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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), once the most dominant political party in Karachi, is in complete disarray. At the moment there are three factions of the party vying for the Mohajir vote and at least two sub-factions within one of the splinter groups.

The immediate memory associated with the MQM in the minds of the party’s supporters is that of an organisation that was able to stall the political and economic alienation of Sindh’s Mohajirs. The other immediate memory of the party — mostly held by its detractors — is of an outfit which plunged Sindh’s capital, Karachi, into ethnic turmoil and of heinous crimes allegedly committed by the party’s armed wings.

There are also those who have maintained that the party was the outcome of ‘political engineering’ undertaken by the ‘agencies’ at the behest of Gen Zia’s dictatorship (1977-88). This has often been repeated by various political analysts. Even though this claim has never been convincingly substantiated, it is possible that this indeed was the case before the party broke away from the agencies’ orbit sometime in the late 1980s.

Was the MQM simply engineered by Gen Zia or was there more to its history?

This perception is largely rooted in comments by some Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) leaders and then those belonging to the PPP. In 1986, when one of the worst ethnic riots in Karachi propelled the MQM into the forefront, the JI claimed that the party had been created by the Zia dictatorship to neutralise the support the JI once enjoyed in Karachi. The PPP, on the other hand, claimed that the party had been engineered to “balance out the PPP’s influence in Sindh.”

There are various theories about MQM’s formation. But there is enough agreement among historians and analysts about the train of events which led to the formation of a Mohajir nationalist outfit. Dr Tanvir A. Tahir’s book Political Dynamics of Sindh traces the roots of this evolution all the way back to the 1950s when, according to Tahir, the Mohajir community began to feel it was being pushed out of the country’s ruling and economic elite. Tahir writes that the Mohajirs had become part of this elite immediately after Pakistan’s creation in 1947 when the Punjabis dominated the military and the Mohajirs were prominent in the bureaucracy.

After the assassination of Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan (a Mohajir), the Mohajirs began to feel that they were being nudged out. According to Tahir, the Mohajirs — who had come in droves from various parts of India and had mainly settled in Sindh — did not find the need to become familiar with the Sindhi culture because they became a majority in Karachi. Tahir also writes that this delayed the formation of a Sindhi middle class because the Mohajirs immediately managed to bag important positions in the province’s economy and government from Karachi that had become the country’s first capital.

In 1954, a Mohajir politician, Mahmud-ul-Haq Usmani demanded that Karachi be made a separate Mohajir-majority province. But the imposition of the One Unit system, that clubbed West Pakistan as a single province, somewhat placated the Mohajir community which was suspicious of provinces being based on ethnic considerations.

According to Tanvir, the Mohajirs found themselves almost completely ousted from the ruling circles during the Ayub Khan regime in the 1960s. They vehemently took part in the 1968 anti-Ayub movement. But when, after Ayub’s departure in 1969, Gen Yahya Khan agreed to do away with the One Unit, the Mohajir groups protested against Karachi becoming part of Sindh.

The February 23, 1969, edition of daily Dawn reported the formation of a Jeay Karachi Committee. It was mainly led by a faction of the left-wing National Students Federation (NSF-Kazmi). The Committee demanded the creation of a “Karachi sooba (province).” Another organisation, the Mohajir Mahaz (MM) came into being in late 1969. But MM could win just one Sindh provincial assembly seat during the 1970 election. Mohajir vote largely went to JI and Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP).

In 1972, when the PPP-led Sindh government declared Sindhi as the province’s official language, groups of Mohajir students formed the Muttahida Tulaba Mahaz Karachi (MTMK). They asked car owners to change their number plates to Urdu and also attacked English signboards. Riots broke out between the police and the MTMK in Karachi and between Mohajir and Sindhi youth elsewhere in Sindh.

Usmani, who had demanded Karachi to be made a separate province in 1954, had joined the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP). But he lost the election in 1970. During the 1972 riots, he formed the Urdu Qaumi Council. The July 15, 1972, edition of daily Jang quotes the Council members as saying that the organisation was launched to “inculcate in the minds of Mohajirs, scientific consciousness of their history and culture.” The Council also demanded that the state treat Mohajirs as a separate ethnic community as it does the Punjabis, Sindhis, Baloch and Pakhtuns. Two years later, in 1974, a Karachi Province Movement was launched but it fizzled out.

The Mohajirs of Karachi played a leading role in the 1977 movement against the Bhutto regime. In 1978, two Karachi University (KU) students, Altaf Hussain and Azeem Ahmad Tariq formed the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO). In his 2011 biography, My Life’s Journey, Hussain writes that Mohajir youth were exploited by JI and JUP against the Bhutto regime.

In 1981, APMSO became a member of the progressive student alliance, the United Students Movement (USM) at Karachi University (KU). Hussain writes that JI’s youth wing “expelled” APMSO from KU and the party began to establish offices in Mohajir mohallas (localities).

According to their 2011 essay for Berkeley Journal of Social Sciences, Ali Chandio, M. Ahmad and F. Naseem quote famous Sindhi scholar Ibrahim Joyo as saying that “Punjabi economic hegemony” increased immensely in Sindh during the dictatorship of Gen Zia. This situation had a negative impact on the interests of Karachi’s prominent (non-Punjabi) business communities. This concern saw some members of these communities form an organisation called the Maha Sindh (MS) in 1983.

It was an organisation set up to protect the economic interests of Karachi’s Memon, Sindhi and Mohajir businessmen and traders. Chandio, Ahmad and Naseem write that Maha Sindh encouraged the formation of a Karachi-based party. Many APMSO members were involved in the party’s activities. MS eventually became a Mohajir-dominated organisation, which then evolved into becoming the MQM in 1984.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 13th, 2019