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The Mohajir question

January 23, 2014

ALTAF Hussain’s demand for a separate province, despite subsequent clarifications, has reignited debate on the role, status and even nomenclature of Mohajirs. Such debates take two extreme positions.

Some argue that Mohajirs should not use the term ‘Mohajir’ since its meaning does not accurately describe their present status. But then people, places and groups are often named idiosyncratically. Their name meanings often do not reflect their present status.

People are named Alamgir (world conqueror) without conquering anything. Native Americans were called Indians for centuries because Columbus mistakenly thought he had reached India. Even Pakistan’s meaning is an inaccurate descriptor of its current corruption-ridden nature. Thus, the meanings of names are irrelevant; what matters is common recognition.

Such arguments also assert that Mohajirs should consider themselves Sindhis only and learn Sindhi. It would be excellent if people learnt neighbouring languages to increase national and provincial unity. However, people usually learn other languages not based on a sense of civic duty but on need or passion. Even the Punjabis and Pakhtuns permanently settled in Karachi speak little Sindhi.

Knowledge of Balochi among Balochistan’s Pakhtuns and of Pashto among KP’s Hindko speakers is mixed. These groups, like Mohajirs, are demographically inhabitants of their respective provinces but ethnically maintain their separate identities without subsuming themselves into the province’s majority group despite decades and centuries of cohabitation.

So, like everyone else, Mohajirs have the right to maintain their separate identity within the rubric of their Pakistani citizenship and Sindhi demography.

Conversely, some Mohajirs and even periodically the MQM when under pressure, argue that Mohajirs are a distinct ethnic group which deserves its own province or country. Nevertheless Mohajirs are not a cohesive ethnic group, unlike other Pakistani groups, but an identity group consisting of several highly distinct ethnic groups.

Their common identity is relatively recent and is based on the common experience of them or their ancestors migrating from far-flung parts of India after partition to Pakistan, but unlike Punjabis, not finding ethnic cousins there to subsume with. Demands for separate provinces and countries usually come from groups with centuries of common identity and links to the land.

Secondly, it has been observed that Mohajirs may soon become a minority in Karachi. Even today, there may not be majority support for separation in Karachi.

Thirdly, even mega cities rarely become provinces. Devolved local governance is seen as a better solution for their unique problems. Thus, the solution to Karachi’s problem lies not at the top two tiers of governance, i.e., separate country or province. It lies at the third tier through genuinely devolved local governance — more devolved than for even other large Pakistani cities due to Karachi’s enormous problems and economic and demographic size. Such special devolution can provide nationwide economic benefits.

Unfortunately, such special devolution is often dubbed as a move towards Karachi’s separation. Such fears are exaggerated given Pakistan’s difficult constitutional process for forming new provinces which make difficult the division of even Punjab and Balochistan where there is more rationale for division given their disproportionate demographic and geographical sizes respectively.

If Sindh was not divided during the 2000s, when the president and prime minister were from Karachi and assemblies were pliant and non-representative, how can it be divided today because of higher local devolution?

However, such special devolution will only succeed if the city government works for all ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the MQM is as loath presently to doing this locally as the PPP and PML-N are provincially and nationally.

At the time of partition, Mohajirs dominated Pakistan economically, politically and culturally. Along with their higher education and industrious nature, their initial domination of government greatly helped Mohajir elites economically. They are probably still Pakistan’s most affluent group. Politically, they have lost ground to Punjabis under Ghulam Mohammed, Pakhtuns and Hindko-speakers under Ayub and Sindhis under Bhutto.

As Pakistan’s only group cut off from its rural hinterlands, which now lie in ‘enemy’ territory, according to some, Mohajirs also face cultural erosion since isolated rural hinterlands help conserve group cultures. These challenges have helped crystallise the Mohajir identity.

Many Mohajirs feel betrayed at the perceived lack of gratitude shown by others for what they see as their role as Pakistan’s architects. They feel discriminated against, though in reality they face reverse discrimination, i.e., policies adopted against dominant groups to help weaker groups advance.

However, such policies have been implemented crudely in Pakistan. Malaysia’s quota system, while more sweeping, furthered national integration and economic advancement, unlike Pakistan’s. Luckily, private job and educational opportunities have expanded significantly since the 1970s so that the quota system has become a less salient issue today in Pakistan.

In between these two extreme positions lies a third one. While Mohajirs have the right to maintain their separate identity, robust local governance rather than a separate province remains the best route to resolving Karachi’s problems.

The writer is a political economist.

murtazaniaz@yahoo.com