In this year’s general election in Pakistan, the centre-right Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) pulled off a stunning victory in Karachi against the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). The MQM had not lost an election in this city since 1988.
The Rangers’ and police operation against MQM activists between 2015 and 2017 and the consequent in-fighting that the party experienced, left many young Mohajirs feeling disoriented.
During my interviews with over two dozen young Mohajirs in the city, I noticed that they were now unwilling to accept or take part in any violence against other ethnic groups in Karachi. They said that many Mohajir lives were lost during such conflicts. They were of the view that a vibrant part of Mohajir activism had gradually mutated and become ‘criminalised’.
In 2016 when the intensity of the Rangers operation against such ‘criminalised’ and so-called ‘militant’ MQM workers increased, the party registered a fervent protest in the Sindh and National Assemblies, and in the media.
But unlike the 1990s, when such protests had received an overwhelming expression of support from the Mohajir community, this time the response was largely lukewarm and subdued.
In fact, due to the deteriorating law and order situation in the city, most Mohajirs had actually welcomed the operation. Thus, a gulf emerged between the party and its large vote-bank.
But one cannot suggest that the party is now over. Far from it. What PTI received in Karachi was largely protest votes from Mohajirs who were reacting against MQM’s misreading of their voters’ aspirations and concerns just before and during the Rangers’ operation.
There is every likelihood that MQM will manage to make a comeback. One of the reasons for this has to do with identity politics
These votes were also cast as an expression of disgruntlement towards the power struggles and in-fighting in the party that saw it splinter.
But there is every likelihood that MQM will manage to make a comeback. One of the reasons for this has to do with identity politics. The Mohajirs still firmly see themselves as an ethnic group, despite the fact that the state of Pakistan does not recognise them as such.
This is because the ethnic make-up of Mohajirs is not organic. It is largely engineered because it did not exist in the shape it is in today before the creation of the MQM in 1985. Let’s see why and how this came about and why it is here to stay.
In Urdu, Mohajir literally means refugee. Muslims who migrated to Pakistan, from what became the Republic of India in August 1947, were descriptively called Mohajirs. Not all of them were Urdu-speakers, but a large number were. Most of the Urdu-speakers settled in the Sindh province of the newly created Pakistan, especially in the province’s urban areas such as Karachi and Hyderabad.
The Urdu-speakers had dominated Pakistan’s founding party, the All India Muslim League. The movement for the creation of Pakistan, too, was largely driven by Urdu-speakers. However, the irony is, that when Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah – a brilliant lawyer and liberal politician – managed to carve out a separate Muslim-majority country, it constituted areas that had Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun, Baloch and Bengali ethnic majorities.
On the other hand, a large number of Urdu-speaking ideologues, activists and supporters of the Pakistan Movement were from areas that had Hindu majorities, and, thus, these regions became part of India. Nevertheless, when the Mohajirs migrated to Pakistan, they became an overwhelming majority in the sprawling, cosmopolitan capital of Sindh, Karachi.
The Mohajirs were more urbane in their habits compared to the native Sindhis. They were also conscious of the fact that — unlike the Sindhis, Punjabis, Baloch, Pashtuns and Bengalis of the new country – they were not ‘sons of the soil.’ But they excelled in the country’s nascent bureaucracy and in its equally nascent manufacturing and service industries.
But also aware that they did not have natural constituencies in Pakistan, the dominant Mohajirs in the bureaucracy did much to dissuade turning Pakistan into a democracy, fearing that Mohajirs would be the biggest losers in an election which would be dominated by the organic ethnic groups — the sons of the soil.
So, along with the Punjabis, who dominated the only developed state institution that Pakistan inherited, the military, the Mohajirs too became part of the country’s early ruling and economic elite.
However, within the first decade of the country’s history, the Mohajir community began to lose this status, especially after the 1958 military coup by then army chief, Ayub Khan. The Ayub regime’s aggressive industrialisation process was largely centered in Karachi. This created a tremendous demand for cheap labour. This arrived in the shape of NWFP’s Pashtuns. Incidentally, Ayub too was from that region. But whereas he encouraged the Pashtuns to migrate to Karachi, he maintained Punjabi dominance in the armed forces.
Then, in the early 1960s, he shifted the country’s capital city from Karachi to the newly constructed Islamabad which was in close proximity to the Punjab. In 1965, on the day Ayub was ‘reelected’ as President, a large group of Mohajirs turned out to jeer a victory parade led by Ayub’s son, Gohar Ayub. This led to the first major clash between the city’s Mohajirs and Pashtuns.
During the decline of the Ayub regime in the late 1960s, parties such as the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the right-wing Jamat-i-Islami (JI), the Bengali nationalist outfit, the Awami League (AL), and a left-wing amalgamation of Baloch, Pashtun and Sindhi nationalists in the National Awami Party (NAP) became active, jostling for the space that had opened up due to Ayub’s downfall.
The situation put the Mohajir community in a quandary. Even though the community had actively participated in the anti-Ayub movement, but once the government fell and the new military dictator, General Yahya Khan, announced the holding of Pakistan’s first parliamentary election, the Mohajir community felt even more insecure.
It was during this period that a Mohajir leader of a then powerful left-wing student outfit, the National Students Federation (NSF), Amir Haider Kazmi, aired the idea of turning Karachi into a Mohajir-majority province.
