On April 29 this year, by-elections for Karachi’s NA-249 constituency will be held. The seat was won by the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) during the 2018 general elections. But it was a slim victory. PTI’s closest rival here was the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which was defeated by just 718 votes. This is an incredibly thin margin in a constituency that has over 300,000 registered voters. The biggest surprise was the performance of the militant Barelvi Islamist party, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which came in third.

The current incarnation of NA-249 as a constituency appeared just before the 2018 elections, when large chucks from NA-239, NA-240, NA-241 and NA-242 were added to it. This has made it one of the most ethnically diverse constituencies in Karachi, at par with another large constituency of the city, NA-247. But, whereas the ethnically diverse NA-247 is made up of various economic classes, NA-249 consists almost entirely of large working class and lower-middle class areas. 

Karachi remains the country’s most ethnically diverse metropolis. Compared to many other metropolises of the world, Karachi is a relatively new city. Its history before the 19th century is obscure. According to Arif Hasan, a researcher and an expert on Karachi, the city was a tiny fishing village before the 18th century. One can hardly find it on maps drawn before that century.

In a November 11, 2009 feature, Hasan writes that the area changed hands between Balochistan’s Khan of Kalat and Sindh’s Kalhora dynasty in the 18th century, before being annexed by the Talpur dynasty of Sindh in 1795 CE. In the 1840s, the British defeated the Talpurs and captured Karachi.

According to British records, Karachi’s population in 1856 was just 56,875. It largely constituted Sindhi and Balochi speakers, mainly Hindu and Muslim. Karachi (and the rest of Sindh) were made part of the ‘Bombay Presidency’ under the British. It was during British rule that Karachi began to develop as a vibrant port city. In 1936, the British restored Sindh as a province and Karachi was made its capital.

By-polls in Karachi’s ethnically diverse NA-249 constituency offer a fascinating insight into the changing demographics of Pakistan’s largest metropolis

In her book, In Search of Lost Glory, political anthropologist Asma Faiz writes that Sindh’s restoration as a province was made possible by a movement headquartered in Karachi. According to Faiz, Sindhi Muslims mostly drove the movement. According to the 1941 census, the city’s population was 713,900. Over 65 percent of these were Sindhi-speakers. 

Urdu-speaking refugees from India (Mohajirs) largely settled in Karachi after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Karachi was not only separated from Sindh and made the country’s first capital, its Sindhi majority decreased to less than eight percent.

From the 1960s, with Karachi being at the heart of the Ayub Khan regime’s industrialisation project, Pashtun labour began to arrive from what was then the North-West Frontier Province and presently Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. During the Z.A. Bhutto government in the 1970s, Sindhis were encouraged to migrate to Karachi, which had once again become Sindh’s capital. With the continuous migration of Pashtuns, Punjabis, Sindhis and Sarais, the city’s Urdu-speaking majority — which was close to 60 percent in the 1950s — was reduced to 48 percent in 1998 and, according to Arif Hasan, may currently stand at 41 percent. 

Being the country’s only major port city, Karachi has evolved quite like port cities have across the world. But this also means that Karachi’s economic, political and social evolution has been somewhat distinct compared to Pakistan’s other urban centres that are landlocked.

In the August 1998 edition of the Journal of Urban History, R. Lee writes that the economic nature of port cities is such that it attracts constant in-country and international migrations that create ethnic, racial and religious diversities, but which also lead to ‘social compartmentalisation.’ Port cities are known to be inherently diverse and pluralistic and, according to Lee, their politics is more or less still rooted in the ‘ideology of merchant capital’, which is committed to avoid any unnecessary disruption of trade and commerce. But these cities are often riddled by a number of social tensions that lead to ethnic segregation.

On the one hand, Karachi can be charming for being enterprising, progressive and diverse, exhibiting a busy, self-absorbed and detached demeanour. But, on the other hand, severe social, political and economic tensions between its diverse communities continue to brew, just underneath its surface. These often erupt in the shape of ethnic violence and the violence among the city’s many street gangs, and land and drug mafias. All these factors play a prominent role in the electoral dynamics of the city.

Till the 1980s, the city’s Mohajir majority, even though socially liberal, mostly voted for political-Islamist outfits, such as the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and the Barelvi Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP). According to Oskar Verkaaik, in his book Migrants and Militants, Mohajirs were socially liberal but politically conservative because they were not accepted as ‘people of the soil.’ This dilemma was resolved by the rise of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) which gave the social disposition of the Mohajirs a political dimension by forging a Mohajir ethnic identity.

From 1988 till 2008, the MQM (later renamed Muttahida Qaumi Movement) dominated elections in Karachi with a curious mixture of delivering developmental projects, a somewhat paranoiac appeal to ‘Mohajir nationalism’, and the threat of violence by the party’s ‘militants.’ 

Yet, there were still constituencies in the city that voted for parties other than the MQM. These constituencies mostly had Pashtun, Punjabi, Sindhi or Baloch majorities or a mixture of these that voted for the PPP, ANP or electoral alliances of non-Mohajir groups. From 2013 onwards, MQM began to implode from within, alienating its core ethnic support base. Also, a new delimitation process saw various constituencies of the city become ethnically mixed and not overtly dominated by a single ethnic community. 

NA-249 is one such constituency. It has large pockets of Pashtun, Punjabi and Mohajir communities. Comparatively, the presence of the Sindhi and Baloch, who are traditionally PPP voters in Karachi, is slim here. The Mohajirs and Punjabis in this constituency are mostly Barelvi Muslims. Most of the votes that TLP received here in 2018 came from these two communities. But Karachi’s Pashtun, Punjabi and disgruntled Mohajir votes in 2018 were largely cast in favour of the PTI.

However, PTI’s lacklustre post-election performance in Karachi has once again opened up the city’s electoral landscape. This is why, for example, many of the country’s major mainstream and ethnic parties are fielding candidates for the NA-249 by-polls. But there is every likelihood that most of the votes that went to PTI and TLP here in 2018, may now go to PML-N’s candidate, Miftah Ismail.

Therefore it will be important for him to especially bring out the Punjabi and Pashtun voters of this constituency on April 29.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 18th, 2021

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