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Smokers’ Corner: MQM: the missing link


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The most common account of the formation of the Muttahida (originally Mohajir) Qaumi Movement (MQM) involves claims that it was a party conceived in 1984 by the military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq as a way to counterbalance the influence of certain political forces in Sindh. However, there is precious little clarity on the part of those political historians who toe this claim.

The Jamat-i-Islami (JI) was the first party to assert that the Zia regime had ‘created MQM’ to sideline JI’s influence in Karachi, even though between 1977 and 1984, the JI was openly supporting Zia. In the late 1980s, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) insisted that the MQM had been formed by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to curb the PPP in Sindh, whereas Sindhi nationalist parties were of the view that MQM came into being at the behest of the Zia regime because of the way Sindhi nationalists had protested during the violent anti-Zia MRD movement in Sindh in 1983.

Nevertheless, if one were to summarise the collective thesis on the subject by academics who have written extensively on the MQM – such as Muhammad Wasim, Laurent Gayer and Oskar Vaarkaik – one can suggest that, though, there was some involvement of Zia’s agencies in the formation of the MQM, this experiment soon backfired when the MQM quickly spun out of the agencies’ orbit and became an aggressively independent entity.

The MQM’s arrival was not simply about a Mohajir-centric student organisation (APMSO) evolving into a mainstream political party born out of political and economic frustrations of Mohajirs. One can treat this as an immediate historical snippet, but it is certainly not the complete story. Academics specialising in the politics of Sindh, such as Amir Ali Chandio and Dr Tanvir Tahir, trace back the formation of the political Mohajir ethnicity way back to the 1960s.

Along with Punjabis, Mohajirs dominated Pakistan’s initial ruling and economic elite and thus both these communities continued to invest their political support in either federalist or religious parties or in military dictatorships. Even those Mohajirs and Punjabis who joined outfits led by Sindhi, Pashtun, Bengali and Baloch nationalists (such as the National Awami Party (NAP), were largely part of the NAP’s Marxist wing that wanted to eschew politics of ethnicity and work towards a bourgeoisie-led socialist proletarian revolution.

But by the late 1960s, much of the country’s leftist tendencies were absorbed by the emergent PPP, and thus progressive non-Punjabi and non-Mohajir nationalists became more exclusivist. Consequently, the first ever demand to separate Karachi from Sindh (as a Mohajir-dominated province), actually came from an influential faction of the National Students Federation (NSF) that was associated with the NAP.

In 1969 Amir H. Kazmi, the head of his own faction of the Marxist NSF, was the first to raise the banner of Mohajir nationalism.

But few Mohajirs took the notion seriously, as they were still firmly imbedded in the concept of federalism and (like Punjabis) repulsed by ethnic nationalism. But as most of the left-leaning Punjabi and Sindhi intelligentsia and working classes and peasants invested their support in the federalist PPP, Mohajirs stuck to continue backing the equally federalist Islamic parties.

By the late 1960s Mohajirs had already begun to be dislodged from the Punjab-dominated ruling and economic elite with the gradual entry of the dictator Ayub-Khan-initiated entrance of the hardworking Pashtuns in the cherished fold. The rise of the PPP led by Z A Bhutto further added to the sense of dread rising amongst Mohajirs. This erupted in the shape of 1972 ‘language riots’ in Karachi when the Bhutto regime reintroduced Sindhi in educational institutions and Mohajirs saw this as ‘an attack on Urdu.’

The aftermath of the riots saw the formation of a city government movement (CGM). Studded with Mohajir intellectuals, former Karachi-based leftist student leaders and some businessmen, it again called for Karachi to be separated from Sindh.

This movement too failed to take off until the 1978 formation of Altaf Hussain’s APMSO. Ironically, Hussain, a former sympathiser of the JI, conceived his student outfit as a secular Mohajir organisation radically opposed to religious parties (which he accused of exploiting Mohajirs’ patriotism ‘to fatten Punjab’s political-economic hegemony’). In this he was bitterly opposed by JI’s student wing, the Islami Jamiat Tuleba (IJT).

The much overlooked reason behind the APMSO’s evolution into MQM is an economic one. According to famous Sindhi scholar, Ibrahim Joyo, ‘Punjabi economic hegemony’ increased immensely in Sindh during the dictatorship of Ziaul Haq. This situation had a negative impact on Karachi’s leading business communities (Memons, Gujaratis and other non-Punjabi business outfits). In such a situation these communities formed the Maha Sindh (MS) — an organisation set up to protect the interests of Karachi’s Memon, Gujarati and Mohajir businessmen and traders.

According to celebrated Sindhi intellectual Khaliq Junejo, the MS then encouraged and financed the formation of a ‘street-strong’ Karachi-based party: the MQM. It can be argued that it is this aspect of the MQM’s formation that sometimes gets mistaken into meaning that the party came about with the help of the Zia regime. This is so because the business communities in Karachi (stung by Bhutto’s nationalisation policies) were anti-Bhutto and had hailed his overthrow by Zia in 1977.

