Do the Muhajirs need an umbrella? | Pakistan Today

Do the Muhajirs need an umbrella?

  • They have struggled, voiced their opinions, tread on the path of extremities to make their presence known

There has been much debate and discussion on the merger and subsequent parting of ways between Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) and Muttahida Quami Movement – Pakistan (MQM-P) – the declaration of love between the two, the ‘marriage’ and after the hangover and before the honeymoon, the bitter ‘divorce’. Prior to the dissolution, while analysts were still forming an opinion as to what this merger could provide to the political scene of the country, former president Pervez Musharraf was quick to welcome the alliance, even before it was formally announced. And before it could be determined whether the aim of this joint venture would be to represent the Muhajir community or would it simply work as an alliance for the sake of a larger representation in the upcoming elections, Musharraf’s expression of delight was over the supposition that the collaboration would indeed benefit the community. He also stressed on the need for the Muhajirs to unite under one political umbrella.

The ‘political umbrella’ for the Muhajirs emerged initially as the All Pakistan Muhajir Student Organisation (APMSO), founded in 1978 by Altaf Hussain in Karachi University. In 1984, the APMSO evolved into a proper political organization — Muhajir Qaumi Movement. It was launched on the premise that the Muhajir community ‘perceived themselves as the victims of discrimination and repression by the quota system that gave preference to certain ethnicities for admissions in educational institutions and employment in civil services’. From drawing enormous crowds to winning the November 1987 local body elections in Karachi and Hyderabad within mere three years of existence, the MQM swept the Muhajirs off their feet. They saw Altaf Hussain as their saviour, his party swelled with members who were willing to kill and die for him – and this is what followed in later years. Amid political alliances and breakups, the MQM journeyed through allegations of using extra-legal activities in conflicts with political opponents, earning the accusation of terrorism. ‘The party’s strongly hierarchical order and personalist leadership style led to some critics labelling the MQM as fascist’. With the strings of party politics being pulled from London since the late 90s, the community saw itself woven into a myriad of unresolved issues, allegations and despite the labelling, an identity crisis.

Are the issues real which Muhajirs claim to face? The community has been lately struck by an awakening of others. People have started raising their eyebrows and ask, why do they call themselves ‘Muhajirs’ anyways? Anyone who migrated to Pakistan at the time of partition, whether Punjabi or Sindhi or Pathan, can also be labelled with this term, in their opinion. Technically, the objection is right. However, since the Urdu speaking natives of Pakistan, mostly hailing from India’s UP and Bihar, cannot be ethnically classified into a race or a clan or a tribe, the closest definition coined for them is thus, the Muhajirs.

The present generation of Muhajirs is the descendant of the real migrants from India. Participating in one of the largest and bloodiest mass exodus in the history of the world, the Urdu speaking Muslims from India arrived in a land where they had no roots and no material benefit in sight. ‘Most of them, if not all, had a job, a trade, a house, or some land that they abandoned without assurance, or even promise of any compensation. Nor was Pakistan known to be a land of opportunity at that time. In fact the economic viability of Pakistan during the first three or four years, when most of the migration took place, was supposed to be a debatable proposition’.

This physical and economic displacement had happened after a realisation, that in India, there was more struggle than progress for them. They felt that although being the largest minority in India, they were at a disadvantage and did not belong there. This feeling of a lack of belonging and a struggle for identity reverberated before and after the exodus and shaped the mindsets of those who practically experienced them. It traveled in the genes of those born later and they too, faced some realities that hardened belief in their heritage.

In 1973, the government of Pakistan imposed a quota system in the country where the employment and admissions to all colleges and universities was based on provincial population. The government of Sindh divided it further on urban, rural and domicile district level. This was introduced because a high percentage of population residing in rural areas had no representation in government employment and in university admissions. Muttahida Quami Movement still banks votes on the slogan that the quota system has hit the Muhajir community. The nationalisation of Pakistan’s educational institutions in 1972 by prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ‘impacted the Muhajirs hardest as their privately run educational institutions were brought in government fold. Then the quota system was introduced that limited their access to the public service employment’.

The Muhajirs in Karachi have also been a victim of ethnic violence. In May 1985, a Pathan minivan driver struck and killed a Muhajir schoolgirl inciting the first Pathan-Muhajir ethnic riot. A report sent to the then governor of Sind, Senator Javed Jabbar, claimed that ‘it appears that the members of one community are being persecuted and victimised by units of law enforcing agencies acting on the bequest of some representatives of the other community’. The Aligarh Colony Massacre instigated the bloody riots of November–December 1986. These riots saw the popularity of MQM and its leader Altaf Hussain rise and the party’s ideology was greatly influenced as a result. Prior to violent attacks in Karachi, which would rather permanently damage its lifestyle and image in coming years, the city was already caught up in a power struggle. ‘It would appear that the fortunes and power generated by the Pathan and Afghan run heroin and arms trade affected the real estate politics and the control of space and movement in Karachi in the late 1970s and 1980s’. The urban city of Hyderabad was also largely dominated by the Sindhi nationalist party Jeay Sindh Quami Muhaz (JSQM) founded by GM Syed with the nationalist slogan “Sindhu Desh” (Sindhi nation). The Urdu-speaking people of Hyderabad yearned for a charismatic Muhajir leadership and when, in October 1986, Altaf Hussain gave his first public address in Hyderabad, he was well received by the Urdu-speaking people of Hyderabad.

Thus, driven by inherent fears of discrimination and threat to their sense of individuality, most Muhajirs let their hopes soar at the advent of political activities of MQM, but with its disintegration, broken alliances and wayward violence, were left bewildered, questioning themselves, where and to whom they really belong? Here comes the conflict: when it comes to their identity, their presence in the society and their participation in various sectors, the Muhajirs already possess a niche. They are the only sizeable community which is almost entirely urban, almost entirely belong to the working and middle classes and is free from the influence of tribal chiefs and feudal elites. They are probably the only community in Pakistan whose culture and literature has been fondly adopted by other ethnicities, owing to its rich traditional and linguistic background. The community already has a distinct identity and a struggle for further definition of identity may pose a larger threat to the integrity of Pakistan. ‘It will be a sad paradox indeed if the Pakistani heirs of the Muslims of UP and Bihar, who put their own existence in India at stake to create a new nation, became a party to the disruption of that nation’.

While the sufferings of the community and its demands may be legitimate, ‘it overlooked the fact that most of the causes of deprivation were not peculiar to it as a community. It shared most of the ills with others living in Sindh, and many with the rest of the people elsewhere in Pakistan’. The Muhajirs have struggled, voiced their opinions, tread on the path of extremities to make their presence known as an entity. Now the Muhajirs can allay their fears with the firm conviction that they being well educated, well cultured and enterprising cannot be simply ignored. Many success stories from the community in all walks of life ranging from corporate to civil service, from the armed forces to culture, are proof to this. The Muhajirs may not need an umbrella: they have weathered many raging storms in the past to bask in ensuing sunlight. Their strength as a community and their unity with others can fortify the multi ethnic, diverse nation of ours, with each colour of the spectrum dispersing its own light.


  1. Levelling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia by Stanley J. Tambiah.
  2. Role of Muhajirs – Past and Future by Iqbal Jafar, June 12, 1992, Dawn.
  3. Some thoughts for Muhajirs by Iqbal Jafar, March 11, 1994, Dawn.

The writer is a broadcast journalist and freelance writer. She has keen interest in issues concerning women, religion and foreign affairs.

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