Urdu-speaking immigrants in Sindh who call themselves Muhajirs, have remained a source of discontent among different nationalities of Pakistan. Soon after the creation of Pakistan and the imposition of Urdu as the national language of Pakistan, this community was seen by Sindhis, Baloch, Bengalis, and Pashtun as part of the ruling establishment that is usurping their socio-cultural, historical, and economic rights. However, initially, it was the majority of the Bengali nation that resisted the domination of Urdu as the national language and the imposition of north Indian cultural traditions on the people of Pakistan. After, the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the Muhajir issue got many contradictory dimensions. As Karachi remained the capital of Pakistan for nearly two decades, the Muhajir phenomenon took roots in Sindh and affected Sindhi politics and society in many ways. It became the source of a never-ending conflict between Sindhi hosts and their all-powerful refugee community whom they embraced wholeheartedly after they migrated from north Indian provinces into the newly created Pakistan.
This article is a brief analysis of the contextual factors responsible for the long-drawn Muhajir issue in Sindh in the overall political context of the country.
In the wake of their departure from south Asia, the British colonialists amalgamated many national entities in their newly created country on the fallacious ground that Muslims in south Asia constitute a nation. However, this act of a dying colonial power was indigestible to the constituent national entities of Pakistan who were forced to merge into it. As the colonial power handed over power to its loyal Punjabi army and some north Indian politicians who were on the payroll of East Indian Company and the British Government for long, the resistance from the oppressed nationalities was primarily against the Punjabi hegemony. But soon a new phenomenon appeared in the body politics of Pakistan which was as unique as the creation of the Islamic state itself. This was the lateral entry of Urdu-speaking Muhajirs in the corridors of power as bureaucrats, academics, intellectuals, and theoreticians.
Military, which was the actual ruler of the country, began searching for allies as the call for a constitutional and democratic, and federal state was raised by Bengalis, Sindhis, and Pashtuns. The Baloch were resisting the occupation of their country in various ways. This alliance was readily available, and Urdu-speaking immigrants overnight became part of the ruling establishment. Religious elite was also groomed and patronized and became the first line of defense against the secular and progressive forces which were demanding a democratic federal dispensation and a welfare state. The tripartite alliance of the army, religious elite, and Muhajirs became partners in ruling the country for many decades. Sindhi-Muhajir issue should be seen in this perspective.
As part of state policy for retaining and strengthening its hold on constituent national entities, Urdu was introduced as the national language of Pakistan. It was unique in the history of the world that a language that was not the language of any constituent nations of a country but the language of some hundred thousand immigrants became the national language of the state.
As the state was founded on shaky grounds, Muhajir academics were tasked by the state to rewrite the history of the region to find logic in the creation of a state out of nothing. Therefore, heroes of Sindhis, Pashtun, Baloch, and Bengalis became villains while plunderers and pillagers from the west and central Asia who undertook genocides of these nations in medieval times became heroes. The irony was that the children of Sindhis, Pashtun, Baloch, and Bengalis were forced to read this as they were included in the school curriculum. The history of the region was mutilated in such a way that now it is not recognizable. The cultural traditions of north Indian states were imposed on the people of Pakistan and socio-cultural values of constituent nations were belittled as primitive and un-Islamic.
As the resistance against Punjabi rule was led by the land-owning class of Sindh and Pashtunistan and tribal chiefs of Balochistan, a systematic campaign was started in media and other channels of communication against Jagirdars and Sardars. This was also to erode the foundations of Sindhi and Baloch society where Sardars and zamindars are part and parcel of their wider community. Sindhis, Pashtun, and the Baloch educated class were excluded from the bureaucracy and administrative set up of their provinces and for nearly two decades, the country was overwhelmingly run by Muhajir and Punjabi bureaucracy. In Bengal and Sindh, a high-profile campaign was initiated by Muhajir academics against the Hindu minority in these provinces. This was also to damage the secular fabrics and to fracture these societies to weaken their resistance against tyranny and military rule. Muhajirs also grab the houses of Sindhi Hindus, who were forced to flee the country. It was also unique in the history of the world that refugees overnight became property holders in their host country.