But by the early 1980s, they had been deluded by Zia’s supposedly ‘pro-Punjabi’ economic maneuvers in Sindh and felt the need to have their own political outfit. MQM was the result.

Author Image

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and He is also the author of two books on the social history of Pakistan, End of the Past and The Pakistan Anti-Hero.

He tweets @NadeemfParacha

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (33) Closed

Alex Oct 23, 2011 12:44pm
Once again, a superb article. May I suggest that if you can point some books for further readings.
YAB Oct 23, 2011 12:54pm
Another insightful gem by NFP.
Faisal Oct 23, 2011 01:52pm
It is more important to understand what MQM is today, has the huge vote bank of Karachiites... who support (and there is no reason to doubt that they will continue to support) MQM against the religious parties as well as PPP. PML-N is a non-entity as far as Karachi is concerned and every time they or recently Mirza Saab open their foul mouths against MQM, we just laugh and ignore... its a comedy act or whatever.
Ahmed Oct 23, 2011 02:35pm
I could not really see any story line here. There is not much that you are saying here, unlike most of your previous analyses.
Nasah Oct 23, 2011 02:59pm
Thanks NFP for clarifying the issue. In a sea of feudal political parties including the PPP and the PML(N) MQM is the only truly non-feudal national party.
mustafa hussain Oct 23, 2011 03:25pm
The article helped me a lot to correct my misconceptions about the birth of MQM. Thanks NFP.
Ali Oct 23, 2011 03:49pm
Yet another great piece of work by NFP - you're one of the few sincere journos who struggle to bring the truth out for common Pakistanis (esp. youth) and put the record straight. MQM was actually a resultant of a sense of deprivation that existed amongst Mohajirs in 80's. Although, some believe that this political party believes in violence however MQM's mandate of highly educated and working class of Karachi and Sindh indicates the fact that it has deep roots - also, it negates any allegations of it being a party that believes in violence. We mustn't forget that MQM and Mohajirs, both are reality and Pakistani establishment should give them their due respect/share.
Saman Oct 23, 2011 04:13pm
As always another brilliant writeup by NFP :) and thank you for the facts! :)
ashraf Oct 23, 2011 04:16pm
This article is just to manipulate the historical evidence of creation of MQM by agencies with the help of Zia. An other ill sighted and biased article.
Iftekhar Oct 23, 2011 04:34pm
But why later on Amir Haider Kazmi associated himself with PPP when there was MQM torch bearer of Mohajir ethnicity. And he was very ruthless in his approach. Will NFP like to write about him more. Also how mohajirs outside karachi figure in that calculation. BTW amir haider kazmi and MQM both acted in fascist way. Amir haider treated some govt official or a person badly in a public function when he was health minister n said gentleman praised zia policy for special children while MQM walas thrashed Joan Alia when they when he said 'yeh tu shurafa ka dastor nahi' on their attitude in a mushaira.
fred Oct 23, 2011 05:08pm
First of all yet another superb article by NFP. I would like to add that MQM was an astonishing phenomenon of the 80's. In a totally feudally dominated country ( still is ! ) it was a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately MQM could not set a trend in the rest of the country. Unless and until we get rid of the plague of feudalism nothing will change. We will remain in the colonila mindset and common man will continue to be victimised. Look at our surrounding nieghbourhood, they have all got rid of this curse. Wake uo Pakistan !
Razzaq Oct 23, 2011 05:08pm
Very interesting historical facts.Those who claim to be champions of democracy must respect and honour the mandate of MQM.The reality of bitterly divided nation must also be dealt with politically and not emotionally.
Malik Oct 23, 2011 05:41pm
I don't understand the purpose of this article. But now more than ever there is a need national solidarity. We should always put Pakistan's interest first. It cringes my heart when I hear someone promoting muhajir, balochi or any other faction. We should promote ourself to be pakistanis. BTW punjabis, sindhis and pakhtuns should not be made scapegoats for every problem karachi faces.
Ashar Oct 23, 2011 06:09pm
Superb article and cleared so many mis-conceptions which anti-mqm and anti-muhajir people have. MQM carries heavy mandate of educated Urdu speaking people and being a Karchitte I support them. People like Mirza can come and go but it will not affect whatsoever the popularity of MQM among the masses.
progressive_Pakistan Oct 23, 2011 06:40pm
What a principled party indeed,they are always supporting Military dictators and the same feudal lords.How many feudals have militant wings and extortion cells? With Juicy words and fabricated stories,one can create castle in air that may not last for long.
Navin Bhardwaj Oct 23, 2011 06:50pm
Some people, including the writer I presume, believe the conflict of the day has much to do with the correctness of the historical narrative that dominate public discouse of the day. Historical narrative certainly has a role to play in correcting the current ills. But its worth noting that a lot of the angst within the society has its roots in emotional rather than logical thinking. What is needed is healing at an emotional level rather than one forced by logic and clear reasoning. I think that is where NFP usually gets his articles wrong. Appeals to reason and logic rather than the emotions of his readers and for that reason his message doesnt percolate down deep enough. We in the subcontinent tend to think with our hearts than with our minds. That is a fact that needs to be recognized by the intellectuals. And therefore the line of argument they should take should appeal to people's emotions while remaining rooted in reason
