Pakistani politics cannot be understood without paying close attention to the deep ethnic cleavages that line its polity. The seminal moments in its brief history â€“ the 1971 war with India which led to the creation of Bangladesh, the horrific violence that rocked Karachi in the mid-90s both are a reflection of Pakistan’s inability to transcend narrow ethnolinguistic boundaries in either revenue allocation or in crafting policies around language and culture.
Here below, I explicate how the vicious ethnic politics in Karachi, the first capital of Pakistan and a city which contributes 35% (in some analysis 60 plus percent) of all revenue to the central coffers, has come to define the ethnopolitical dysfunction that has marked Pakistan’s history.
The Arabic word Mohajir means a refugee and in Pakistan, it generally refers to non-Punjabi Indian Muslim immigrants. One of the reasons why Urdu speaking immigrants are seen as Mohajirs and Punjabi immigrants not is that while the Punjabi Muslim immigrants were able to assimilate very well within the ethnically similar Punjab, the educated Urdu speaking immigrants from the Gangetic plains and elsewhere formed a culturally distinct group in Sindh.
The Mohajirs post-partition formed the educated ‘salariat’ (Hamza Alavi’s term describing the educated British favoring class during the Raj) in the nation’s capital city, Karachi. They were overrepresented in the bureaucracy, media, and managerial positions in the private sector. Politically, they were ardent nationalists who studiously avoided ethnic politics and favored Islamist parties until the reorganization in the mid-1960s. The Mohajirs cynically supported the military and strong central government so as to keep the federalist pressures, as in demands by other ethnicities for ‘fairer’ representation in bureaucracy and elsewhere, at bay. The arrangement fell apart as Bengalis rebelled and won independence in 1971. The same year Bhutto was elected and he ushered in a federalist structure by first revising the Regional Quota system in federal bureaucracy to lower Mohajir quota from 17 to 7.6%, and then by nationalizing some key financial institutions that were owned by Mohajirs. Since then things have changed dramatically for Mohajirs – they have come to be underrepresented in state educational colleges and jobs, and have lost some of their economic muscle.
The rulers and the Mohajirs
Pakistan as a nascent nation got off to bad start. Its ‘father of the nation’ (Baba-e-Qaum), a Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi rolled in one for the country, died a little more than a year after its creation. Whatever little chance the nation had of enlightened leadership vanished as Liaquat Ali Khan, a close confidant of Jinnah, was assassinated merely four years into his reign as a Prime Minister. Then, after a period that saw 6 prime ministers in 7 years, Mohammad Ayub Khan grabbed power in a coup and steered Pakistan into an alliance with the US. Midway during his rule in 1964, he fought and won elections, which were widely seen as rigged, against Fatima Jinnah, sister of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Mohajirs sided with Fatima Jinnah in that election and suffered targeted violence at the hands of Gohar Khan, son of Ayub Khan, for such temerity. Just as an aside Ayub Khan’s son Gohar Ayub Khan was Pakistan’s Foreign Minister in the Nawaz Sharif government and Gohar’s son, Omar Ayub Khan, is Pakistan’s current Minister of State for Finance. Ayub Khan in 1964 moved the capital city from Karachi to Rawalpindi on an interim basis and then to Islamabad, its current resting place. The move was widely seen by Mohajirs as a way to marginalize them. In 1969, he turned reigns over to the only second Shiite after Liaquat to lead Pakistan, General Yahya Khan. Yahya Khan of course famously led Pakistan into another losing war with India in 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Following 1971, nearly half a million Bihari Muslims, who had moved to East Pakistan in 1947, demanded that they be expatriated to Pakistan. Out of the nearly half a million refugees, Bhutto â€“ the successor to Yahya Khan â€“ only allowed 100,000 before his Sindhi constituency forced him to abandon the rest. The stranded Biharis live in refugee camps in Bangladesh till today. The issue of these abandoned Biharis further alienated the Mohajirs who had vigorously campaigned for them.
Bhutto was elected at a time when Pakistan felt chastened by the independence of Bangladesh. Bhutto felt that his first job was to let off the steam of ethnic pressures within Pakistan by redrafting the quota system for federal bureaucracy and other educational institutions so as to provide for more proportional representation of different ethnicities. Bhutto, who is generally considered an enlightened statesman within Pakistan- and there are good grounds to think that the authoritarian leader was just that, was also a closet Sindhi nationalist. Bowing to his native constituency, the Sindhis, he instituted urban-rural quotas that resulted in a precipitous decline in the number of jobs to which the predominantly urban Mohajirs were eligible. The interesting side note to this controversy is that given that the regional quota system that was based on the demographic strength of each ethnicity, the census became the most politicized document in Pakistan.
