The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is once again under siege – this time perhaps due to the poor health of its domineering cult-leader, Altaf Bhai. In his absence, will the MQM survive the ongoing onslaught from both within and without?
Based on the memories of its ‘ashraaf’ ancestors from among the minority-Muslim provinces in India, who rejected democracy for a culture of entitlement and benefited from enhanced political representation, the MQM recreated privileges of entitlement to woo fellow Urdu-speaking migrants in Sindh where they were just 22 percent of the population (1981). Turning territorialisation and ethnicisation of the Muslim identity, propounded as ‘millat’ by their ancestors in the pre-Partition period, the MQM redesigned Mohajirs or only the Urdu-Speaking migrants from India as a self-assumed ‘nation’. As Ernest Gellner says: “nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist – but it does need some pre-existing differentiating marks to work on”.
For the Urdu-speakers the differentiating marks to work on were their linguistic, ideological and academic superiority over others with the distinction of also carrying the tag of sacrificial-migration to the Land of the Pure. Led by the first prime minister of Pakistan with Karachi as the country’s capital and massive opportunities of jobs and evacuated property, the Mohajirs had it good. They not only filled the civil and military services much beyond their thin proportion, but also set the political, economic and lingual-ideological genesis of the newly-born state.
They became the ideological vanguard of a Muslim majority state that adopted Urdu as the national language while suppressing other languages and cultures, and coined the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ as an instrument to suppress indigenous nationalities. A kind of Mohajir-Punjabi axis was created; it dominated the early decades of nation-building at the cost of democracy.
This honeymoon of entitlement started to decline with the shifting of the capital to Islamabad; Karachi, however, remained a federal territory for some time. Gradually, Punjabis started to take over the higher positions – with the military in power. Although the migrant business communities in Karachi benefited most from Ayub Khan’s’ decade of progress’, Karachi’s middle strata and the ‘salariat’ class started to feel let down which resulted in the first and the last popular upsurge against any military dictator. Still most of the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs remained aligned with Islamist parties – mainly the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakisan (JUP) led by Shah Ahmad Noorani.
After the break-up of Pakistan, passage of the 1973 constitution and with a Sindhi prime minister Z A Bhutto, and a strong nationalist provincial government of Mumtaz Bhutto, the ethno-demographic scene started to change – allowing other marginalised ethnic groups to enter public service and seek some marginal space in metropolis of Karachi. The reaction of the Mohajir community against the passage of Sindhi language bill in Sindh showed how aggressively it felt about the monopoly of Urdu – along with English – over state affairs. This, while not accommodating due place to other national languages.
The introduction of the quota system and entry of other nationalities in the labour market, state sectors in particular, was the beginning of the end of the Urdu-speaking middle strata’s dominance of upper and middle grades jobs and the education sector. As people from other nationalities started to find some space in Karachi there was a consequent, relative decline in the monopoly of Urdu-speakers in urban Sindh.
That gave birth to a unique nationalism that represented the aggressive aspirations and demands of Urdu-speakers counterpoised to Sindhis, in particular, and others in general. According to Paul Brass’s ‘instrumentalist approach’: “nationalism offers a convenient repertoire to elite groups whose domination over society is threatened by upwardly mobile others and which therefore try to mobilize behind them ‘their’ community by manipulating identity symbols, including religious and linguistic ones”.
Mohajir nationalism first saw its organised expression in the formation of the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organization (APMSO) in 1978. Later, ousted by an armed Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba from the campuses, it took refuge in the Mohajir community and got tremendous support on the issues of rejection of quota system in education and services. The 1978 charter and the formation of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement in 1985 at Nishtar Park against the backdrop of demands for a ‘Mohajir Sooba’ or ‘Urdu Desh’ brought the MQM at the centre of the ethno-linguistic cauldron of Sindh’s politics.
But the real shot in its arm was provided by Gen Ziaul Haq who desperately needed allies against rural Sindh, which was in the forefront of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD). Initially, with Zia’s blessing the MQM made a joint front with G M Sayyed and his Sindhu Desh movement against the Punjabis and the Mohajirs (remember: Sindhi-Mohajir bhai bhai, dhoti naswar kahan se aye). Soon, after the massacre of Mohajirs in Hyderabad, this expedient alliance came to an end forever. After winning the first local bodies elections and the general elections of 1988, the MQM won all elections it contested on Mohajir-dominated seats.
True to the undemocratic traditions of its ‘ashraaf’ ancestors, the MQM continuously sought patronage from and allied with the military establishment – under Gen Zia, Gen Baig and Gen Musharraf – to seek a lion’s share in Sindh. For its aggressive chauvinist agenda against the Sindhis and 50-50 share in the province, it entered into dubious alliances with proxy Sindhi leaders under either military ruler or under Nawaz Sharif against the popular PPP.
Despite its anti-feudal rhetoric, the party felt at ease in entering coalitions with unrepresentative feudal Sindhi chief ministers, such as PPP-defector Jam Sadiq, Muzaffar Shah, Liaquat Jatoi and Arbab Ghulam Rahim. On the other hand, despite entering into coalitions with the PPP and the PML-N, it always broke with the senior partner in an endeavour to snatch greater share by hook or by crook.
Paradoxically, the MQM repeatedly came under greater backlash from the military establishment whenever there were non-political army chiefs. From Gen Asif Nawaz and Gen Kakar to Gen Raheel Sharif, the fascist quasi-military wing of the MQM came under greater scrutiny. Then too – as now in using Kamal and Qaimkhani (said to have been involved in the May 12 massacre in Karachi) – the establishment used MQM defectors such as Afaq and Amir Khan and Azeem Tariq to ‘right-size’ the party. But these defectors always failed.
An effective operation was undertaken by Gen (r) Naseerullah Babar during Benazir Bhutto’s second government. The work done by Gen Babar was completely overturned during Gen Musharraf’s regime, which helped the MQM restore its armed wing and also rewarded it with a lot of funds to make a success story out of the then mayor Mustafa Kamal.
The only advantage the current challenger to Altaf’s leadership is that the latter is extremely indisposed. What should not be forgotten is that Altaf Bhai is a cult leader who has mass appeal among the Mohajirs of Sindh, as well as a militant wing to back his control over the hand-picked leadership. His successor can only be a nominee, acting in Altaf Bhai’s name – not a renegade-challenger. Isn’t it time for Altaf Bhai to allow the Rabita Committee to emerge as the collective leader and do the needful in cleaning up the criminal elements under its wings?
The writer is a political analyst.