KARACHI The capital of Sind province in southern Pakistan, Karachi is the country's largest city and principal seaport, and it serves as a major center for commerce and industry. The city occupies an area of 228 square miles (591 sq. km), with a metropolitan region that covers around 560 square miles (1,450 sq. km). The population, according to a 1998 census, is approximately 9.8 million.
Karachi's recorded history extends over a period of approximately three hundred years. The area that became Karachi was until 1725 a mostly barren piece of land surrounded on three sides by the Arabian Sea. The city takes its name from Kalachi-jo-Kun, referring to the area's deep saline creeks and the presence of a fishing hamlet.
The British East India Company occupied Karachi in 1839, conquering the larger region of Sind in 1843. The city was made an administrative center and thereafter expanded rapidly. When Sind was incorporated into the Bombay presidency, Karachi became its district headquarters. Economically, as a major port for the British Raj, Karachi was linked to the cotton- and wheat-producing areas elsewhere in the subcontinent. In 1935 Sind was made a separate province, with Karachi as its capital.
Between August 1947 and April 1951 the open borders between India and Pakistan saw 8 million Muslims move to the newly independent state and 6 million non-Muslims flee in the other direction. Karachi, at the time Pakistan's capital, received large numbers of Muslim refugees, including educated arrivals who hoped to find government employment. The 1951 census identified close to 55 percent of the city's population, then more than 1 million, as Muhajirs—Urdu-speaking immigrants from India.
Karachi experienced further rapid growth over the next two decades with the arrival of migrants from the rural Sind, and from Pakistan's North-West Frontier (NWFP) and Punjab provinces. Ethnic Pathans from NWFP, mostly a working-class community, expanded squatter settlements and shantytowns constructed earlier by Muhajirs. Competition for scarce available resources among antagonistic ethnic groups resulted over the following decades in near political and social breakdown, and contributed to an often corrupt and ineffective city administration. The Muhajirs' major political organization, the Muhajir (later Muttehida) Qaumi Mahaz (MQM, or People's Movement), emerged, seeking enhanced political recognition in Sindh for the Urdu-speaking community, and it has since called for Karachi to become a separate province. MQM has contested elections and sought national influence in alliance with other parties. It has also resorted to violence and has been subjected to heavy-handed repression from federal authorities.
Ethnic troubles are not the only factor in Karachi's turbulent politics. Small arms were smuggled into the city during the anti-Communist jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s, making more lethal the urban culture of violence. Afghan refugees settling in the city have been linked to the city's flourishing drug trade. Millions of Pakistanis have become addicts due to easy access to heroin.
Karachi nevertheless retains a special character and importance for Pakistan. It serves as the country's center for transportation, finance, commerce, and manufacturing. Most international trade reaching Pakistan and Afghanistan passes through the city's modern port, and it boasts a major new airport. Karachi has a large automobile assembly plant, an oil refinery, a steel mill, shipbuilding, and textile factories, and it is the center of the country's media and entertainment industries. Although the seat of the national government shifted to Islamabad in 1960, Karachi remains the most vibrant city in Pakistan and the nucleus of the internationally oriented sector of Pakistan's economy.
Marvin G. Weinbaum
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Hasan, Arif. "The Growth of a Metropolis." In Karachi—Megacity of Our Times, edited by H. Khuhro and A. Moorej. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1997.
——. Understanding Karachi: Planning and Reform for the Future. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1999.