After a prolonged direct and indirect army rule, for some years, civilian rule was restored in 1972. Sindhis took the chance and declared Sindhi as the official language of the province. In another unique example of history, the refugee community rose against their hosts and with the help of the military establishment and with much violence, forced the government to withdraw the decision.
These were the factors that became the seeds of an unending antagonism between Sindhis and Muhajir. Over time, these seeds of antagonism made Muhajirs synonym with the oppression and humiliation brought about by the state on Baloch, Sindhis, and other national entities. As the pillar of the establishment, opposition to Muhajir began in political, social, and academic circles of Sindh, Balochistan, and Pashtunistan.
When relations between civilian prime minister Bhutto who happened to be a Sindhi and the military establishment became untenable, the army decided to get rid of the so-called civilian dispensation. It arranged for the formation of an alliance of various parties under the name of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) and asked them to initiate a movement against the Bhutto government. Muhajirs in Karachi and Hyderabad were used as the vanguard of agitation. Both cities were paralyzed by Muhajir youths’ wings of Muhajir religious parties like Jamaat Islami and Jamiat Ulema a Pakistan. PNA movement became violent and it is blamed that some workers of Bhutto’s political party were lynched. The violence was unprecedented in its gravity and Sindhis were at the receiving end. Because of the PNA movement, Sindh became divided into two linguistic groups-Sindhis and Urdu speaking.
With the overthrow of the Bhutto regime, the army adopted new policies regarding internal and external issues. Islamization program was introduced in the country. However, in the context of Sindhi politics, drastic changes occurred. The army was in no need of Muhajirs as partners in the governance of the country. After three decades of power-sharing, the army was confident enough to rule other national entities on its own. It stopped the financial and political backings of religious parties in Sindh that were representing the Muhajir community. The Muhajir political organizations felt betrayed and in a dramatic reaction, they began voicing against military rule and demanded a return to civilian rule and democracy. This further increased the division between former allies. The military began to take action to cut Muhajir religious parties into size by creating a Muhajir student organization-All Pakistan Muhajir Students Organization (APMSO) in 1978. It hired some of the leftist Muhajir intellectuals for the indoctrination of Muhajir students and the portrayal of the Muhajir community as a nation. A student of Karachi University Altaf Hussein was made its organizer. However, with the hanging of Bhutto and popular anger against military rule, this project was temporarily postponed and Muhajir religious parties were again welcome and blessed by military rulers. Altaf Hussein reacted to this betrayal, raised voices, and was arrested. He migrated to the USA and worked as a taxi driver for some time.
The MRD movement in the 1980s shook the foundations of military rule in Pakistan. The whole Sindh was in turmoil. Military in need of allies reactivated APMSO. Altaf Hussein was brought back from the USA and asked to form a Muhajir political party. This was to politically counter the nationalist and democratic forces in Sindh which were gaining grounds and were increasing their pressure for the national rights of Sindh.
Altaf Hussein announced his organization as Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), which was mostly comprised of Muhajir youths and recently repatriated Urdu speaking people from Bangladesh. The party was tasked to act on ethnic lines. Soon Sindhi political scene became murky as tension increased between Sindhis and Muhajirs. However, the first test trial of this newly created party was not on Sindhi speaking persons but Pushto speaking settlers of Karachi and Hyderabad. In 1985, a girl student of Sir Syed College was crushed to death by a minibus which was driven by a Pathan driver. A very strong movement against the transport system was started but quickly it was changed into ethnic riots between Urdu speaking and Pathans. The ordinary Pathan laborers were targeted and killed.
