Minerwa Tahir – Timely Histories

Crippled Future: Time of the Disabled in Karachi (1857–1947)

Minerwa Tahir (Doctoral Research Fellow)

This project aims at writing a history of how people living and working at the docks in colonial Karachi made sense of time, especially along the lines of future planning. It seeks to engage with the temporal dimension of social relationships in late nineteenth and early twentieth Karachi while paying particular attention to the problems of space that intertwine with the temporal dimension. The primary focus of study are dock workers in the region, their negotiations with emerging legislation regarding social security and compensation (particularly in the wake of accidents and disease), their housing conditions as well as protests, demands and planning, and tensions inherent in questions of ethnicity, family and gender in future planning.

The money relation embedded in all of these aspects of future planning is an obvious underlying theme. Planning of the future for one’s kin through economic institutions as pensions and insurance has a social aspect. Embedding money into social relationships creates something altogether new. Kinship ties are impacted – even if a widowed woman has been dependent on her nephew for years and he is her primary carer, she cannot claim compensation if he is killed in a workplace accident because the colonial administration has discarded the “doctrine of dependency” in determining heirs. In this manner, extended family ties are subordinated and undermined, and a seemingly economic category fundamentally alters the nature of family in postcolonial South Asian metropolises. Naturally, who is entitled to your life insurance or pension creates contestations in family life. All of this shows how money does not stand as some abstract category outside of social ties, it becomes part of those social ties. The introduction of formalised social security and compensation would also mean that engagement with law and legality (processes of bureaucratic/administrative claim-making and its approval/denial) will also become crucial in the successful planning of the future.

The dissertation will be divided into two distinct sections. One will focus on the institutional ‘giver’ element, wherein the histories of insurance, pension, assistance, and social security as a means to plan and secure the future will be investigated. The other section will focus on the ‘receiver’ side of the story: it will look at workers and their families who demanded, accessed and claimed these economic safety tools. How did the receiver integrate and supplement the availability of pecuniary assurances with practices such as visits to the shrine or mandir to secure one’s future is an important question which will help understand the meaning of the future and the myriad practices used to plan it in a wider sense. To concretise the question, this means looking at what social policy such as “workmen’s compensation” meant for dock workers, in what ways they were entitled to and/or demanded these social security measures, what role did the money relationship with social security play in planning a future, and how that impacted social relationships both in the work sphere but also within the family.

While the methodological focus remains on temporality, the object of the unit’s study is people who experienced disability either directly on their own bodies or by caring for someone disabled. Disability is not just a condition of physical impairment alone but the overall power dynamic embodied by normative able-bodiedness, that is, the ways in which society disables one on the basis of differentiations such as physical or mental impairments, long-term illnesses and conditions, or age. We seek to understand how the social meaning of time interacted with the social meaning of disability.