MOST of us living outside of Karachi often find it hard to explain the demi-god status accorded to Altaf Hussain by so many of the city’s ordinary Urdu-speaking residents. Yes the ‘Quaid-i-Tehreek’ has fashioned a disciplined organisation that elicits more fear than respect, but an explanation for Altaf Hussain and the MQM’s resilience that ignores popular support is insufficient.
The most recent sequence of events in Karachi speak to a quite serious power struggle within the organisation, and it now appears to be a question of when rather than if the Pakistan-based party leadership accedes to the so-called ‘minus-one’ formula which insiders claim will facilitate a renewed relationship between the establishment and the MQM.
It seems reasonable to think that there are concerns from within the organisation that the ‘minus-one’ scenario will have adverse effects on the party’s popularity, notwithstanding Altaf Hussain’s regularly embarrassing diatribes. This may be true, but my sense is that the MQM’s support base would not just wither away in a prospective post-Altaf Hussain world.
The Mohajir experience has been unique.
Indeed, popular reactions to the ‘operation’ that has been ongoing in Karachi for the best part of a year now confirm as much. Many young, educated Urdu-speakers active on social media are currently angry at the ‘victimisation’ of Mohajirs by paramilitaries, and more often than not present their plight in the form of a grand historical narrative which traces the persecution of their community to the sacrifices made by Urdu-speaking migrants at the time of Partition.
Of all the ethno-linguistic nations that reside in contemporary Pakistan, the Mohajirs occupy the most contradictory cultural and political position. Internal class differentiation aside, Punjabis constitute a dominant majority, whilst Baloch, Sindhis, Seraikis, the various communities in Gilgit-Baltistan — and many others — can generally be seen as underrepresented and less privileged. The Pakhtuns represent an interesting case because many have enjoyed substantial upward economic mobility, but the exclusion, humiliation and suffering of many more confirms the relative lack of privilege of the community as a whole.
The Mohajir experience is entirely unique, and has been from the very beginning. There is little doubt that millions of ordinary people sacrificed much in choosing to leave their places of birth in India and coming to settle in what became Pakistan in and around 1947 (although it should be borne in mind that the majority of those who travelled across the border were Punjabis rather than Urdu-speakers). A great many of these migrants never graduated into the ranks of the elite and their humble origins continue to be apparent today.
Yet a non-negligible segment of ‘non-elite’ Urdu-speakers did benefit greatly in the new state. Those who had literate backgrounds were given preferential access to employment in public-sector institutions; many others managed to secure compensation for what they had left behind in India through the infamous Evacuee Property Trust; more generally Karachi’s status as the new country’s economic hub facilitated various livelihood opportunities unavailable to working and middle-class populations elsewhere in the country.
Thus ordinary Urdu-speakers found some resonance with the rich and powerful members of their community who were over-represented in the highest echelons of the new state. Partly for this reason, but also because of cultural difference, the Mohajir ‘non-elite’ never quite assimilated with Sindhis; the latter perceived them as outsiders who had privileged access to political and economic resources while Mohajirs in turn were schooled in earlier traditions of unitary Pakistani nationalism and all of the disdain that ideology has for the ‘narrow-mindedness’ of ethnicity.
This pattern of difference and conflict remained intact for the first decade and a half after Partition. The Mohajir narrative became more complicated, however, when upcountry Pakistanis hailing from various ethno-linguistic backgrounds started to descend upon Karachi (less so other towns in Sindh) in the 1960s. Economic opportunities now had to be shared. The situation went from bad to worse following the accession to power of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the PPP which promoted Sindhi culture and affirmative action for Sindhis generally. By late 1970s, the relative privilege of Sindh’s Urdu-speaking community had been whittled away considerably.
The seeds of Mohajir nationalism having been laid, Altaf Hussain and his comrades appeared on the scene in the shape of the All-Pakistan Mohajir Student Organisation (APMSO) and then the MQM, lower-middle class Urdu-speakers’ ever deepening feelings of deprivation were effectively harnessed towards parochial ends. The rest is history.
It is all good and well to curse the MQM and Altaf Hussain for making Karachi a living hell. But in doing so we neglect the makings of the Mohajir mind and how it has given rise to a unique and exclusionary brand of Pakistani nationalism. Pakistan is, as the academic Mohammad Waseem has put it, a migrant state. There is no question of us being able to reconcile all of our ethno-linguistic conflicts without recognition of this reality.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.