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Smokers’ Corner: MQM: the missing link

Published Oct 23, 2011 12:00am

The most common account of the formation of the Muttahida (originally Mohajir) Qaumi Movement (MQM) involves claims that it was a party conceived in 1984 by the military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq as a way to counterbalance the influence of certain political forces in Sindh. However, there is precious little clarity on the part of those political historians who toe this claim.

The Jamat-i-Islami (JI) was the first party to assert that the Zia regime had ‘created MQM’ to sideline JI’s influence in Karachi, even though between 1977 and 1984, the JI was openly supporting Zia. In the late 1980s, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) insisted that the MQM had been formed by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to curb the PPP in Sindh, whereas Sindhi nationalist parties were of the view that MQM came into being at the behest of the Zia regime because of the way Sindhi nationalists had protested during the violent anti-Zia MRD movement in Sindh in 1983.

Nevertheless, if one were to summarise the collective thesis on the subject by academics who have written extensively on the MQM – such as Muhammad Wasim, Laurent Gayer and Oskar Vaarkaik – one can suggest that, though, there was some involvement of Zia’s agencies in the formation of the MQM, this experiment soon backfired when the MQM quickly spun out of the agencies’ orbit and became an aggressively independent entity.

The MQM’s arrival was not simply about a Mohajir-centric student organisation (APMSO) evolving into a mainstream political party born out of political and economic frustrations of Mohajirs. One can treat this as an immediate historical snippet, but it is certainly not the complete story. Academics specialising in the politics of Sindh, such as Amir Ali Chandio and Dr Tanvir Tahir, trace back the formation of the political Mohajir ethnicity way back to the 1960s.

Along with Punjabis, Mohajirs dominated Pakistan’s initial ruling and economic elite and thus both these communities continued to invest their political support in either federalist or religious parties or in military dictatorships. Even those Mohajirs and Punjabis who joined outfits led by Sindhi, Pashtun, Bengali and Baloch nationalists (such as the National Awami Party (NAP), were largely part of the NAP’s Marxist wing that wanted to eschew politics of ethnicity and work towards a bourgeoisie-led socialist proletarian revolution.

But by the late 1960s, much of the country’s leftist tendencies were absorbed by the emergent PPP, and thus progressive non-Punjabi and non-Mohajir nationalists became more exclusivist. Consequently, the first ever demand to separate Karachi from Sindh (as a Mohajir-dominated province), actually came from an influential faction of the National Students Federation (NSF) that was associated with the NAP.

In 1969 Amir H. Kazmi, the head of his own faction of the Marxist NSF, was the first to raise the banner of Mohajir nationalism.

But few Mohajirs took the notion seriously, as they were still firmly imbedded in the concept of federalism and (like Punjabis) repulsed by ethnic nationalism. But as most of the left-leaning Punjabi and Sindhi intelligentsia and working classes and peasants invested their support in the federalist PPP, Mohajirs stuck to continue backing the equally federalist Islamic parties.

By the late 1960s Mohajirs had already begun to be dislodged from the Punjab-dominated ruling and economic elite with the gradual entry of the dictator Ayub-Khan-initiated entrance of the hardworking Pashtuns in the cherished fold. The rise of the PPP led by Z A Bhutto further added to the sense of dread rising amongst Mohajirs. This erupted in the shape of 1972 ‘language riots’ in Karachi when the Bhutto regime reintroduced Sindhi in educational institutions and Mohajirs saw this as ‘an attack on Urdu.’

The aftermath of the riots saw the formation of a city government movement (CGM). Studded with Mohajir intellectuals, former Karachi-based leftist student leaders and some businessmen, it again called for Karachi to be separated from Sindh.

This movement too failed to take off until the 1978 formation of Altaf Hussain’s APMSO. Ironically, Hussain, a former sympathiser of the JI, conceived his student outfit as a secular Mohajir organisation radically opposed to religious parties (which he accused of exploiting Mohajirs’ patriotism ‘to fatten Punjab’s political-economic hegemony’). In this he was bitterly opposed by JI’s student wing, the Islami Jamiat Tuleba (IJT).

The much overlooked reason behind the APMSO’s evolution into MQM is an economic one. According to famous Sindhi scholar, Ibrahim Joyo, ‘Punjabi economic hegemony’ increased immensely in Sindh during the dictatorship of Ziaul Haq. This situation had a negative impact on Karachi’s leading business communities (Memons, Gujaratis and other non-Punjabi business outfits). In such a situation these communities formed the Maha Sindh (MS) — an organisation set up to protect the interests of Karachi’s Memon, Gujarati and Mohajir businessmen and traders.

According to celebrated Sindhi intellectual Khaliq Junejo, the MS then encouraged and financed the formation of a ‘street-strong’ Karachi-based party: the MQM. It can be argued that it is this aspect of the MQM’s formation that sometimes gets mistaken into meaning that the party came about with the help of the Zia regime. This is so because the business communities in Karachi (stung by Bhutto’s nationalisation policies) were anti-Bhutto and had hailed his overthrow by Zia in 1977.

But by the early 1980s, they had been deluded by Zia’s supposedly ‘pro-Punjabi’ economic maneuvers in Sindh and felt the need to have their own political outfit. MQM was the result.