Muhajir Politics in Pakistan

“Muhajir Culture Day” was celebrated in Karachi on 24th December last year purportedly as a “cultural assertion” and show of strength by the 8 million strong Muhajir community of the city. The event was organised by a youth organisation named Youth Muhajir and was attended by some prominent Muhajir leaders cutting across party lines. A rally was held from Karimabad locality in Central Karachi to the Qaed e Azam Mausoleum to mark the occasion. With the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) influence fast fading into oblivion, the event had more to do with the city’s politics rather than the manufactured “Muhajir Culture”.

Bollywood buffs would recall the scene in the iconic Amir Khan movie “Sarfarosh”, where a jilted Pakistani ghazal singer cum ISI agent Gulfam Ali, brilliantly played by Naseeruddin Shah claimed that back in Pakistan “muhajirs” such as him are looked down upon. His handler was visibly embarrassed leaving the Indian hosts equally perplexed.

Who are the Muhajirs?

Urdu word Muhajir has Arabic roots and literally means “Immigrant”. Its root word ‘hijrat’ means immigration to preserve religion (read Islam) and the one who undertakes such a flight is called a muhajir. In the context of the sub-continental Islamic lore, muhajirs allude to those Muslims who, on partition chose to migrate from their ancestral homes in today’s India to the territory which came to be known as Pakistan. A closer look at the post-partition migration to Pakistan reveals different trajectories taken by the migrants. An overwhelming majority of those who moved out from erstwhile East Punjab (Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh), Jammu and Delhi chose to settle down in West Punjab. This is attributed to the territorial contiguity and similar cultural and linguistic surroundings being obtained there. The assimilation was comparatively seamless and as the years went by these Punjabi immigrants gradually dropped their Muhajir identity in favour of their Punjabi ethnicity. However, close to 1.1 million other Muslims who emigrated from erstwhile United Province, Central Province, Presidencies of Bombay and Madras and the numerous Princely States scattered across today’s India, went on to settle down in Sindh. Diverse cultural backgrounds made this group a heterogeneous one. Similarly, a sizeable number of Biharis and Bengalis from the present-day Bihar and West Bengal crossed over to the Eastern wing of Pakistan (now Bangladesh). This blog discusses the migration to West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan), with specific reference to Sindh & Karachi only.

1.1 million-strong Sindh-bound migrants generally comprised of educated Muslims who were well poised to stake claim to the numerous opportunities a new nation could offer and unsurprisingly half of them chose Karachi, the then capital of Pakistan, as their new home. The other half scattered themselves in the Sindhi urban centres of Hyderabad, Sukkur and Mirpurkhas. The newly arrived population were allotted homes and properties of the Hindus who had moved in the opposite direction. It is this heterogeneous migrant group that calls itself Muhajir and is still mostly confined to the urban centres of Sindh, including the metropolis of Karachi.

Destroying a Civilisation to “Manufacture” a Culture

In modern times, no other city has witnessed a demographic tumult as profound as Karachi has. In August 1947 the population of Karachi was close to 400,000 with 51% of the city dwellers being Hindus. The state of Sindh however had an overall Muslim majority with non-Muslims confined to the urban centres and constituting just 27 % of the population. Karachi, just like the whole of Sindh, saw no large-scale rioting or arson and the non-Muslim citizens continued to live in relative peace even during the turbulent days leading up to partition. The status quo continued till January of 1948 when hordes of arriving Muhajirs started asserting themselves by way of retributive actions against the town’s non-Muslim population, specifically the Hindus. With each passing day the situation became untenable and ultimately the Hindus and other non-Muslims such as Parsees, Jains and Christians had to leave Karachi for good, creating a massive cultural void and altering the demographic landscape forever. Having already absorbed 470,000 Muhajirs, by 1951 Karachi’s population bloated to thrice its numbers in 1941, Muslims (read Muhajirs) now at a staggering 96% majority. Language dynamics underwent an equally spectacular transformation during this period. The City’s Sindhi-speaking population shrunk to a paltry 8.5 % and Urdu became the mother tongue of 51% of the Karachi-ites, courtesy Mohajirs.

These developments dealt a death blow to Karachi’s indigenous Sindhi culture as owing to the low levels of literacy Sindhi Muslims could hardly compete with the Muhajirs and remained confined to rural Sindh. Muhajirs saw themselves as the creators of Pakistan and custodians of Islamic high culture, Urdu was whose lingua franca. The sense of entitlement among the Muhajirs was not entirely incomprehensible, after all they had formed the intellectual fountainhead of the movement led by Jinnah’s Muslim League which culminated in the formation of Pakistan. A dive into history will tell us that Muslim League did exceedingly well in the 1946 provincial elections in areas that formed the erstwhile home of Muhajirs. League’s electoral success laid to rest any hope for a united India and paved the way for the creation of Pakistan. The age-old Indian civilisation was left bleeding and so were the millions who suffered the frenzy of communal riots. Muhajirs too had their share of suffering, though it is a well documented fact that a large portion among them migrated voluntarily.

