During the recent crackdown on Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi—following an unceremonious speech and attack on media houses by members of the party—one witnessed apathy and hatred towards MQM among many urban middle class Punjabi gentlemen. This sentiment is not a recent invention and I grew up in Punjab hearing horror stories about the MQM and its ‘nefarious’ activities. Due to this blind hatred of the party, few people in Punjab bother with understanding what the party stands for and why it has achieved electoral success for more than two decades. The answer is not necessarily ‘intimidation’ or getting people to vote on gunpoint, as the popular theory goes. One can’t expect millions of people to vote for a party year in year out based only on ‘fear’. One of the reasons why few people are willing to understand MQM is the mishmash of history, ethno-nationalism, violence, state patronage and a loss of entitlement that resulted in the formation of MQM in the first place. My objective today is to summarise the key factors that resulted in the phenomenon known as MQM today, not to glorify the party or attract support for it.
Like most stories in Pakistan, this one starts from Partition. Karachi was chosen to be the capital of our country and the civilian administration set up shop in the city. Large scale migration from Northern India changed the ethnic proportions in the city and native Sindhis were confined to minority status in a city they had called their own for decades. The newcomers—named Mohajireen to evoke a religious term—formed a bulk of Pakistan’s new administration. The newcomers received disproportionate favours from the government till Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) came to power in 1971. Until the 1970 elections, religious parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and JUI won Mohajir constituencies in Karachi and Hyderabad. ZAB—himself a Sindhi—introduced quotas for Sindhis in government jobs available in Sindh and passed a controversial ‘Language Bill’ infuriating Mohajirs. As a result, there were language riots in Karachi during 1972 and the Language Bill was withdrawn by the government.
In the later part of 1970s, Mohajir Identity had outgrown the confines of religious party such as Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and urban, educated Mohajirs wanted their own distinct political voice. Various political scientists and historians focussing on Pakistan have theorised that ‘Ethnic polarisation’ occurs out of the failure of the state to accommodate provincial interests, remedy class divisions and grant civil rights, resulting in powerful, syncretic forms of ethnic class protest. These involve issues relating to political autonomy, inequity, disputes over land rights and resources. It was in March 1984, during the heyday of General Zia’s regime when almost all political activities were banned, that MQM was formed by a group of former students who had earlier founded a student organisation named the ‘All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organisation’ (APMSO) in June 1978.
The party was led by Altaf Hussain, formerly a member of JI during the 1977 elections. APMSO had been given a hard time initially by JI’s student wing, Islami Jamiat Tulaba (IJT) and the newbies were ‘shown their place’ by the older, more established student organisation. This intimidation forced APMSO workers to develop underground networks with people who sympathised with their cause. Their cause was helped by ethnic clashes in April 1985. A bus ran over a student named Bushra Zaidi and killed her. Many bus drivers during that time were Pakhtuns and there were multiple traffic accidents like this in various parts of the city. In the aftermath of Bushra’s death, there were protests and riots resulting in a clash of Mohajir students and Pakhtun settlers. In 1986, a group of Pakhtuns attacked Qasba and Aligarh colonies with Kalashnikovs and went on an unprecedented killing spree. These episodes of ethnic violence helped MQM’s appeal as a force aimed at defending Mohajirs.
In 1987, the party succeeded in its first test and won many constituencies in local elections held in Karachi. Oskar Verkaaik explained MQM’s electoral success as a result of non-elitist political style of its leaders during election campaigns. During the 1988 national elections, MQM allied with Sindhi nationalist parties and won in urban centres of Sindh. The honeymoon period didn’t continue for long an in September 1988, Sindhi militants drove into Hyderabad’s Pakka Qilla area and opened fire indiscriminately at several crossroads in Mohajir-dominated areas. Dozens of people were killed as a result. In retaliation, Sindhis were killed in Karachi the next day. These clashes claimed more than two hundred lives. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the militant wing of the party was active in street-fights and turf war with Sindhis and Pakhtuns in Karachi ad Hyderabad. There is no conclusive evidence that the military supported MQM in its formation and further development, however, the authorities turned a blind eye to much of their extra-political activities initially.
Oskar Verkaaik speculated that urban Mohajir Youth didn’t join the MQM just because of identity politics, but also because of the ‘adventure and excellent pastime to belong to a movement’. This factor can be corroborated by the fact that MQM recruited and mobilised its supporters in public spaces like parks and gyms. Since 1992, four major operations have been conducted by security forces in the city preferentially targeting the MQM. This has provided the party with a ‘victimhood’ narrative, hardening the resolve and heightening the paranoia amongst the party faithful. Since its inception, MQM has been gripped with Altaf Hussain’s personality cult. He was called Pir Sahib in the 1999s and was even crowned once at a ceremony. He derives his charisma from the fact that he transforms himself into a living symbol of the Mohajir nation. MQM’s controversial oath pledged loyalty to Altaf Hussain first and the party later. New recruits of the party took their oath as a rebirth into the life given to them by Altaf Hussain. They believed that the oath signified the moment new recruits left behind the ties of family and became instruments in the hand of their Pir Sahib.
Despite all its ills, MQM has a political base and continues to win elections, even during Clean-up operations targeting militant elements associated with the party. It is imperative that one understands the party’s history and evolution through the years even if one chooses to oppose what it stands for.
n The writer is a freelance columnist.