Salma Oct 23, 2011 06:50pm
Kudos to NFP for this article. Reiterates my firm belief that there are some journalists who will take the time and make the effort to set the record straight. The feeling of depravation and of being a marginalized minority was felt unilaterally by a majority of middle-class, educated Mohajirs before the advent of the MQM. 
Arsalan Oct 23, 2011 08:00pm
Dear Mr. Malik, Unarguably the need of solidarity on national and at federation level higher than ever before. however, one does not mean to blame punjabis or pushtun to make a escape goat. it is those leaders (named above) who shone their politics on the basis of ethnicity. You may refer to the history of violence in Karachi factors playing role behind it from 50s to date and you'd hav a fair idea.
umar Oct 23, 2011 08:47pm
I do hope that one day you will write an article about your hero's(ZAB) role in electoral campaign against fatima jinnah. perhaps fatima jinnah's defeat against dictatorship was most drastic event of our history.
Sunny Gadani Oct 23, 2011 08:52pm
If their manifesto was so MIRACULOUS as some people here tried to suggest, somehow, then why even after three decades it remains Muhajir Centric and it only wins marginal seats, by and large... The true face of MQM was exposed by Mirza, that even after three rebuttaling Press Conferences, the MQM couldn't satisfy the masses...
Informational Oct 23, 2011 09:00pm
Usually I read NFP work as entertainment not serious business. This time your piece has truth tht no one talks about. The sole purpose of MQM is to fight against ‘Punjabi economic hegemony'. Even with MQM, all govt. offices, agencies, law enforcement is all Panjab. If Punjab backs off a little and let the Karachiats run their own affairs, Karachi will stop supporting MQM. Right now if MQM give up weapon, all of Urdu speaking will be thrown in the sea, because there is so much hatred against Muhajirs. MQM is not good, but its our survival.
Qasim Oct 23, 2011 09:43pm
Isn't it a little ironic that the businessmen who 'founded' MQM were later target of most of the bhatta khori from MQM?
Ghani Khan Oct 23, 2011 09:59pm
APMSO was founded as an exclusive party which later became MQM (Mohajir Qaumi Movement), for the sake of expediency, its founding father Altaf Hussain renamed i, Mutahida Qaumi Movement.You can paint it with any brush but the behaviour pattern of the party remained unchanged. It is an exclusive, urdu speaking mohajir party and a militant party just like APMSO.
Um Oct 23, 2011 10:31pm
Excellent factual article....
Imran Oct 23, 2011 10:39pm
I like the MQM because they are good for their own people but they dont have to mean to other people living in the city.They should do something to stop violence with in the party and the city.
Pakistani Oct 23, 2011 10:44pm
today we are living in the age of Media. Media is so powerful that it can do everything. before writing the article the writer should investigate the matter. Your article can not change the history. MQM is the sole creation of Gen: Zia, who hanged the hero of nation and proved the words of Henry kissinger that "We will make you a horrible example.
Farheen Oct 23, 2011 11:05pm
THe dept of information is great. a superb article. I would only like to say about hte politics of Pakistan that now MQM has become a very strong reality in Pakistani politics and people of Pakistan should respect that relaity as they are the voice of the "Economic Hub of Pakistan".
Adnan Oct 24, 2011 12:31am
As far as I know among all the political parties in Pakistan MQM is the only political party who has been sending a common man to National & Provincial Assemblies. There is not one single example in any other political party. Jamat-e-Islami gave the women seat to Qazi Hussain's daughter when there was a lot of other hard working senior workers were there. All other political parties have been following the same practices.
Imaginative77 Oct 24, 2011 12:32am
Another (very important) 'objective' narration of historical facts. Well done NFP ....
Asif Oct 24, 2011 02:14am
well done Paracha Sahib
Omair Oct 24, 2011 12:48pm
Good article which covers one half of the story well. Although on a few occassions, I feel the writer twists the facts and over simplifies the evolution of APMSO to MQM. I understand the objective of the article is for the writer to prove, beyond doubt, that formation of MQM was nothing sinister and was purely a popular phenomena. However, as one of those who enjoy rather large readership, it should be followed up with all the details of how the concept went wrong. Instead of patronizing politics of decency and middle class representation, how MQM morphed into a group operating much like a mafia.
Rizvi Oct 24, 2011 01:36pm
The article just ended abruptly, as a reader I felt like something more was going to be said, is there a part two coming up? And what are your views on the current situation of MQM? What do you think would be their strategy going into the next election?
Mohammed Hassanali Oct 24, 2011 11:23pm
Let's not forget that Pakistan's Quomi language is URDU. You forgot to mention the other ethnic based parties that were formed after the MQM and particularly the PPI of the Punjabi Pakhtun Ittehad. Be honest with yourself.