But as the 1970 election results in Karachi show, the majority of Mohajirs voted for religious parties, such as JI and Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP).
So as the left-leaning PPP swept Sindh and Punjab; the left-wing NAP dominated the elections in Balochistan and NWFP; and AL swept East Pakistan, Karachi voted for the religious parties – despite the fact that Karachi was (and remains) perhaps the country’s most ethnically diverse, secular and pluralistic city.
Eminent political scientist Muhammad Waseen, in the anthology Community, Empire and Migration, explained this dichotomy by the idea that due to anxieties related to the perception that Mohajirs were not sons of the soil, the community developed a contradictory disposition in which it was socially liberal but politically conservative.
Though inherently liberal in their social outlook, politically the Mohajirs moved more towards the religious right, believing that the Islamic parties eschewed ethic narratives.
The Mohajirs enthusiastically took part in the March 1977 protest movement against the PPP/Bhutto government (1971-77). The movement was led by a right-wing political alliance, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) that had promised to impose Sharia laws in the country. The Mohajirs had opposed Prime Minister Bhutto who was a Sindhi and had inducted scores of Sindhis in Sindh’s beaucracy and government.
The Bhutto regime fell to a reactionary military coup in July 1977. But within a year the Mohajirs were disheartened by the new military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, a Punjabi.
Mohajir frustration poured out again when, in 1978, an Urdu-speaking girl was murdered in the city and riots broke out across Karachi.
The same year, two Mohajir students at the Karachi University (KU) – Altaf Hussain and Azeem Tariq — formed the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organization (APMSO). Husain was briefly associated with JI’s student-wing, the IJT, whereas Tariq was once a member of Liberal Students Organization (LSO).
In 1981 both Altaf and Tariq tried to disrupt the Mohajirs’ political proclivity towards the religious parties by making APMSO join the United Students Movement (USM) at KU. USM was an alliance of progressive Sindhi, Pashtun and Baloch nationalist students. It was formed by a progressive professor at KU, the late Hasan Zafar.
It was also during this period that Altaf was arrested for allegedly burning a Pakistani flag; and (in a speech at KU) calling the Pakistan national carrier, PIA, ‘Punjab International Airlines.’ In 1982/83, APMSO closely worked with an organisation called Maha Sindh (MS). It was formed by a group of Mohajir traders and businessmen (mostly Memon) ‘to safeguard the economic interests of Karachiites.’ MS largely evolved into becoming the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM).
The MQM, headed by Altaf, suddenly rose to prominence when vicious riots between Mohajirs and Pashtuns broke out in Karachi in 1986. Dozens were killed. MQM accused Pashtun Afghan refugees of introducing guns and heroin in the city and (with the aid of the city’s Pashtun community) usurping Karachi’s economic resources. The riots had erupted after a Mohajir college girl, Bushra Zaidi, was hit and killed by a public bus driven by a Pashtun.
Even though the bulk of MQM’s cadres and supporters came from the lower-middle-class, by 1987 some prominent Mohajir intellectuals had begun to justify its creation. For example, the legendary editor of Pakistan’s largest English newspaper Dawn, Ahmad Ali Khan, and famous educationist Professor Karar Hussain, were both early supporters of MQM.
A powerful ideological clique developed in the party which helped MQM formulate a narrative which depicted the Mohajirs as a distinct ethnic group because they shared a history of painful migration and a common language, Urdu.
The other thing that early MQM ideologues did was to politicalize the community’s inherent social liberalism and explain the MQM as a liberal and secular Mohajir ‘ethnic’ outfit which was ‘progressive’ but not socialist.
MQM swept Karachi during the party’s first ever general election in 1988. By 1991, the party had rapidly expanded. But unable to dissolve the community’s deep-seated insecurities, a sense of paranoia hung like a dark cloud over the party’s leadership which – revolved around a cult of personality that had developed around Altaf.
Hundreds of educated but unemployed lower-middle-class youth had joined the party and they became its foot soldiers. Soon many of them were involved in various crimes or became members of ‘commando groups’ assigned to sustain the party’s hold in Karachi — if necessary, through the barrel of the gun.
In the 1990s, the state conducted three large-scale operations in Karachi against such groups. Hundreds of Mohajir youth and dozens of policemen were killed. Altaf went into self-exile to the UK. But the party survived and managed to continue winning big in the city.
The operations had devastated Karachi but failed to oust the MQM. In 2002, the Musharraf dictatorship (1999-2008) made the state reconcile with the MQM in return for the party’s support for PML-Q, the outfit which the dictatorship was backing.
This was the most productive period for MQM. Normality returned to Karachi and MQM greatly benefited from the local bodies/city government system installed by the regime. MQM staunchly opposed the 2007 movement against Musharraf. In this the party literally went to war on the streets of Karachi against outfits opposing Musharraf. MQM believed that ‘a Mohajir general was being thrown to the wolves.’
The commotion reinvigorated the party’s militant tendencies that remained intact even when it became a coalition partner of the post-Musharraf PPP-led regime. But the damage had been done. Growing up with tales of how whole families had been wiped out during the 1990s operations against the party, the new generation of Mohajirs resisted the repeat radicalisation of the MQM which Altaf was again pushing for.
MQM’s political narrative might have finally collapsed, but the narrative that made thousands of Mohajirs start seeing themselves as an ethnic group remains. And MQM remains the only outfit capable of utilising it and engineering its return. After all, it fathered this narrative.