Geological Sketch Map of Salt Range, 1853. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Geological Sketch Map of Salt Range, 1853. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This text was commissioned and edited by Adania Shibli, Decolonial Hacker’s inaugural Guest Editor.

In the summer of 2023, during the month of Ramadan, Akram Jokhio was visited by the Sindh Police. The police gave him a three day ultimatum, saying that on the fourth day, state authorities would arrive to raze and occupy his 50 acres of agricultural land in Deh Chuhar. Located on the outskirts of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, this neighbourhood is among 40 villages that stand in the way of the expanding master plan of the Sindh Government’s Education City. With support from the Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance (SIRA), Jokhio staged a protest along with his community over the next three days. When police arrived on the fourth day, protestors formed a human chain and turned them away. But once the police left, the surveyors arrived. After surveying the land, they sent Jokhio a strange map. They had mapped the land, its boundaries and contours, with detail and precision, but had left out the 5000 trees that populate it, making the landscape appear barren. At the time of writing this piece, construction has already begun on 10 acres of this land.

Education City is located 50 kilometres outside Karachi covering an area of approximately 9,000 acres. It is intended to be “a hub for the imparting and generation of knowledge in the presence of world-class infrastructure and campus facilities and a pool of highly qualified academics.” The provincial cabinet approved this project back in 2006, declaring the neighbourhood of Deh Chuhar—named after the date palm trees that populate the land—as Education City. Twenty-two institutions of higher education have since acquired land in Education City. Universities are pushed to invest in property in line with Higher Education Commission requirements that they possess a minimum amount of land in order to be recognised as an institution.1 While boundary walls and security barriers now proliferate across this landscape, construction of campuses is yet to begin.

The project received new impetus last year when the government announced that infrastructural development for Education City would finally begin in July 2023. The survey of Akram Jokhio’s land is the result of this new resolve. Local communities and activists fear that more land will be grabbed across Deh Kotero, Deh Darsanna Channo, and Deh Dair in the name of “education.” These communities, of Sindhi and Baloch ethnicity, identify as maqami, or, indigenous to this land, and have been inhabitants for generations.2 They see through the mirage of Education City that arrives at the heels of large scale real-estate development projects that have been violently occupying indigenous land in the surrounding villages over the past decade. Hafeez Baloch, a Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance activist tells us “Higher education is, afterall, a dhanda (corrupt business). Its most essential ingredient: land.”

The development of Education City is part of a larger process of the enclosure, occupation, and privatisation of agricultural lands and pastoral commons in Karachi’s Malir district since the 2000s. Education City is located next to two mega real-estate development projects, Bahria Town and DHA City, led by a private developer and the military respectively, built on over 50,000 acres. Each of these projects serves to conveniently further the perceptions and valuation of land for the other.

The inception of Education City illustrates well the instrumentalisation of education by the military-development nexus, and the complicities and collusions of the higher education sector in transforming agricultural and pastoral lands into urban real estate. The occupation of Karachi’s indigenous landscapes and the dispossession of maqami communities is not only about possession of land but it is also a possession of the imagination. It is the undoing of a way of life, of modes of relation and inhabitation that are illegible and indigestible for the neoliberal extractivist state.

We present here three images, anecdotes, visions of wilderness, to explore the entanglements of education, visuality, and land accumulation. We explore what the symbiosis of knowledge and land enclosure looks like in Karachi today, paying attention to the visions and landscapes that are conjured in these processes. A case of 5000 disappearing trees, a dream of a knowledge city, and a disappearing-reappearing river: each of these fantastical envisionings tells the story of a neoliberal, militarised modernity shaped and secured through the unabated annihilation of land and ecological knowledge nurtured by maqami communities. Each of these images illustrate the weaponisation of the university against other ways of knowing.

Seeing and Unseeing the Land

A video by Akram Jokhio showing his trees.