After Bhutto’s assassination, Pakistani Politics was run by Zia-ul-Haq singly for about 10 years. Haq’s rule is legendary not only for his fateful decision to involve Pakistan in Afghanistan, but also for his full-throttle Islamization that he unveiled to support the prior cause. Haq, a Punjabi, also deeply reviled Mohajirs. The war in Afghanistan led to another refugee influx in Karachi that was to change the dynamics within Karachi to the worse once more. This time the influx of Pathans was also accompanied by the wide availability of small arms. “Between 1986 and 1989, the prices of guns went down by 40 to 50% in Karachi. The TT-pistol sold for Rs. 5500 in 1987. In 1989, it was priced at Rs. 3000. In the Frontier, the price of an AK-47 went down from Rs. 40 000 in 1980 to Rs. 16 000 in 1989.”
End of 1988 saw Bhutto being elected as PM of Pakistan in a much-feted election. The time period, of course, ties neatly with the ‘end of Afghan war’ and the reduced utility for the US of a military regime in Pakistan. Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, rode to power with a coalition government that included MQM. Post-election, Benazir is widely alleged to have run one of the most corrupt regimes. Just to give you a flavor of the bankruptcy of the regime, Madam Bhutto appointed her mother, Nusrat, as a senior minister without portfolio and her father-in-law as chairman of the parliamentary public accounts committee. In addition, ever the Sindhi nationalist and eager to firm up her credentials there, she didn’t throw much rope to Mohajirs. The relationship quickly soured and MQM, in turn, found an ally in Nawaz Sharif’s Punjabi dominated PML. It is important to note that this proved to be a death knell in terms of Sindhi-Mohajir relations against what many saw was Punjabi dominance, especially post Zia, at the center. Bhutto oversaw the worst of rioting in Karachi in the mid-90s in her second stint at the helm. Corruption wise things didn’t change much in her second stint as PM either as she appointed her husband, Asif Zardari, as the environment minister. Of course, Zardari did more than merely handle the environment. After moving through an interim prime minister, Sharif eventually came to power in 1997. He, in turn, was deposed by General Pervez Musharraf, a Mohajir, in 1999 â€“ which brings us to the ‘end’. We can talk about Shaukat Aziz but lets not. Most trace the ascent of Musharraf to the top in a Punjabi dominated military exactly because of his status as a Mohajir – the Punjabi military bosses promoted him for they felt that a Mohajir would never attempt, and much less succeed, in a coup d’etat. Musharraf’s relations with the Mohajir community, of course, have been on warm terms but that has attracted the ire of nearly all others. The 2007 Karachi riots hence can be seen as a stage-managed confrontation between PPP led Sindhis and MQM.
Demographic factors in Karachi
Sindh’s urban society was dominated by Hindus before 1947. The native Muslim population was primarily rural. The emigration of Hindus post-partition left a vacuum which was filled by the educated Muslim immigrants from India. In the 1981 census, only 6% of the population identified themselves as Sindhi.
The relative affluence of the Mohajirs was always a rubbing point for the Sindhis.
Post-1971 war with India during which Bangladesh was created, nearly 100,000 Bihari Muslims who had migrated to Bangladesh during partition immigrated to Karachi. Another 300,000 Biharis were left stranded in Bangladesh in over 60 refugee camps as political will ran out as Bihari immigrants became a political liability in Sindh. The Bihari immigrants who speak Urdu have traditionally been seen as part of the Mohajir community.
Then starting with the 1980s, Afghan refugees starting pouring into Karachi as Afghan war got underway. The Afghan immigrants were widely alleged to have brought along with them the ‘drug and arms’ mafia and the number of small arms in city just ballooned as ethnic conflagrations became deadlier. The Afghans threw their weight politically behind the Punjabis, and the nexus worked effectively and to deadly effect in the riots in the mid-80s and then again in the mid-90s.
Language and Cultural issues
Urdu was instituted as the official national language at the inception of Pakistan even though only a pitifully small fraction of Pakistanis spoke the language. In the widely cited 1961 census results, it was reported that Urdu was the mother tongue of a mere 3.7% of all Pakistanis (7.5% in West Pakistan), and only 15% of West Pakistanis were able to speak Urdu at all. It is hopefully already clear that Urdu was the language spoken by the Mohajirs and they fought tooth and nail to keep it the only ‘official’ language.
Language has been a key issue in Pakistani politics. In fact, one of the major rallying points for East Pakistanis was recognition of Bengali as one of the state languages. In Sindh, there was widespread resentment against Urdu. In 1972, Sindh province (Bhutto) passed a resolution instituting Sindhi as the second official language. The act led to ‘language riots’ as Mohajirs, concerned about losing the economic privilege that emanated from their ability to speak Urdu, rioted. Language riots are often seen as a turning point in the city’s history and the relation between Mohajirs and Sindhis.
