Conflicted Karachi

Published August 26, 2010

Conflict and violence in Karachi has always had its own distinct dynamics, requiring the state and the government of the time to chalk out contingency strategies and security arrangements that are largely customised to suite these exclusive dynamics.

Though considered to be one of the most crime-infested cities of South Asia, Karachi has baffled a number of political pundits by remaining comparatively stable in the last decade or so – especially in the context of the rise in the number of gruesome terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in the Punjab and the Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa.

In this regard at least, so far Karachi (and rest of the Sindh province) has somehow managed to escape the ubiquitous madness of both extremist terrorism.

Karachi also remains to be Pakistan’s most overtly secular city.

But why does a city with a startling sectarian, religious and ethnic diversity is able to ward off violence associated with religious extremism but collapse’s when it comes to ethnic tensions?


Karachi has evolved into becoming the country’s largest metropolis and economic hub. Ever since the 1960s, it has also retained its proud reputation of being a ‘mini Pakistan.’ This is so because it always had the most ethnically and religiously diverse population in the country.

Currently it provides sustenance to more than 18 million of its residents through industry, trade, commerce, services and charity.

It is also a violent city. In 2001, the murder rate in Karachi was 4.04 per 100,000 people compared with 1.67 in Mumbai and 3.79 in Delhi.

The capacity for violent disruption that lurks just beneath the surface manifests itself through instances when the city is brought to a grinding halt by one of its several claimants. Otherwise it is business as usual, with traffic jams, busy and congested markets, late night shopping, packed restaurants, ‘licensed’ wine shops doing roaring business,  long drives, walks and ‘dating’ by the sea front, and in the newly-setup parks.

Yet it takes only a rumour for the shutters to go down. There have been days when pitched battles have raged between armed groups – divided along political, ethnic or gang lines – throwing up temporary fronts. Those days are not common, but everyone seems to know that they could come at short notice.

A number of political parties operating in the city maintain armed cadres. There are underlying tensions between political groups that are blamed for ‘targeted killings’ of rival members. But it needs to be noted that their activities are not directly linked to jihadi forms of religious extremism.

A look at the main political and religious groupings and ethnicities operating in Karachi should further clear the above observation.



Mohajirs are Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated from India during and after the dramatic division of the subcontinent in 1947. They constitute about 48 per cent of Karachi’s population.

Though they arrived from various parts of India, they have more or less always identified themselves as an amalgamated ‘ethnic’ group, especially ever since the 1980s. They are thus the majority ethnic group in Karachi.

Religiously, a majority of mohajirs follow the more moderate Sunni ‘Barelvi’ school of thought, while the bulk of the well-to-do mohajir middle-classes admire the pragmatic and modernist Islam advocated by the likes of nineteenth century Indian Muslim scholars such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

The mohajirs have always been liberal in outlook. Historically they have been tolerant of various activities that are considered to be undesirable by the clergy and conservative Muslims, such as love marriages, working women, female education, contraception, non-segregated public outings, music, films, etc.

Interestingly, it is perhaps due to the mohajirs’ moderate bent and social liberalism that over the years has seen the city’s Christian, Hindu and Shiah Muslim minorities increasingly identify themselves with the mohajir community.

Mohajirs are mostly employed in Karachi’s service industries (advertising, television, press, catering, banking, education), and also have a presence in the city’s widespread manufacturing, import and export businesses.

Politically, till about the early 1980s, the mohajirs exhibited a curious inclination towards political conservatism. Though on the surface this contradicted their social liberalism, but the reason for this was rather simple.  It was a case of reactive politics on the part of Karachi’s mohajirs who were not historically linked to the land they lived on (in Pakistan) and thus had to define their ‘Pakistaniat’ by supporting the country’s non-ethnic ‘Islamic roots’ of creation championed by political-religious parties like the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP).

Till the early 1980s, the majority of lower-middle-class mohajirs largely voted for the Berelvi-dominated JUP, while the mohajir middle-classes supported elitist religious parties like JI.

After 1985, a large chunk of mohajir support shifted towards the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party that has grown into becoming a highly organised entity, that is largely secular in make-up but also controversial for retaining an active militant wing.

The mohajirs of Karachi have exhibited various shades of militancy. They were vigorously involved in the radical leftist student and labour movements against the Ayub Khan dictatorship in the late 1960s, and then turned ideologically rightwards by taking an active part in the JI-led movement against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977.

A large number of young mohajirs were further radicalized after the rise of the MQM and during the violent clashes that took place between mohajir and the city’s Pushtun communities in the 1980s.

The bone of contention in this context (at least for MQM and the mohajirs) was the rapid influx of Pushtun-speaking Afghan refugees that poured into the city in the wake of the CIA and ISI sponsored ‘anti-Soviet Afghan jihad’ in Afghanistan. Many of the refugees bought with them lethal weapons and drugs like heroin.

Karachi’s economy and resources suddenly came under tremendous stress. By 1986, not only did the crime rate in the city rise ten-fold, heroin addiction among Karachiites too rose by almost 500 per cent compared to the rate of addiction in the city in 1979.

The radicalisation and militancy among mohajir youth too rose, culminating with the MQM facing multiple operations by the police and paramilitary forces across the 1990s – a decade that remains to be the most violent in the city’s history.

In contrast to this, the first decade of the new millennium has been relatively peaceful, with the mohajirs now widely recognised as a bonafide ethnic group and the MQM establishing itself as a powerful playmaker in the politics of Sindh.

However, sporadic waves of targeted killings involving MQM and the Pushtun-based ANP continue to spring up.


The Pushtun constitute the second largest ethnic community in the city (about 15 per cent of the population). Most of them belong to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and started to migrate to Karachi in the early 1960s during the Ayub Khan dictatorship.