Education City is threatening the settlements, livelihoods, agricultural fields and pasturelands of forty villages located between the Sukhan and Malir rivers. In public discourse, this land is perceived as empty. Much like the survey maps of Education City, the aforementioned Bahria Town’s promotional videos depict a barren landscape, describing the location prior to its real-estate development as “ghairabad, banjar aur ghairmehfooz” (uninhabited, barren and insecure). These images and imaginaries participate in what Samia Henni calls the regime of emptiness that continually erases indigenous life to create frontiers of wild and empty spaces, where ‘discovering’ land and resources is made possible.3

“What can be more favourable than an open plain for the evolutions of a disciplined army!”, colonial explorer Richard Burton wrote of Sindh, in a text titled The Unhappy Valley in 1851.4 In the text he describes Karachi as “A regular desert… a glaring waste… nothing but an expanse of sand, broken into rises and falls by the furious winds … a barren rugged rock rising a few feet above the level of a wretched desert plain close to the sea, and supporting some poor attempts at human habitations.”5 The hot, dusty, wasteful expanse of Burton’s dreams that he projected onto Karachi has become a continued tradition in the state’s representations of maqami settlements in the city: strange, wild, and empty plains ripe for the taking.

Maps were central to Burton’s enterprise as he set out to make a case for the invasion of what he imagined to be a crucial frontier. Burton describes Karachi not only as wasted land awaiting colonial cultivation and civilisation, but also as “an excellent base for warlike operations.”6 These dual, entangled processes of development and destruction are echoed in the military-development nexus that makes and unmakes Karachi today. Elsewhere we have described how the production of “terror maps” in English print media in the early 2010s played a crucial role in building public support for the paramilitary Karachi Operation that ravaged the city from 2013 onwards.7

The maps reproduced an imperial visuality that, alongside media discourse, presented a city on the brink, teeming with violence. They carved and crafted ‘red zones’ and ‘no-go zones,’ marking new borders across the city and conjuring visions of danger, terror, and insurgency. The scientificity of the map, which allowed these visualisations to be consumed as objective and truthful representation, became a supporting means through which the paramilitary force began to assert its command over the ‘urban jungle’ of Karachi.

The Karachi Operation had a special mandate to police, surveil, and secure the vast suburbs of Karachi. Cast as simultaneously barren and insecure, the city’s outskirts became available sites for the entangled processes of securitisation and development. The borders of the no-go zone gave way to militarised world-city making. The Education City Act was drafted the same year that the paramilitary Karachi Operation was launched. Press releases were circulated presenting Education City as a smart city: “the most powerful weapon to combat all sorts of mafia operating in Karachi”; and an urgent solution that will swiftly “take the troubled city of Karachi to an era of peace and prosperity.”8 The Education City, alongside real-estate development, utilised and built upon the militarised visuality of insecurity to legitimise urban expansion and expropriation across what was once considered the city’s ‘green belt.’

While claiming to open up and make the city transparent, the maps demarcating ‘no-go zones’ worked to close down space at the peripheries of the city, creating sites of exception for the unfolding of unchecked and unseen violence. As paramilitary forces and developers cordoned and check-pointed their way through these villages, the maps became self-fulfilling prophecies. Just as, in the case of Akram Jokhio, the erasure of 5000 trees from the surface of the map is prophetic of the disappearance of 5000 trees from the surface of his land. The survey map of Jokhio’s land, existing as a self-referential image, declares that there is nothing here. It claims that land which has been cultivated and cared for over generations is uncultivable and inhospitable—silencing a rich, expansive world of locally cultivated and deeply rooted ecological knowledge, practice and relations. A joint project of ecocide and epistemicide in the name of education and an abstracted type of knowledge.

City, Knowledge, Wilderness

On 26 October 2020, Imran Khan, then Prime Minister of Pakistan, took to Twitter to post a 40-second 3D animation of Namal Knowledge City located in Mianwali district. The caption read: “The Master Plan of my dream to build Pakistan’s first knowledge city.”

A video of Namal Knowledge City from Imran Khan's twitter.

In the video, we are shown an aerial span of a large university campus, set against the rugged mountains of the Salt Range. The campus is depicted as picturesque and idyllic, with perfectly rounded trees, manicured gardens, a flowing river and modern infrastructure. Where the campus ends, we see the green land fade into a stark and stony beige. The university is visualised as heralding the literal ‘blooming’ of this arid landscape, its imported greenery accentuating the imagined barrenness of the surrounding mountains. This new knowledge city espouses a “Green Namal” philosophy. Its website explains: “The word GREEN symbolizes the colors of paradise while the word Namal (translated anmoal in Urdu) means priceless (invaluable) land.”