Revenue Sharing Issue
In 1995-96, Karachi’s estimated contribution to the Federal and Provincial Tax Revenue was Rs 403 billion or just a little over 63%. Karachi metropolitan area’s population of about 12-14 million then was just about 10% of Pakistan’s total population. The Federal Government reallocated just over 2% of the revenues it harvested from Karachi back into Pakistan that year. The imbalance can be largely explained by the redistributive nature of tax regimes in which taxes from rich provinces are often used to provide for public goods elsewhere. While that is largely true, there was also explicit discrimination that led to such neglect of infrastructure that it almost killed the cash cow of Pakistan.
Mohajir Quami Movement
In 1978, Altaf Hussain formed a student organization called the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organization (APMSO). The nascent student organization quickly leached students from Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami. In doing so, it sealed its future as an adversary of IJT. APMSO and IJT regularly clashed on the college campuses in the early 80s, and have continued to battle since then.
In 1984, the Mohajir Quami Mahaz (MQM) was set up by Altaf Hussain. Between 1984 and 1986, Hussain worked to recruit its cadre and then launched MQM on the national stage with a massive rally in Karachi on August 8th, 1986.
Between 1986 and 1988, MQM worked towards a Sindhi-Muhajir alliance. In 1988, MQM fought national elections (under the name Haq-Parast) in an alliance with Sindhi dominated Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto. In the elections, it emerged as the third largest party with 13 seats in the National Assembly. MQM also achieved a landslide victory in municipal elections (1987) in Karachi. MQM’s first stint in sharing power was largely ineffectual in delivering real tangible improvements as the governance was marred by both infighting within MQM as well as active sabotage by Bhutto’s PPP. MQM withdrew support from the Bhutto government and fought the next election in an alliance with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML). The Mohajir-Sindhi alliance provided the only real chance to thwart the Punjabi dominance in Pakistani politics, and PPP’s parochialism and MQM’s need to deliver to its constituents, led to an early demise to the alliance. MQM’s decision to ally with the Punjabis would soon prove to be unfortunate.
The coalition Islami Jamouri Ittehad (IJI or Islamic Democratic Front) rode to power in the 1990 elections. Between 1990 and 1992, MQM got a free reign under Jam Sadiq Ali. But with power came dissent and party indiscipline. Aamir Khan, a comrade in arms with Altaf, began muscle flexing. In June 1992, the military concerned about MQM’s rising star launched Operation Cleanup to weed out Altaf Hussain. All of this was done with the express consent of Nawaz Sharif. While the Operation was officially to ‘weed out criminal’, it turned into an all-out witch hunt against MQM. The military launched not only conducted raids but also led a media assault- it released photos ‘showing’ that MQM was a terrorist organization that ran torture chambers, and newspapers, fed by the military, ran expose’ pieces about its gun running operations. Disagreements between Altaf Hussain and the then MQMâ€™s two prominent militant leaders, Afaq Ahmed and Aamir Khan had first surfaced towards the end of 1991. The military-led campaign, sidled with a political campaign, helped create ‘mutiny’ within ranks and led to the formation of “Real MQM” or Haqiqi Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM-H) under Aamir Khan. Funnily, the progenitors of the splinter group were also killed by the avid embrace of its parents, the government. The group quickly lost credibility on the street and eventually just became a front group for the government to wage war against MQM.
Soon after the launch of the Operation, MQM withdrew support from the coalition. The same year, Altaf Hussain went to the UK ostensibly for ‘medical treatment’ and converted the opportunity in to a voluntary exile. Since then he has led the organization via telephone, faxes, and other modern communication mechanisms. It is important here to note the central role of Altaf Hussain in leading MQM.
MQM is seen as a one-man party which deeply relies on the charismatic leadership of Altaf Hussain. Hussain, who was born to a lower-middle-class background in Azizabad in Karachi, is known as Quaid (leader) and Pir Sahib within the ranks. MQM itself is a cadre-based tightly knit organization. The organization prides itself on superb discipline within its ranks. The organization imposes a premium on its cadres for strict adherence to, what it sees, are essential tenets for building a strong organization. In its pamphlet on training workers, it lists four essential elements of a strong movement: “(1) “blind faith” (literal translation from Urdu) in the leadership; (2) elimination of individuality; (3) strong sense of common purpose; and (4) complete knowledge of, and agreement with the ideological basis of the organization.”