Having realised the Pakistani Project, its capital city of Karachi held a special attraction for the Muhajirs and hence became a natural destination. Pakistan’s political leadership encouraged this as educated working hands were more than welcome for the impending nation-building process. Kriti Shah and Sushant Sareen, while writing for a research paper for the Observer Research Foundation have the following to comment :-

In the early years of Pakistan’s creation, Mohajirs constituted a privileged community, with state policies geared towards their benefit. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s quota system, for example, was introduced to increase Bengali representation in the civil services, but was designed in a manner that did not affect the Mohajir representation. Consequently, the Mohajirs dominated politics, bureaucracy and business. Despite constituting only 3 % of the population, they held nearly 21 % of the jobs. By 1950, due to the quota system, the One-Unit Plan (which blocked all of western Pakistan into one province, West Pakistan, to counter the Bengali majority in the east) and a high literacy rate amongst migrants, the Mohajirs’ share in the civil service increased to around 47 %. The Gujrati-speaking migrants from Bombay controlled seven of the 12 largest industrial houses. By early 1970s, Mohajirs held 33.5 % of gazetted positions in the civilian bureaucracy, nearly half of the senior positions in public enterprises, and 11 out of the top 48 (23 %) senior positions in the military. (

Changing Dynamics

The indigenous Sindhis were marginalised by the government-aided Muhajir monopolisation of bureaucracy, industry, trade and education. The scars are still profound and the Muhajir continues to be viewed as the usurper. This schism was duly exploited by various political parties resulting in violent clashes between Muhajirs and Sindhis. In 1972, PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, smarting from the ignominious loss of East Pakistan introduced an ethnicity-based quota system for government jobs, benefitting the Sindhis. He also declared Sindhi as the state’s official language, alongside Urdu. Muhajirs saw these steps as a direct assault on their rights and went on a rampage. Scores were killed and Karachi University’s Sindhi Department building was burnt down. Consequently, in 1984 the Muhajirs, who until then had rallied behind religious parties such as the Jamaat e Islami (JeI) formed their own political outfit called the Muhajir Qaumi Movement ( now Muttahida Qaumi Movement). Altaf Hussain, a young firebrand student leader whose family had migrated to Karachi from Agra in Uttar Pradesh, led the party with an iron hand. The MQM dominated electoral politics in urban Sindh and remained the sole representative of the Muhajirs for a considerable period of time. During this journey the MQM asserted their street power without remorse wherein, intimidations, abductions and targetted killings became a common feature. This violent streak was nourished by the Afghan Jihad in the 80’s wherein Karachi port became the transit-hub for military hardware meant for the Mujahideens. In no time black marketed Kalashnikovs flooded the streets of Karachi, setting the stage for a bloody ethnic confrontation between Muhajirs, Sindhis, Pashtuns and Punjabis. It is pertinent to mention that the ’60s and ’70s saw considerable internal migration of Pashtuns and Punjabis to Karachi, a fledging commercial hub then. However, the Afghan Jihad in the ’80s resulted in a phenomenal spurt of Pashtun immigrants into the already overloaded city. Given the perpetual turbulence on either side of the Durand Line, the trend continues to date. Conservative estimates peg the numbers of Pashtuns in Karachi at 6 million, making it the most populous Pashtun concentration anywhere in the world! The next 30 years may well see them pip the Muhajirs to become Karachi’s majority ethnic group.

The demographic dynamics of Karachi, coupled with repeated military crackdowns on the MQM has had an adverse effect on Muhajir politics. Internal squabbles and prolonged absence of central leadership (Altaf Hussain is in exile in London since 1992) has taken the sheen off the erstwhile MQM. Of late, many loyalists have severed ties with the party and two of the senior leaders have founded parallel political outfits, dividing the Muhajir votes. Also, rivals such as the Pashtun backed Awami National Party(ANP) and Imran Khan’s PTI has been gaining ground in traditional Muhajir pockets. It is in this socio-political setting that the December 24 rally should be seen.

“Culture Sham”

Cambridge dictionary defines culture as the way of life especially the general customs and beliefs of a particular group of people at a particular time. Customs, architecture, costumes, cuisines, languages & dialects, folk music, folk tales, popular beliefs et al. are markers of culture, which in turn takes generations to evolve and blossom. Going by this definition, Muhajirs can hardly be seen as the repository of any common culture, so to say. Even the language Urdu, which is flaunted as a badge of honour was hardly the common language. Given their diverse roots in India, they can, at best claim to be a heterogeneous urban working-class grouping who chose Urdu as their lingua franca, purely for occupational purposes. It was a mission-oriented grouping for the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan and should be seen that way. Karl Marx had famously quipped – “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as farce”. Notional insecurity and hallucination made Muhajirs flee their traditional lands in India and seek refuge in the Sindhi urban centres. 75 years down the line, with their numbers dwindling and political power wilting, Muhajirs seek refuge in a shallow and fake sense of culture. Cultures give birth to politics and not the other way round. Clearly, the Muhajir politics of survival is leading them up the garden path of dubious cultural solidarity.

Courtesy: Mayank Gwari

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