Namal Knowledge City is planned by US-based architectural firm Ashai Design, which has designed countless elite gated communities, five-star hotels and palaces in Dubai. As Julian Bolleter argues in Desert Paradises, Dubai’s urban planning visions have frequently employed paradisiacal images of greening the desert as a tool for political legitimisation.9 Within this rhetoric, transforming the desert into green land gets framed as “divine responsibility,” as developers interpret Islamic visions of heaven as a garden with a flowing river. Development thus takes on religious and moral overtones, seeking to embody values of redemption, cultivation, and modernity. This is a fitting narrative for Khan, who amassed his popularity through the excessive ideological use of Islamic teachings and rhetoric.

Namal Knowledge City proudly proclaims that it is based on the premise of “protecting the natural, social and physical environment of Namal Valley.” However, the master plan unveils an imported, neoliberal aesthetic of manicured gardens, artificial water streams, and perfectly rounded trees. It paradoxically envisions a complete reconstruction of nature to align with the neoliberal demands of city making, predicated on the annihilation and erasure of local ecology. The farce of environment preservation undoing the landscape. Namal Lake—while marketed as the most prominent natural feature of Namal Knowledge City—is also the result of colonial engineering and interventions to land. It was created by the British while building a dam in 1913, in their mission to bring order and progress to what they conceived of as wasted landscapes. It is testament to a landscape endlessly cut and moulded to meet the fantasies and images of those in power.

When Khan first announced this project back in 2005, he posted a video showing himself standing amidst the salt range mountain, pointing in the far distance to the chosen location of Namal University. He exclaims, “When I saw this wilderness, I imagined a knowledge city.”10 A few sentences later, he emphasises again: “The land stretches for miles and miles ahead in this wilderness.” Images of dense, wild vegetation, replace the imagined barrenness visualised in the master plan.

Wildness turns everything in sight into a threat, where unruly lives exist in unruly landscapes. Development and security intertwine, as fear and threat are embedded in, and are byproducts of, the process of securing new frontiers. Located at the border of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces, the Mianwali district is often described in the media as an inhospitable terrain that gives refuge to insurgents. Imran Khan’s invocation of wilderness paints the perfect backdrop for the creation of a new securitised order through the civilising and surveillant missions of the university. This not only legitimises the university’s land-grab, but also justifies the necessity of the university as a militarised and militarising enclave.

The use of wilderness tropes dates back to the building of Pakistan’s first university campus. In 1952, the MRV Master Plan of Karachi envisioned the new campus of Karachi University in the heart of the city. However, as a series of powerful student protests gripped the city the following year, a different location 12 kilometres outside the city centre was selected for construction. With this move, the government accomplished a twofold agenda of removing the destabilising threat of students from the city centre, and occupying/transforming indigenous commons into a fold of the city. Popular narratives still describe the land, prior to the building of the campus, as “jungle zameen”: wild land. However, Khuda Dino Shah, a senior indigenous activist, tells us that Karachi University land used to be one of the two main historical pasturelands around Karachi. In the monsoons this hilly terrain would come alive with streams and ponds, and pastoral communities and herders from across Sindh would arrive to spend their summers.

Both the Namal Knowledge City and Education City are premised on the bordering, enclosing and erasure of land. Education City proudly claims one of its core principles as creating “a city as a school” rather than “a school in the city.” In the name of world-city making, students are removed from social embeddedness in a city, to an elsewhere emptied of its communities, and thus turned into an isolated elsewhere, a tabula rasa. The neoliberal hyper-capitalist university is placeless; its existence predicated upon displacement and dispossession both from—and of—land and knowledge.

Libraries, Rivers, and Roads in/against the Wilderness

A video of Hafeez Baloch mapping the rivers.

The colonial concept of ‘The Jungle,’ derived from the Sanskrit word Jangala casts certain lands, and consequently the inhabitants of those lands—human and nonhuman—as wild and wasteful landscapes. Interestingly, while the English ‘jungle’ conjures images of dense, lush, vegetative, tangled forests, the original Sanskrit jangala referred to dry land with scattered trees, and thus cast such lands as favoured, pure, and even fertile.11 Yet, today, the colonial legacy of imaging dry land as barren, wasteful and wild, is a central part of the state and the developers’ toolkit, deployed alongside a systematic drying of Karachi’s wetlands through extractivist practices like sand mining and construction into riverbeds and waterways. This imagining of Karachi as a desolate wilderness in need of securitisation is the consistent, connective thread across all sites and contexts we have worked in: from the university campus and the coastal islands to the pastoral peripheries—Karachi’s dry/wet/lands. In stark contrast to this colonial narrative, this dry/wet/land has been for many, including us, a rich, fertile and bountiful plain in which to generate life and knowledge, subsequently allowing us to conduct our ecstatic eco-pedagogies.

