Tag Archives: Pakistan


Sindh’s Mohajir card: on its last legs

Qandeel Khan

Politics | South Asia


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 first—and 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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Islamic Warriors: Pakistani soldiers in Arab armies

Benjamin Clarke

Politics | South Asia


Every year thousands of Pakistanis leave their homeland to take up arms in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, enlisting in the armed forces of their wealthier Islamic neighbours. Driven by historical, economic and religious forces, Pakistan is now the world’s most prolific exporter of military personnel. So what drives them to do so, and how does the phenomenon benefit Pakistan’s foreign policy?

Pakistan has been deploying its own military to the region for decades. Pakistani pilots flew Saudi jets in combat and 15,000 soldiers were stationed in the kingdom during the turbulent 1970s and 80s. Personnel were also sent to train the militaries of numerous emerging Arab states which lacked the necessary experience and knowledge, and a force was sent to Kuwait during the Gulf War.

Pakistan’s strong Islamic identity and need for nearby strategic and economic partners has driven these commitments, and the resulting shared history and institutional links has forged close bonds between states and militaries alike.

However, the strongest flow of Pakistani power to the region is now unofficial and largely unnoticed, with many Pakistanis travelling to the peninsula of their own volition and donning the uniform of Arab countries.

One intriguing case is the recruitment of young men from Pakistan’s Balochistan Province into the Royal Army of Oman. The origins of the arrangement can be traced back to 1784 when Oman, then a significant colonial power, gained possession of the Gwadar region in what is now Balochistan’s Southwestern corner. Many Baloch people migrated to Oman and have played an important part in Omani history since that time. In 1958, Pakistan purchased Gwadar from Oman for US$3 million. The deal included permission for Oman to continue recruiting soldiers from Balochistan. The practice continues to this day with thousands applying for each intake, eager for opportunities which are hard to find in their underdeveloped region.

A more recent phenomenon is the influx of former Pakistani soldiers into the armed forces of Bahrain. The tiny gulf state suffers from internal conflict caused by a rift between its Shia majority and Sunni ruling elite, and has struggled to restore order. Lacking qualified personnel, its government has relied on Pakistan since 2011. Pakistani military foundations publicly advertise positions and up to 2,500 Pakistanis have joined Bahrain’s special forces, national guard and riot police, where they now comprise 30 per cent of the security services. Conditions are dangerous and many have been killed, but with pay exceeding US$1,140 a month it remains an attractive prospect when compared to Pakistan’s average of $162.

Several other countries on the Arabian Peninsula employ Pakistani soldiers. The majority of Qatar’s army comprises foreign soldiers, many of whom are Pakistani. Pakistanis are also recruited into the armed forces of the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where entire battalions consist of Pakistani manpower.

Why are Pakistani soldiers in such high demand in these countries?

The Arab countries desperately need effective soldiers. The combined population of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE is just 53 million, compared to the 79 million of Iran which some consider a major threat. Many of them have vast areas to defend as well as regional ambitions, and they simply can’t recruit enough soldiers. On top of this, their armies have notoriously poor records in combat which is ascribed to a lack of experience and cultural difficulties.

On the other hand, Pakistan has a large population and extensive military experience. Its army benefits from lessons learned during conventional wars with India, and modern soldiers have fought a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against extremists and achieved considerable success. The knowledge and skills this has produced is a valuable commodity and sorely needed in the region. This is demonstrated by the appointment of Pakistan’s previous army chief, Raheel Sharif, as commander of the beleaguered Saudi-led forces currently battling rebels in Yemen.

Low wages in Pakistan allow the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula to easily attract recruits. Religious considerations also factor in. As a Sunni-majority country, Pakistan provides soldiers who easily assimilate and provoke none of the outrage that US soldiers do. They are also neutral in potentially volatile tribal politics.

It is unusual for a country to allow so many of its citizens to join foreign armies. But for one in an awkward position such as Pakistan, it is a convenient arrangement. Pakistan needs good relations with stable Arab countries. However, it must also avoid provoking its influential neighbor Iran by giving its rivals too much support. Pakistan must walk a tightrope to maintain relations with both.  By exporting soldiers in an unofficial capacity, the government manages this by having a tangible impact on security in the Arabian Peninsula while also avoiding the political ramifications that excessively deploying its own forces would entail.

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