A large number of Pushtuns were employed as labourers in the city’s widespread construction business, and by the 1970s many had become small entrepreneurs. They also became major operators within the city’s public transport and real estate businesses.

Religiously, a large number of the city’s Pushtuns belong to the conservative Sunni ‘Deobandi’ school of thought. However, many are moderate and largely secular in outlook – these are the ones who supported left-wing parties like National Awami Party in the 1960s and 1970s, and ever since 1986 mostly vote for the secular Awami National Party (ANP) in the city’s Pushtun dominated areas.

Like the MQM, ANP too, has an armed group of cadres.

There are also a significant number of Karachi’s Pushtuns (mostly of Afghan origin) who identify with the more puritanical and militant strains of Islam and have been known to support ultra-conservative fringe groups.

Socially the Pushtuns of the city remain conservative, barring Pushtuns who migrated from Swat, who, comparatively, seem to demonstrate more social flexibility.

Punjabi /Hindko/Siraiki

Though the three are now understood as distinct ethnic groups, in Karachi people migrating to the city from Hindko-speaking areas in the North and South Punjab’s Saraiki belt are usually slotted with the city’s Punjabi community.

As a whole this community constitutes about 14 per cent of the city’s population.

Religiously, the Punjabis and the Siraiki-speakers belong to the moderate Barelvi school of thought, whereas the Hindko-speakers have increasingly moved towards the more conservative Deobandi thought.

Socially, the city’s Punjabi population is largely outgoing and flexible and actively involved in all kinds of manufacturing, entrepreneurial and service-related economic activity of the city. A majority of personnel working in the city’s police force are Punjabis.

Politically most Punjabis in Karachi have been seen to vote for moderate conservative parties such as the PML-N and the Punjabi-Pukhtun-Itihad (PPI).


Six to eight percent of those residing in Karachi are Sindhis.

Religiously a majority of the city’s Sindhis belong to the moderate Sunni Bareilvi school of thought and are socially liberal. Many of them are working in state institutions as bureaucrats; some are small entrepreneurs, while the elite among them have feudal backgrounds.

Politically they’ve been robust supporters of the PPP, but some Sindhis (especially in suburban areas of Karachi) have also tended to support radical Sindhi nationalist parties.


About 4 per cent of Karachi’s population is made up of the Baloch. Some migrated from Balochistan but most are from Karachi’s indigenous Baloch-speaking Sheedi (Pakistanis of African descent) community. A majority of them make a living as labourers and belong to the most flexible strains of the moderate Bareilvi school of thought.

They are socially liberal (except maybe the tiny Baloch elite that have tribal roots in Balochistan).  This community, especially the Sheedis, have been the most passionate supporters of the secular PPP in Karachi. The armed cadres of the PPP in the city are also largely Sheedis.

The Sheedi community has also been ravaged by years of gang-related violence, and drug and alcohol addiction.

Christian Karachi has a significant Christian minority with a majority of them being Catholic. A large number of them are involved in the education sector and employed in the services industry. There is also a Protestant presence among the community. This community also comprise of Christians who migrated from towns in the central Punjab.

Till the early 1990s, a majority of the city’s Christians were PPP supporters, but in the last few years many of them have been exhibiting support for the MQM.

Hindu Before partition around 50 per cent of Karachi’s population was Hindu. Today they are a minority. Most of this minority is related to families who did not migrate to India in 1947, while others arrived from rest of Sindh that has a significant Hindu minority. Till the early 1990s, most Hindus were PPP supporters, but recently most of them have shifted their support towards the MQM.


Karachi has the largest concentration of Zoroastrians in Pakistan. Most of them are well-off and active in the city’s business sector.

Foreign migrants

In the last 30 years a number of foreigners have come and settled in Karachi.

The Afghans are the largest group who started arriving in the early 1980s from war-torn Afghanistan. Most of them are Pushtu-speaking and live in areas situated on the outskirts of the city.

The Bengalis comprise the second largest section. Many started to pour into Karachi from Bangladesh in the early 1980s, looking for work, mainly as cooks, house servants and small entrepreneurs.

There are at least three large shanty areas in the city populated by working class Bengalis, most of whom now have Pakistani citizenship.

During the last three general elections, most of these Bengalis were co-opted as supporters of the MQM.

Many such shanty towns also have Burmese migrants who over the years escaped from the persecution they faced by the military dictatorship in Myanmar.

Karachi also has an old Chinese community. The first batch arrived in Karachi after Mao Tse Tung’s revolution in 1949, and the second batch began arriving during the violent ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China in the late 1960s.

The city’s Chinese community has done well in the medical professions, is well educated and can speak both English and Urdu fluently.

There is also a small population of Sri Lankan and Filipino migrants in Karachi. The Lankans are mostly employed as school teachers, while the Filipina (the women) usually work as maids in many houses in the city’s posh localities.

Apart from these one also comes across migrants from Muslim Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan and Kirghizstan. There used to be a significant Iranian migrant population in the city as well (till the late 1980s), mostly made up of Iranians who had escaped Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in 1979.


Electoral Karachi

The top 6 political parties in Karachi (in terms of electoral performance in the city) between the 1970 general and provincial elections and the 2008 elections:

1: Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) Main voters: Mohajirs 2: Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Main voters: Sindhis & Baloch (some Punjabis and mohajirs as well) 3: Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) Main voters: Punjabi 4: Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP- Noorani) Main voters: Mohajir,  some Punjabis 5: Awami National Party (NAP/ANP) Main voters: Pushtun 6: Jamat-i-Islami (JI) Main voters: Mohajir, some Punjabi & Pushtun

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and

*Illustration by Eefa Khalid/

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.



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