Nature does not only give many of us sustenance, it also gives us knowledge, in abundance: collective ecological knowledge, memory, and thought generated and transmitted over millennia. The annihilation of this knowledge is central to the state’s project of endless land accumulation aimed at the concentration of power. The annihilation and transformation of land and all that it holds, the life it fosters, is essential to the state production of power by means of nationalism. The jangala, conflated as much with danger and insecurity as it is with emptiness, becomes a site in need of urgent intervention and transformation. The university takes on the noble mission to discipline and transform this unruly space, its unruly people. What are the subversive practices and wild thoughts, contained within these desolate landscapes that threaten to derail the state? What is the knowledge this land holds and withholds?

The Malir River, essential to the history of habitation in Karachi, is both waterway and knowledge system. Today the pathway of this river, systematically devastated over decades by illegal sand mining, is under threat from a road: the Malir Expressway. Just as the 5000 trees are unseen and unmade, the river is unmade and unseen. The Malir River is an ephemeral river, a mysterious form that comes and goes. Ecological memory means some communities, those who have lived with and along this river for generations, can see the river even when its waters dry out. The river is evasive and illegible, it defies the map-form. But it always comes back to undo what was built in its path, just like the constantly shifting sands of the desert. The temporalities of the river and the desert are much more expansive than the temporalities of the infrastructures that intervene upon them. In his travelogue, Burton writes of this terrain whilst exasperated by frequent dust storms, “There is little remarkable in it, except that we are morally certain to lose the road.”12

Among the spaces that stand in the path of the Malir Expressway is the Syed Hashmi Reference Library (SHRL), a kind of knowledge commons. The SHRL was founded in 2005 by Baloch historian, linguist, translator, and revolutionary Saba Dashtiyari, who was killed by the state in 2011, at the height of the fifth insurgency in Balochistan against the Pakistani state. Despite this devastation, and despite continued threats from the state, this library continues to create space for endangered thought and languages. Yet, having survived the endless assaults on the Baloch community and the Balochi language by the Pakistani state, this library is now threatened by a road. A road that claims to be a crucial infrastructure to foster connectivity between Karachi and the future Education City.

During a recent visit to the library, custodian Ghulam Rasool Kalmatti shared with us a text he wrote on Malir, a string of memories that weave a map of a Karachi that is drawn not by borders or boundaries but by expanding, contracting, intersecting river pathways. Earlier, during a conversation at a roadside dhaba, SIRA activist Hafeez Baloch had drawn a map of the Malir River. Lines everywhere, tentacular, wild thought. Against the colonial map that sets out to abstract in order to occupy, this moment redeems the map-form. As Hafeez’s pen runs out of ink the lines break and pause. His words and his markings don’t always align, as thoughts and traces diverge and converge, seek out and stray from each other. Each etched line and each uttered name is an invocation. This map, made with a dry pen on a disposable dhaba napkin, is not a fixed document, not a finished form, but map as pedagogy; a map marking connections, drawn in/as connection. It is not a series of stagnant markings on paper, but an energetic form: our conversation and relations, our continued engagements and invocations, animate and breathe life into it, and vice versa. In that sense this map is a kind of talisman. As we move through space and time with it, it forms a thread between worlds: past and present, here and elsewhere, visible and invisible. In Kalmatti and Hafeez’s maps there are no clear boundaries between water and land, river and desert, wet and dry—they are elusive, ephemeral, sandy and slippery. Wild thoughts.

The English word ‘desert’ comes from the Latin de (to undo) and serere (to join together). To desert is to unmake and disconnect what is connected, ordered, sensible, joined together. The desert is a space where boundaries collapse. It is a site only invoked by some for its lacks, its absences, its undoings. While this ‘desert’ insists on emptiness and disconnect, Balochi words for it conjure abundance and connection: raik, raikpad, dasht. Raik, meaning an area filled with sand; Raikpad, meaning walking through deep sand; or Dasht, meaning an area of land where people are settled.

