Sindh’s Mohajir card: on its last legs

After decades of explosive urban-violence and ethnically segregated politics in Sindh, Mohajir-aligned politics is set to die. 

Qandeel Khan

Politics | South Asia

22 August 2017

Pakistan is a surprisingly ethnically diverse country. Urdu, its official language, is spoken by only 8 percent of the population. Pakistan’s abject failure to glue different nationalities, languages, politics and religious beliefs upon its creation has triggered a host of issues for the nation today. Former capital Karachi is the arena for one of the most interesting: the rise and demise of Mohajir politics.

Once a formidable force, Mohajir-aligned political groups and their militant wings are now on their last legs, set to lose their political clout in the near future.

Here is where the story begins: in the years following partition the Mohajir were touted as loyal, valuable migrants providing much needed skills to assist Pakistan in its fledgling years after the exodus of educated Hindi communities. An opposing narrative, led mostly by native Sindhis viewed Mohajir as elitist newcomers who not only quickly integrated with the oppressive Punjabi bureaucracy, but who swamped Sindh’s urban cities and forcefully imposed their Urdu cultural identity upon Sindhis.

Very soon, the Mohajir formed half of the provincial capital Karachi’s population, and were over-represented in government, military and business roles.

From the 1970s onwards, this dominance was lost. The new Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto took measures to placate Sindhi alienation, imposing pro-rural quotas for government jobs and admission to educational institutions, and introducing Sindhi as a compulsory language in school and work. Following General Zia-Ul-Haq’s martial regime in the late 1970s that heavily favoured Punjabis, and influxes of Pathan and Baclohi migrants into Sindh, the Mohajir began to feel squeezed out.

Amid brewing discontent over the restriction of career opportunities for poor and middle-class educated Mohajir youth, a university student named Altaf Hussain who did not meet quotas for admission into a pharmacy program started the earliest version of today’s Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).

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The MQM appealed to the Urdu-speaking majority of Karachi and Hyderabad by promising to address concerns other national or religious parties had not“Islamic parties promised us a place in heaven but failed to get us one in Pakistan”, explained one MQM supporter. Ruled internally with an iron fist by a charismatic leader, MQM’s leader Altaf Hussain was respected as a pir (a Muslim saint) and a bhai (brother). Giving dramatic speeches where he often wept about the plight of his fellow Mohajir, MQM became the dominant political force in urban Sindh, with Altaf successfully mobilising an emerging ethnic loyalty.

Riots came with the growth of an MQM militant wing, normalising political violence in the city. Targeted killings, torture and abduction of rival parties, police or government were common. Describing their motivations, one young Mohajir militant stated, “Altaf Hussain arrived on the scene talking about my experience exactly… He showed that because 2 per cent of the population ruled over 98 per cent, a lower-middle class, educated, intelligent boy couldn’t become a general or reach a high post in Pakistan. That’s why I joined. I was 18 or 20.” The total cost of lives in Karachi’s urban killings has been deemed comparable to the war with the Taliban and jihadists.

But despite being drunk on violent victories for decades, the hangover finally hit. The glory of the MQM faded slowly, at firstand then seemingly all at once.

People of all backgrounds grew tired of violence. The once beloved Altaf Hussain, now exiled in London for several years, grew increasingly erratic and out of touch. The last straw fell in August 2016, when a hate-speech by Hussain went viral: “Pakistan is a cancer for the entire world. Down with Pakistan.” The Mohajir, frustrated with constant commands to spurn the country their ancestors chose to call home, and unimpressed with allegations of corruption against Altaf Hussain, had had enough.

The MQM soon split into three factions, marking the first time in decades that Karachi’s political landscape had not seen a strong, unified Mohajir front, leaving smaller, weaker groups competing for the Mohajir vote.

With Altaf Hussain now gone, can we expect Mohajir politics to remain the same?

Probably not.

Pakistan is currently undergoing its first census since 1998. High migration and low birth rates means there is wide expectation that the Mohajir are no longer the demographic majority in Karachi. Constituency boundaries may be redrawn out of the census in a way that would sorely weaken the Mohajir vote.

And it’s no longer the 1970s. The fundamentalist premise justifying the MQM’s existence in the first place was that young Mohajirs were being denied opportunities for social mobility and economic prosperity.

Back then, most relied on access to political patronage and a government job for success. After economic liberalisation of the 1990s, this is no longer the sole option, nor the most popular for young people.

The smartest students no longer want to be generals; they want to be brand managers for Unilever. While rural-urban quotas remain, they matter little since demand for government employment amid young, educated, urban Pakistanis is low.

Memories of partition trauma are salient, but no longer fresh. With neither a carrot nor a whip, it is difficult to imagine the MQM or its offshoots succeeding to play the Mohajir card for much longer.

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