as in a myth of origin, emerged out of the very beginnings of the Pakistani nation” (68). Framed as a site suitably and even ideally situated to represent the newness of Pakistan, Karachi, as Verkaaik further contends, emerges in this historical moment as the “exemplary Muhajir city” and the “South Asian city par excellence,” where migrants would ﬁ nd a “safe haven and, importantly, would make a new start and ﬁ nally live up to [the city’s] full potential” (69). The Karachi of 1947 serves as a metonym for the optimism of the nascent Pakistan. And, yet, these mythological origins prove ironic, as the Karachi of subsequent decades mounts challenge after challenge to Pakistani national cohesion. The muhajirs of 1947 were only the ﬁ rst major migrant inﬂ ux Karachi sustained. While the muhajirs’ numbers swelled the city’s population to over one million in 1951 from only a half million in 1947 (Hasan 174), subsequent immigrants busted the city’s seams, as the population more than tripled in the next two decades (Hasan 182). By the 1960s, the majority of immigrants were coming from other parts of Pakistan, adding languages and cultural traditions to the already tense SindhiUrdu mix (Hasan 182). By all accounts, the city and the nation were unprepared to handle Karachi’s unfathomable growth, a failure of infrastructural anticipation that surely complicates any single explanation for the violence that began to erupt in the mid-1960s (Ahmar 1032). 2 S. Akbar Zaidi, for one, reads the violence that has characterized life in Karachi for the last four decades or more-violence that is frequently read in class and/or ethnic terms-as a struggle “against the State itself” (387). Similarly, Moonis Ahmar observes that Karachi and other urban areas of Sindh were once “vehement supporter[s] of a centralized political structure” until a “radical shift in attitudes and perceptions” made these areas “the most serious threat to Pakistan’s political order since the loss of East Pakistan in December 1971” (1035-6). With this turnabout in mind, the history of Karachi
as an actual Pakistani city and as a signiﬁ er traces the changing resonances of my three key terms: idea, nation, and state.