The wild and vast frontiers of Karachi are, today, the site of conflict between the visions of the neocolonial university and the wisdom and knowledge within the land. A fixed, factual knowledge preserved on dead leaves of paper against the illegible, unfixable, living tides of the river, and shifting sands of the desert. A knowledge that can be carved with concrete into the land, against a knowledge that teaches you how to move with it. The enclosure of the land and the enclosure of knowledge in the university are symbiotic processes, each one impossible without the other. Like the map that disappeared Jokhio’s 5000 trees, to imagine the university you are first forced to unsee the land, and the thoughts that it nourishes.

Wild Thoughts: Land and Knowledge Enclosures in Karachi
00:00 - 00:00
13 May 2024
Essay by Karachi LaJamia

Karachi LaJamia was founded in 2015 by the artists Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani as a nomadic space outside of the institution. Their collective explores radical pedagogies and art practices, and they have facilitated site-specific courses and collaborative research projects to explore the intersections of militarism, land accumulation, climate crisis, indigenous dispossession, and knowledge production in Karachi. Karachi LaJamia occupies public spaces within their city as sites of study, disrupting imperial modes of knowledge production and circulation.

...institution. [1]
Higher Education Commission’s criteria for establishing new universities states that a university must acquire and make available at least “10 acres (3 acres in city and 7 acres on city fringes) depending upon the location having potential for further development.” Higher Education Commission, Guidelines for the Establishment of New Universities, 2007.
...generations. [2]
The English word ‘Indigenous’ has only recently entered the lexicon of activists in Pakistan, and is primarily used by activists of Sindhi and Baloch ethnic/linguistic descent to express their relationship with land that has primarily been inhabited by Sindhi and Baloch communities for many generations. Land that, since the inception of the State of Pakistan, has been actively occupied and usurped by what these activists frame as a militarised, neocolonial state. This occupation takes place hand in hand with a larger assault on the language and culture of these ethnic communities by a state run by the ethnic majorities of Punjabi and Urdu-speaking or Muhajir descent. The arrival of this terminology is a function of global activist and aid networks and while its usage can often feel imperfect, clunky or limiting, it is a term that Sindhi and Baloch activists have actively and intentionally been using in the past decade to position themselves and their struggles over land and resources against an extractivist state. As Sindhi and Baloch separatists or nationalists are increasingly hunted down by the state, to identify as ‘indigenous’ instead is a useful diversion, and it also braids a meaningful connection with environmental defense struggles across the world. Outside of activist networks, these communities often identify themselves as maqami, meaning people belonging to a place. This term has also been explained to us by elders as meaning people with graves. This term can translate as both local and/or native depending on usage. But it is used by communities to demarcate and emphasise the history of their inhabitation in Karachi which predates the making of Pakistan. As we continue to grapple with the politics of this terminology and the limitations of language, in this essay we have used all of the terms we use conversationally on ground: ‘maqami’, ‘indigenous’, as well as ‘Sindhi and Baloch.’
Seeing and Unseeing the Land
...possible. [3]
Samia Henni, “Against the Regime of Emptiness,” Deserts Are Not Empty (New York: Columbia University, 2022), 18.
...1851. [4]
Richard Burton, Scinde: Or the Unhappy Valley, Vol. 2 (London: Richard Bentley, 1851), 57.
...habitations.” [5]
Ibid, 45.
...operations.” [6]
Ibid, 57.
...onwards. [7]
Zahra Malkani and Shahana Rajani, “War, Visuality and the Militarized City,” Perspecta: Yale Architectural Journal 52 (2019): 230-296.
...prosperity.” [8]
Khwaja Amer, “Karachi Education City: A project that can set off an era of prosperity,” The Express Tribune, September 22, 2013,
City, Knowledge, Wilderness
...legitimisation. [9]
Julian Bolleter, Desert Paradises: Surveying the Landscapes of Dubai’s Urban Model (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019), 33.” [10]
“PM Imran Khan shares ‘Master Plan’ of his dream to build first knowledge city of Pakistan,” Geo News, October 26, 2020.
Libraries, Rivers, and Roads in/against the Wilderness
...fertile. [11]
Michael R. Dove, “The Dialectical History of ‘Jungle’ in Pakistan: An Examination of the Relationship between Nature and Culture,” Journal of Anthropological Research 48, no. 3 (Autumn 1992): 221–53.
...road.” [12]
Burton, Scinde: Or the Unhappy Valley, Vol. 1, 66.