Time and again ethnic violence has caused unrest in various parts of the country. Sindh, however, has often been the most affected because incidents of violence have left deep-rooted scars on the ethnically polarised province.
Ethnic disturbances in Sindh first began in 1952 when, during an Ashura procession, some rumours created tensions between Sindhi and Urdu speaking residents and an infuriated crowd burnt down a police station. The district administration prevented further aggravation by efficiently handling the situation.
Violence again erupted between Urdu and Sindhi residents in the wake of a bill passed by the Sindh Assembly on July 2, 1972 outlining measures for the promotion of the Sindhi language. Some mischief-mongers claimed that it was aimed at marginalising Urdu. A newspaper ignited the situation with provocative headlines, because of which riots erupted in Karachi and Hyderabad claiming the lives of many innocent people.
Sindh has had a long history of ethnic strife. Unless governments tackle the real causes of social and political disempowerment, the province will continue to remain a powder-keg
After nine violence-ridden days, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto arrived in Karachi and, after consulting with representatives of both segments, a fresh language bill was presented on July 16 declaring both Urdu and Sindhi official languages in Sindh. This calmed the charged atmosphere but the riots left behind dwindling trust between Urdu and Sindhi-speaking peoples.
Sociologists also trace the history of Karachi’s ethnic conflagarations to the 1960s after then president Gen Ayub Khan initiated a plan to settle Pakhtuns — his own ethnic group — in the city. While new industries, the transport sector and the expanding economic base created new job opportunities, it also put extra pressure on the sociology of the city. In particular it caused a sense of deprivation and insecurity for earlier residents who thought that they had a preferential right for employment. Soon local markets were being manned by people coming to Karachi from outside Sindh, which further aggravated resentment among residents of Sindh.
During Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo’s government, 1985-86 witnessed a renewed wave of horrifying incidents but the measures taken to control the situation proved cosmetic. The situation was supposedly in control but in reality tension simmered amidst the fear of rioting and disturbances that could flare up at any time. Military dictator Gen Zia (1977-88) thought that it was because of a few miscreants who wanted to exploit the situation to their political ends but he was wrong.
In April 1985, Bushra Zaidi, a college student in Karachi, was killed in a traffic accident. The tragic incident sparked one of the deadliest waves of riots the city has ever witnessed. Since the bus owner and the driver were Pakhtuns, Pakhtuns began to be targeted by Urdu-speaking militants, who used the incident to create a sense of ‘Mohajir nationalism’ as well. Pakhtuns also responded in kind. Riots brought life in Karachi to a standstill. Numerous vehicles were torched and organised attacks took place in working class and middle class localities of Orangi and Liaquatabad. Law and order was restored only after the army was called in. Tensions continued for many months and it was feared that if underlying causes were not addressed, there might be a recurrence of violence.
In December 1986, the police supported by the army, took action against drug peddlers in Sohrab Goth, a largely Pakhtun area on the outskirts of Karachi. In reaction, riots broke out in the city with Qasba and Aligarh colonies being the worst hit areas. Hundreds of people lost their lives in the violence.
Riots also erupted in Hyderabad on September 30, 1988, when some miscreants fired indiscriminately in crowded areas, killing more than a hundred people, mostly Mohajirs. In reaction, the following day, about 40 Sindhi labourers in Karachi were attacked by Mohajir militants in an organised way. The local administration took measures to control the riots but the fearful atmosphere continued for weeks. The Hyderabad incident, and its reaction in Karachi, once again shifted the pattern of ethnic violence from Mohajir-Pakhtun to Mohajir-Sindhi.
After taking charge as prime minister in 1988, Benazir Bhutto took measures to establish peace but this mainly involved PPP reaching an accord with the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) which championed the Urdu-speakers and whose support the PPP needed to form the federal government. Talks were held between the two parties and a 59-point accord was signed on December 2, 1988.
The accord included steps to be taken by the government to address the causes of the unrest. MQM’s demands included the repatriation and settlement of Biharis (Urdu-speaking East Pakistanis who continue to live in refugee camps) from Bangladesh to Pakistan. Another condition was that no person other than the permanent citizens (Sindhi and Urdu-speaking communities) living in Sindh would be allowed to vote in Sindh, nor to own industries and business houses in Sindh. It was also demanded that transport in Karachi should be run by the Karachi Municipal Corporation and a fresh census would be conducted for reallocation of funds.
The PPP-MQM accord in 1988 may have kindled a ray of hope but differences arose only a few months later, in early 1989, when the PPP refused to resettle the ‘Biharis’ from Bangladesh. In addition, there was a larger political game afoot, with the combined opposition – backed by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan – planning to dismiss Bhutto’s government and dissolve the parliament.
Violence erupted again in July 1989 and May 1990. This time riots erupted when clashes took place between the PPP-aligned People’s Students Federation and the MQM-aligned All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation. Once again the troops were called in to restore peace.
Remarkably, no major ethnic riots have taken place since then, though some would argue that riots have been replaced by targeted killings along ethnic lines, but also between different MQM factions.
All governments from the ’60s to-date have claimed they have found a permanent solution, but none has in fact been able to do so. The fact is that, given the large-scale demographic and sociological changes, which affect economic and political stakes, Sindh continues to remain an ethnic powder-keg. All ‘solutions’ have so far proved to be superficial.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 30th, 2016