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The Mohajir question

Published Jan 23, 2014 07:36am


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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.

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

Comments (9) Closed

Jawad Siddiqi Jan 23, 2014 12:38pm

Very well written blog. Would have been even better if the writer would have shed light over certain episodes in our history, including riots in karachi after ayub khan's election victory over Ms. Jinnah, Fall of east pakistan and non repatriation of biharis from bangladesh, language riots in 1970s, Zia's Marshal Law creating no opportunities for urban youth. All these factors were also responsible for creating a particular 'group based identity' in Urdu speakers, including the sense of betrayl, sense of doing a thankless job in contributing towards pakistan movement etc.

observer Jan 23, 2014 04:38pm

It's an exploitation at best. Identity is one thing and mixing it with politics for personal and self interests is another. Parsis or Bohris are respectable and self-made communities of Karachi/Sind but they have neither killed others or ever shut the city on one pretext or other. There are millions of Muhajirs in Punjab (from East Punjab) etc. Irrelevent issue.

Fida Sayani Jan 23, 2014 04:44pm

Mohajir's migration to Sindh was welcomed by Sindhis in the early period of post partition. I still remember a dear friend of mine used to say that after partition first they moved to Punjab, after seeing the unwelcome sign they moved to Peshawar, as they thought that their last name of Khan will help them in their rehabilitation. To their surprise they got disillusioned in NWF and decided to move to Sindh, where according to him they were welcomed and he still has that same feeling about Sindh. The problem is that Mohajir's in Sindh over played their cards and soon Sindhi realized that these are not the kind of immigrants who will assimilate and follow Sindhi culture and language. There disillusionment got a kick with the creation of MQM and their subsequent demand of separate province. Tragedy for Mohajirs is that they are losing their clout and hence more frustration. Personally I believe that they can brighten their future by adopting Sindhi language and culture and become the true sons of the soil of SINDH.

MUHAMMAD AHMED Mufti Jan 23, 2014 07:10pm

It is true that Urdu speaking population of Sindh has been subjected to worse discrimination by native Sindhis. Hailing from Karachi I have personally experienced discrimination in Sindh and Islamabad. The native Sindhis have always tried to rob Urdu speaking population from any sense of citizenship. The opposition to local government is one such example. Having said that, I still do not believe that the call for a separate province has any justification. I think Urdu speaking population has alienated itself by opting for the MQM. MQM has introduced militancy and has destroyed the education system of Karachi. Just to rig elections MQM has inducted its workers into the education department. The very thing that used to be distinction of this group has been destroyed by MQM. The solution lies with Urdu speaking population joining mainstream politics. PTI is their natural choice. With good governance PTI can rebuild the broken education system and bring the Urdu speakers out from national isolation.

yasin Jan 23, 2014 07:51pm

Scientific rule ---- To every action there is a reaction.

Shan Jan 23, 2014 10:09pm

Lets put all the same arguments for Kashmir? Does it qualify to become independent state?

Shehzad Zafar Jan 23, 2014 11:00pm

Good article. In fact Mr Altaf has ruined the Muhajir cause as thousands of Urdu speaking people killed since 1985 in all over Sindh but this community didn't got anything. Urdu speaking people only survived due to their better approach to life and foreign jobs. These words of Mr Altaf are only for winning local body elections.

SBB Jan 24, 2014 04:13am

Partition happened in August of 1947. Your statement that "At the time of partition, Mohajirs dominated Pakistan economically, politically and culturally." can easily be challenged using only facts. It wasn't like the Punjabis and Sindhis did not exist before the arrival of the Mohajirs. So I would be a bit careful. Sindhi culture existed in Sindh for many hundreds if not thousands of years before most Mohajirs knew what it was.

Sam Jan 25, 2014 02:12am

@Fida Sayani: I agree with the first part, Sindh has always been welcoming. But I didn't really get the second part. I think if a mohajir or any ethnic group living in the city wants to learn a language or about a certain native culture, then well fine; but It shouldn't be forced onto them. Sindi should be thought in schools but students should be given a choice to learn either sindhi or urdu. And Urdu should not be a COMPULSORY.