By Rafia Zakaria
June 15, 2013
Just past the middle of February 1843, Karachi was tense. In Saddar, the market was quiet and the shops were shuttered. The Battle of Miani was being fought elsewhere between the Talpurs and the British, the old and the new. It was Hyderabad that was more important then, more coveted and better fortified.
In Karachi there was trepidation of a different sort. Here was not the immediate chaos of blood and battle, of bludgeoned bodies and blasting bayonets but rather the echoes of an uncertain discomfort found only in peripheral places. When Naom ul Hotchand, a merchant and a man of Karachi before it was a city, walked into its suspicious streets that February, he could sense its seething pulse.
The silence was owed to rumours of a counter attack against the British. There was a sizeable camp of British soldiers at Karachi and the rulers of Sindh, facing defeat at Miani had asked other allies for assistance. The air spoke of their arrival and the possibility of a surprise attack on the encampment at Karachi. The people of the city, the merchants, fisher-folk, the tradesmen and the craftsmen feared that they would be caught in the middle. They were packing to leave, to go as the panicked people of seaside cities often do, to wait by the sea, or on the boats and barges away from the shore and from the battle.
Naom ul Hotchand took matters into his own hands He was positively disposed to the British, having used the enmity between them and the long ruling Talpurs to his advantage in the past. When the Talpurs had tried to prevent the shopkeepers in Saddar Market from selling to the British, Hotchand had intervened. The shops had opened and the Sahibs and their wives had bought what they needed. He had earned some credit with the fair-skinned people he guessed would soon be ruling his land.
It was this credit of past favours that got him into the British camp. The natives were not allowed into the barracks then, their guile and wile not having endeared them too much to the white warriors mourning their lot at being stuck in Karachi. Nevertheless, Naom ul Hotchand requested that he be allowed in the audience of Captain Preedy, a man whose name he knew from his previous dealings. When he was finally admitted, when he finally spoke and when he finally revealed the possibility of an impending attack, he was taken seriously. Another British officer one more senior than Preedy arrived to bear the burden of the decision that had to be made. The two white men whispered together, the newcomer more unwilling than Preedy to trust a native. In the end, the conference on how to save Karachi was held in the bathroom of Captain Preedy’s quarters, the safest place in the city.
With the exchange of this information, the surrender of Karachi was ultimately wrought in the bathroom of a British barrack. According to Naom ul Hotchand’s memoirs, the British soldiers simply walked to the marketplace, where the Talpur soldiers still manned the guard posts. When these straggling soldiers were confronted by the British, they simply surrendered. And so in February 1843, on an uneventful evening after a battle that took place somewhere else and an informant who made his case in a bathroom, Karachi became part of the British Empire.
The proclamation for annexation was hung in the bazaars and Naom ul Hotchand, a newly wrought hero was promised many things for his service to Empire. A man of Karachi had given up Karachi, and with his surrender, the people returned from their boats that were out to sea and their hideouts that were near the shore and the city went on until the next betrayal, the next agreement and the next set of rulers eager to wield their flags atop its roofs.
That was the first surrender of Karachi but its conundrums and circumstances would echo in tone and tenor of surrenders to come. Must the city stand for its own, pit one power against another, both distant and both uninterested, to manufacture the means for its own survival? Must the people of the city, forever living in the shadows of wars fought elsewhere, victories proclaimed by uninvolved others, revel in the cold, pragmatic opportunism that seems its lot?
One hundred and seventy years after that first surrender, Karachi’s people are stuck again somewhere between old rulers who don’t care and possible new ones who seem to care even less. In the blazing sidewalks of the city in the tired suburbs staked by this or that group, in the apartments whose builders did not consider fan-less, light-less, long hours, linger the questions of the first surrender. How must an ignored city learn to be noticed, how must an unloved city learn the mores of affection, how indeed must a city without a story, make for itself a history? The terms of the next surrender may consider these questions.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.