With the open support of intelligence agencies, the MQM showed its muscle power and the army was successful in transforming a mere pressure group into the main stack holder in Karachi and Hyderabad. MQM became a force to be reckoned with. With the rise of MQM, one of the peaceful cities in the world, Karachi became the hub of violence. Kidnapping for ransom and collecting protection money by the armed wing of the MQM made the organization wealthy enough to purchase huge quantities of arms. It was weaponized beyond recognition. MQM cadres were armed with Russian arms sent into Pakistan by the Americans to be used in the Afghan war of the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the military government announced the local bodies’ elections. Leaders of MQM contested in the elections as independent candidates. In the context of Pakistani elections, where election manipulation by secret services is an accepted norm, it was not unexpected that MQM became the second-largest party in the province. MQM under the garb of “Muhajir Nationalism” and anti-quota system rhetoric, mobilized the Muhajir community. The army successfully exploited the identity crisis of Urdu speaking Muhajirs in Sindh to make MQM a popular movement of Muhajirs. Later, it was renamed as Muttahida Qoumi Movement (MQM). For its violent actions, MQM exploited the tragic incident of Pucca Quila massacre in Hyderabad on the evening of 30 September 1988. It is believed that the then Urdu speaking army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg was behind all this process of strengthening the division of Sindh on an ethnic basis. Army also carved out assembly constituencies where it was easy to arrange for the winning of MQM candidates in the general elections. Subsequently, MQM got many seats for the national and provincial assemblies. This was the completion of the task given to the intelligence services for the division of Sindh on an ethnic basis.
By the early 1990s, the MQM had gained enough electoral and muscle power. It was inducted into the federal coalition governments in Islamabad and became a powerful tool of the military establishment in destabilizing elected governments and suppressing a nascent civilian dispensation in the country. But Hussain Hussein overstepped his given mandate and became an irritant for the military establishment. A military operation was carried out to bring MQM under control. Altaf Hussain fled to London where he sought political asylum. However, after some years, a reconciliation was brought about between Altaf Hussein and the army. MQM again became a partner of the army in the governance of the country and was given unchecked authority in Sindh. The Sindh Local Government Ordinance (SLGO), introduced during General Musharraf’s Martial Law regime (1999-2008), particularly helped MQM in extending its influence and further cementing its reputation as a Muhajir nationalist movement. As General Musharraf was also a Muhajir, MQM found in him a redeemer who enhanced the image of the party as an elected representative of the people of Karachi and Hyderabad.
However, with the end of Martial Law in 2008, MQM to a large extent lost its importance. Altaf Hussein reacted with the use of abusive language against his mentors and the army declared him persona non grata. Military establishment successfully divided MQM into many groups. Presently, the movement is reduced to a shadow of its former self having lost most of its power in Karachi. Its leaders are facing major criminal charges concerning genocide and mass murders. The establishment is grooming at least two factions of MQM. Recently, Pakistan Tehrik Insaf was also introduced in Karachi. With two factions of MQM, Tehrik Insaf and Altaf Hussein waiting in line for forgiveness from the army for his past disobedience, the army is well entrenched in Muhajir politics.
Despite many ups and downs in the relations between Muhajirs and the military establishment in the recent past, the ruling military establishment is still in need of a Muhajir card. Keeping alive Muhajir politics is imperative for the establishment to cut Sindhi nationalist and democratic forces into size. From time to time, feelers are spread in the shape of demanding a Muhajir province out of Sindh or demand for handing over Karachi to the Federal Government to steer fear among Sindhi nationalists.
Unfortunately, the ethnic division created in Sindh through MQM is still there. Because of the negative propaganda of the last many decades, many Muhajirs believe the agenda of Pakistan cannot be completed till Muhajirs have their province. For this reason, they think that Sindh is the best land where there is a vast gap between urban and rural areas in terms of development; the difference in living standards, and continuous demographic changes. Muhajirs claim that the development of urban centers in Sindh like Karachi and Hyderabad is because of them. The Muhajir dominated media is successfully making believe this section of the population on their sacrifice for Pakistan and the betrayal by the ruling establishment. They are successfully hiding the fact that Muhajirs were parts of the establishment that ruled this country without any legal or moral justification. They are also hiding the fact that MQM was created by the army. They are hiding the fact that Sindh was one of the most developed regions in British India before the arrival of Urdu-speaking immigrants.
In recent days, there are talks of Muhajir-Sindhi unity. Altaf Hussein is trying to make friendly gestures with the Sindhi nationalist Diaspora in Europe and North America. But Sindhis are skeptics and believe that his talks of friendship with Sindhis are a ploy to strengthen his bargaining position with the establishment. For the time being, with a strong military establishment in power in Pakistan, Muhajirs in total control of the military establishment, lack of a visionary leadership among Sindhi nationalist forces, it will be naive to think that the Muhajir-Sindhi Faultline will narrow in near future.