On Lahore and Karachi


Truth be told, I’m a big fan of Karachi. I value its position as the most ‘urbane’ place in the country. This sudden effusion of love for Karachi was triggered by Rehman sb’s op-ed in Dawn, where he explains, in some detail, the various cultures that provide Karachi with that decidedly unique flavour. His basic premise is that Karachi as a city is 1) More vibrant, more multi-cultural, more commercial, and values time more than Lahore or Islamabad, 2) has a greater penchant for philanthropy, public service, and education, and sadly enough 3) in possession of now-entrenched criminality in various quarters.

I have no issues with this particular characterisation of Karachi, simply because I actually do think it’s true to a large extent. Okay fine, some of that ‘multiculturalism is under threat’ part is a little misplaced, considering ethnic chauvinism has run riot in the city since the creation of the MQM. My only problem with this piece is that it creates a false dichotomy between ‘dynamic’ Karachi, and ‘slow/passive/feudal’ rest of Pakistan.

Karachi justifies in many ways its claim to be a post-feudal city. Its dominant culture is defined by an urge to create/produce something that can be marketed. Everybody, from a coolie to an industrial baron, is engaged in utilising all his time to do something, to produce something that will enable him to maintain his family and climb higher in society. It is this urge that has enabled a large number of people, coming from various stocks and professing different faiths, to raise Karachi to what it today is. And this largely by the dint of their hard work, often in spite of the powers that be.

So basically Lahore wallows in feudal habits, hence its residents don’t attach a very high value to time. Rehman sb is not the first person to hold this opinion, and he certainly won’t be the last. People from Islamabad and Karachi both view Lahoris as a ‘paindu’ breed. All well and good, and (mostly) in good jest. The thing that ticked me off in this piece was a conscious (or sub-conscious) equivalence between post-feudalism, multi-culturalism, and entrepreneurial/commercial ethic.

Here are a few facts about Lahore: Prior to 1947, nearly 48 percent of the population was non-Muslim (Hindu, Sikh and Jain). Non-Muslims controlled almost all commercial and manufacturing capital, owned most of the property in commercial areas, and basically populated the most ‘urban’ centres of the districts. Muslims in the Lahore region, residing in the agrarian hinterland (along the Canal Bank Road), were mostly landlords or peasants. That said however, in the last decade or two before partition, Muslim families had started to move towards the inner city, and over time became involved in commercial activity.

Partition meant that Lahore to India migrations were accompanied by large-scale capital flight, and a significant drainage of ‘entrepreneurs’ from the city. On the other hand, people coming in to Lahore were from all over, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jallandhar, and of all kinds, shopkeepers, government employees, and farmers.

In 1947, the total population of Lahore was around 670,000, and today it stands close to 10 million. Population growth rates to one side, a large part of Lahore’s expansion can be explained by district-to-district migrations. While Karachi has shot up from 500,000 to 18 million in the same time period, there are a few things that need to be kept in mind: A lot of people show Karachi’s population increase as a sign of its dynamism, which while somewhat true, can be explained by less-essentialist explanations. Under the first 2 decades of rule, there was a concentrated agenda on part of the federal government to cultivate the manufacturing and services sector industry in Karachi. Migrant entrepreneurial families from UP and Bombay set up factories and shops across the city, and with Ayub’s development paradigm in place, were given access to easy credit (through PIDC) and cheap labour (through forced migrations from Swat and other parts of Malakand). Lahore specifically, and Punjab in general, was reified in its role as a glorified bread basket, or at most, a secondary city to Karachi.

In one sense, Lahore’s biggest characteristic was that it was a Punjabi city, catering mostly to some portion of the 6 million Punjabi migrants in 1947, and that Punjabi Mohammadens were agriculturists by profession. Given all of that, Lahore is now a population of 10 million urban residents. The commercial classes in Lahore have more than made up for the capital flight that accompanied partition, and have turned the city into one of the most concentrated hubs of mercantile activity in South Asia. Accompanying that, we’re at a point where it’s safe to say that the politics of Lahore is not feudal by any stretch. Yes, Lahore is 83 percent Punjabi, but the people now contesting elections all belong to the urban, commercial/industrial/professional class (Saad Rafique and Dr Saeed Elahi for example). Homogeneity with an agrarian province does not automatically mean that the city is still ‘wallowing’ in feudal habits. False markers of Lahore’s lack of dynamism simply emerge from its rejecting of ‘high-modernist’ Urdu culture, and its elite’s (and everyone else’s) insistence on maintaining a highly ‘nativized’ Punjabi culture. The fact of the matter is that Lahore would’ve been a decadent city of a few million at most had it still been so caught up in khaiti-baari (farming). That clearly didn’t happen.

There are other points that can be made here as well, such as Lahore’s relationship with progressive politics, with the student movement, and the prevalence of strong educational institutions, but they are all ancillary at best. What people in Karachi need to understand is that dynamism, entrepreneurial spirit, and commercial ethic is a function of history, and to some extent geography, but is certainly not a uniquely essential character of its residents. There is a history behind Karachi’s ‘urbanity’ and it stands right there with the urban history of other places in Pakistan like Lahore, Sialkot and Rawalpindi.

The writer works in the social sector and blogs at http://recycled-thought.blogspot.com. Contact him at [email protected]


  1. good one. there are so many good things about both lahore and karachi, but its a sort of pendulum act: when I'm in lahore I yearn for Karachi's more sensible life style, less of fixation with all things culinary, less time for gossip, simpler clothes, and when I'm in karachi i miss lahore, with its slower pace of life. i wish there were a blend somewhere!

  2. Both Lahore and Karachi are beautiful cities.
    Lahore have Mughuls architecture,Karachi have British architecture,
    Lahore have better roads,Karachi have better skyscrapers,
    Lahore have gardens,Karachi have the sea,
    Lahore have more handsome men,Karachi have more beautiful women,
    Lahore have Fort Road Food Street,Karachi have Port Grand,
    Lahore have Liberty Market,Karachi have Zamzama,
    Lahore have shrine of Iqbal,Karachi have shrine of Quaid.
    The only things that Karachi doesn’t have is Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque.

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