MQM boycotted the 1993 elections. The PPP government in 1994 gerrymandered the districts so as to bypass MQM’s ironclad grip on Karachi. 1994 onwards Karachi was under the grip of violence as MQM(A) fought pitched battles with ISI supported MQM(H). In November 1994, the army was withdrawn from law enforcement duties in Sindh, but the paramilitary Rangers were reinforced and specially trained police inducted. During 1995 and 1996, hundreds of people were killed by Rangers and police, including hundreds of members of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
In 1997, MQM(A) tried to moderate its stance in terms of ethnicity by changing its name Muthaida Quami Movement (United National Movement). Reflecting MQM’s nature (and need) for forming alliances of convenience, MQM again switched partners in 1998. The ruling PML(N)’s troubled alliance with the MQM(A) in Sindh province ruptured during October 1998. Without the MQM(A), the PML(N) no longer had the numbers to govern in the Sindh province, leaving a clear path for the opposition Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto to join with the MQM(A) to form a majority in the Sindh assembly. Within a year, Musharraf was at the helm of Pakistan as its CEO.
The Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Almost right away Pathan refugees started pouring into Karachi. Pathans, on coming to Karachi, largely went into the transportation, rental, and money-lending businesses. Up until 1979, the informal housing market in Karachi was controlled by Punjabis and Mohajirs. Starting 1980, Pathans started taking over the informal housing sector. This created tensions between Pathans and the predominantly Mohajir (Bihari) renters of Orangi. These tensions came to a boil in 1985 during the transportation riots.
Between 1984 and 1985, Karachi minibusses, called the yellow devils, were responsible for on average two deaths per day. In 1985, a Pathan bus driver skipped a light and ran into a group of students of Sir Syed College. The Mohajir and Punjabi student activists from the Islami Jamiat-e Tuleba, the student wing of the Jamaâ€™at-e Islami rioted. Bihari basti dwellers of Orangi also joined the transport riots. The rioting saw Mohajirs in pitched battles with Pathans, who formed a partnership with the Punjabis â€“ an alliance cemented by arms trade between Punjabi dominated military and the Pathans. The alliance between Pathans and Punjabis still stands; Pathans are seen as henchmen for the Punjabis in Karachi.
The Mohajir conflict is not an ethnic conflict as Mohajirs don’t belong to a certain ethnicity but come from a variety of different ethnicities. The uniting cultural glue, if there is one, is the shared language â€“ Urdu. The major thing that bound them together, especially initially, was economic interest. Economic interest was also what led them to mouth nationalist slogans as a way to propagate the status quo that distinctly advantaged them. The other part of Mohajir identity â€“ the one which made them see as a different nationality- was formed in the era post-mid-1960s, when ethnic aspirations had started battering Pakistan’s political landscape with gale force winds. Mohajir ‘identity’ formed under the pressure of Sindhi nationalism, and the Punjabi and Pashtun ethnic movements, and most importantly under the economic pressures created by limited resources and ‘unequal’ distribution. Certainly, Sindhis felt that they had legitimate grievances for they believed that it was ‘their land’ and ‘their resources’ that were being ‘preyed’ upon by outsiders. Meanwhile, the Punjabis felt threatened by the economic ascendancy and dominance of the Mohajirs within Pakistan. Additionally, post-ethnic quotas, the only way Mohajirs could demand economic rights legitimately as a group was to be considered a separate nationality on par with that of Sindhis, Punjabis, Pathans, and Balochs. And Mohajirs did just that. Given that Mohajirs were ethnically, and to a large degree, especially post-immigration of poor Biharis- economically diverse, mobilizing them as a “nationality” proved tricky. The earliest mobilization attempts hence were focused on the style of clothing. It is often called the ‘Kurta-Pyjama’ mobilization.
The trajectory of Karachi and Pakistan could have been different had it not involved itself in Afghanistan. The Islamization unleashed by Haq to service the Muhajideen pipeline had a deep impact on the political and cultural fabric of Pakistan â€“ an impact whose ripple effects are still being echoed in the demolished minarets of Lal Masjid, and Shia-Sunni relations in particular. Zia regime, which came at a time when concern about Iranian revolution was high, armed the Sunni extremists within Pakistan and helped perpetrate horrific violence against the Shias in the mid-1980s. Zia’s regime also saw the vicious persecution of other minorities like the Ahmaddis. The Afghan war also made available huge amounts of small arms within the country, something which was abused to deadly effect in ethnic clashes.
In 1998, Mohajir, Baluch, Pashtun and Sindh parties allied to form the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM), which seeks to challenge Punjab hegemony in Pakistan’s political life. Another group that represents Mohajirs, Sindhis, and Baluchis is the Grand Democratic Alliance. While these alliances proved ineffectual, there is now a chance that Mohajir-Sindhi-Pathan alliance may take shape with Benazir-Musharaf and possibly ANP coming together to fight elections.