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This article was originally published on April 20, 2014.


The Mohajirs (Urdu-speakers) of Pakistan are largely settled in the Sindh province. In the province’s capital, Karachi (that is also Pakistan’s largest city), the Mohajirs have for long been a majority.

Unlike the country’s other major ethnic groups, Mohajirs are not ‘people of the soil’. Their roots lie in areas that are outside of what today is Pakistan.

A majority of them began arriving from cities and towns (especially from North Indian regions) after the division of India into two separate states in 1947.

They mostly settled in Karachi and soon became a part of the otherwise Punjabi-dominated ruling elite of the new-born country due to the high rates of education found in the Mohajir community, its urbane tenor and the required expertise it possessed in running Pakistan’s nascent bureaucracy and economy.

Socially, the Mohajirs were urbane and liberal. But politically they sided with the country’s two major religious parties: the (then middle-class-oriented) Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), and the more petty-bourgeois and populist Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP).

The dichotomy between the Mohajirs’ social and political dispositions was a result of the sense of insecurity that the community felt in a country where the majority of its inhabitants were ‘natives.’

Lacking a political constituency tied to the historical and cultural aspects of ethnicities of the ‘people of the soil’, the Mohajirs naturally backed the state’s project of constructing a homogenous national identity that repulsed ethnic sentiment.

The Mohajirs also echoed the views of the religious parties that eschewed pluralism and ethnic identities and propagated a holistic national unity based on the commonality of the faith followed by the majority of Pakistanis.

As time would eventually render such projects and demands obsolete and artificial in a multi-ethnic country like Pakistan, by the arrival of Pakistan’s first military regime (Ayub Khan, 1958), the Mohajirs had already begun to lose their influence in the ruling elite.

With the Baloch, Bengali and Sindhi nationalists distancing themselves from the state’s narratives of nationhood, Ayub (who hailed from what is now the Khyber Pakhtunkha province, slowly began to pull the Pakhtuns into the mainstream areas of the economy and politics.

This is one reason why the Mohajirs’ began to agitate against the Ayub dictatorship from the early 1960s onwards.

Mohajirs had decisively lost their place in the ruling elite, but they were still an economic force to reckon with (especially in urban Sindh).

When a Sindhi, Z.A. Bhutto, became the country’s head of state (and then government) in December 1971, the Mohajirs feared that they would be further side-lined, this time by the economic and political resurgence of Sindhis under Bhutto.

In response the Mohajirs enthusiastically participated in the 1977 right-wing movement against the Bhutto regime (that was largely led by the religious parties).

The movement was particularly strong among Karachi’s middle and lower-middle-classes (and aggressively backed by industrialists, traders and the shopkeepers).

This was also the first time when the Mohajirs compromised their social liberalism to supplement their backing for a movement based on populist religious dispositions.

But the success of the PNA (Pakistan National Alliance) movement did not see the Mohajirs finding their way back into the ruling elite, even though the Jamaat-i-Islami became an important player in the first cabinet of Gen Zia regime that came to power through a military coup in July 1977.

Disillusioned, some young Mohajir politicians came to the conclusion that their community had been exploited by religious parties, and that these parties had used the shoulders of the Mohajirs to climb into the corridors of power. This galvanised the formation of the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (in 1978) and then the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) in 1984.

Its founders, Altaf Hussain and Azim Ahmed Tariq, decided to organise the Mohajir community into a cohesive ethnic whole.

For this, they found the need to break away from the community’s tradition of being politically allied to the religious parties, and politicise the Mohajirs’ more liberal social dynamics and character.

The Mohajir dichotomy between social liberalism and political conservatism was dissolved and replaced with a new identity-narrative concentrating on the formation of Mohajir ethnic nationalism that was socially and politically liberal but fiscally conservative and provincial in outlook.

The project was a success; first expressed in the manner the MQM broke the electoral hold of the religious parties in Karachi and the subsequent invention of the Mohajirs of Sindh as a distinct ethnic group.

By 1992, the MQM had become Sindh’s second largest political party (second to the PPP).

But as the city’s economics and resources continued to come under stress due to the increasing migration to the city from within Sindh, KP and the Punjab, corruption in the police and other government institutions operating in Karachi grew two-fold.

The need to use muscle to tilt the political and economic facets of the city towards a community’s interests became prominent.

Thus emerged the so-called militant wings in the city’s prominent political groups.

These cleavages saw the MQM ghettoising large swaths of the city’s Mohajirs in areas where it ruled supreme.

The results were disastrous. It replaced the pluralistic and enterprising disposition of the Mohajirs with a besieged mentality that expressed itself in an awkwardly violent manner attracting the concern and then the wrath of the state and two governments (in the 1990s).

In 2002 MQM began to regenerate itself after the crises of the preceding decade when it decided to end hostilities with the state by allying itself with the Gen Musharraf dictatorship (1999-2008).

The party had already weaned away the Mohajir community from the concept of Pakistani nationhood propagated by the religious parties. Now it added two more dimensions to Mohajir nationalism.

It began to explain the Mohajirs as ‘Urdu-speaking Sindhis’ who were connected to the Sindhi-speakers of the province in a spiritual bond emerging from the teachings of Sindh’s ‘patron saint’, Shah Abdul Latif.

This was MQM’s way of resolving the Mohajirs’ early failures to fully integrate Sindhi culture.

The other dimension that emerged during this period among the Mohajir community (through the MQM), was to address the disposition of Mohajir identity in the (urban) Mohajir-majority areas of Sindh.

This dimension explains Mohajir nationalism in the context of Pakistan’s status of being a Muslim-majority state.

It expresses Mohajir nationalism through a version of socio-political liberalism based on the modern reworking of 19th century ‘rational and progressive Islam’ (of the likes of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan). It sees spiritual growth as a consequence of material growth (derived from modern free enterprise, science, the arts and the consensual de-politicisation of faith).

Let’s see where this continued evolution leads.