Making Muhajir Politics

Feb 2015

Photo credit: Suleman Sajjad | 23rd labor convention at Lal Qila Ground Azizabad Karachi organized by the MQM's labor division. March 02. 2010

Photo credit: Suleman Sajjad | 23rd labor convention at Lal Qila Ground Azizabad Karachi organized by the MQM’s labor division. March 02. 2010

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M. Ahmad & M. Tahir
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Alavi, H. 2010, “The Politics of Ethnicity in India and Pakistan”, in K. Visweswaran (ed.), Perspectives on Modern South Asia: A Reader in Culture, History, and Representation. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
Malique Simone, A. 2010, City Life from Jakarta to Dakar: Movements at the Crossroads. New York: Routledge Press.
Naqvi, T. 2007, “The Politics of Commensuration: The Violence of Partition and the Making of the Pakistani State”. Journal of Historical Sociology (March/June).
Zamindar, V. 2010, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia:  Refugees, Boundaries, Histories. New York: Columbia University Press.

In July 1997, the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (“movement of the muhajir people” or MQM) staged a festive rally in Karachi known as the “Elan-e-Mutahidda.” Its purpose was to formally announce the movement’s new name to existing supporters, and, at more implicit level, to allay their apprehensions about what this change might mean. By renaming itself the Mutahidda Nationalist Movement (“movement of united nationalism”), the MQM signaled to its supporters and to the larger Pakistani electorate that it seeks to move beyond its association with the ethnic muhajir community and the particularistic framework of ‘muhajir nationalism’ that has underwritten its political dominance in Karachi and the larger urban corridor of the province of Sindh since its leadership emerged from lower middle class obscurity during the mid-1980s.

MQM politics today thus mediates between the particular, a muhajir identity, and the universal, a national alliance that cuts across ethnic divisions. It’s a delicate dance that the party performs by engaging in what I call “non-sovereign” politics. By that I mean a politics that is open to the idea that muhajir identity is contingent, a product of history and circumstance rather than an immutable essence. This aspect starkly distinguishes MQM’s ethnic nationalism from that of other groups. It even seems that the MQM is open to the erasure of muhajir identity.

I spent the last several years conducting ethnographic research among a diverse collection of political workers, social welfare activists, and local intermediaries in Karachi, a postcolonial megacity whose political and economic landscape is shaped by migration, terrorism, de-industrialization, shifting regimes of military and civilian governance, and a massive informal sector. In addition, I made a few trips to London and interviewed high-ranking MQM’s activists in exile. I wanted to understand how the MQM mediates its ethno-politics with its aspirations to create a more universal platform.

Becoming Muhajir

The Muhajir National Movement gained political power in 1986 at the height of martial rule and the denouement of the Afghan-Soviet war. It was not the first organization to address discrimination against migrants (muhajirs) from northern and central India, who came to Pakistan after independence in pursuit of virtue, security, and prosperity in the first Muslim nation-state of the postcolonial age. Led by recently settled activists of the All-India Muslim League, such “all-muhajir” groups developed a unique form of ethno-politics in the years following independence. They couched their complaints against real and perceived claims of discrimination in the patriotic idiom of “sacrifice” that cast the muhajir community as the besieged exemplar of Pakistan’s Muslim nationalist ideal.

The term for migrant, muhajir, embodies a range of conflicting meanings that reflect the historical role of migration in shaping the territorial, ideological and material bases of inclusion and exclusion in the nation-state.   In the months and years following independence, the nascent Pakistani state used the term in census reports to refer to any Muslim who had entered Pakistan from India1 after independence. Migrants from the non-partitioned minority-Muslim provinces of India were included in this larger grouping in ambiguous terms as voluntary migrants to Pakistan, placing them in contrast to the vast of majority of Muslim refugees from the “agreed-areas” of India, such as Punjab, who faced the threat of communal genocide and were thereby included in the official transfer of population between India and Pakistan. By contrast, Muslims residing in the “non-agreed” regions of northern and central India were actively discouraged from migrating by the Pakistani state and faced more difficulties in accessing rehabilitation benefits upon their arrival. The rationale for their exclusion was this: the non-agreed regions faced less violence, and, while Muslims from India were never forcibly turned away from Pakistan, leaders in the provincial and federal government realized that the country lacked the spatial and economic “capacity” to manage the complete transfer of India’s Muslim population.1 Migrants from the non-agreed areas nevertheless continued to spill into Karachi until well after the conclusion of the official transfer of population in 1948, such that the label of muhajir eventually came to refer exclusively to them. Having fallen out of official use by the mid-1950s, it was used by natives as a term of abuse.

The pejorative linguistic significance of muhajir existed alongside another construction of the Urdu-speaking migrant, that of the Muslim patriot. Thus, in the decades following independence, the migration (hijrat) of muhajirs was often invoked by Pakistani nationalist ideologues across ethnic lines as an exemplary form of patriotic “sacrifice” that mirrored the purpose and virtue of the Prophet Muhammad’s own exodus from Mecca to Medina in the seventh century. People I spoke with frequently invoked Muhammad’s exodus (hijrat) to Medina as a model of and model for their decision to leave India. “It made no difference to us where Pakistan was,” noted a first-generation informant, “we came here for Islam and Islam only.” Those sensibilities marked Urdu-speaking migrants, who figured in official and unofficial nation-building discourses, as natural allies against the politics of provincialism. Thus, for decades after independence, muhajirs across class lines maintained what the critic M.B. Naqvi describes as an as “an almost proprietary relationship” to Islam and Urdu.

Writing at the height of the Pakistan National Alliance’s campaign to oust the democratically elected regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and seven years after the secession of East Pakistan, the editor and nationalist stalwart Z.A. argued that the government’s increasing tolerance of “provincialism” (elaaqiyat) posed a threat to the ideological and territorial integrity of the Pakistani nation-state. Unlike Pakistan’s native ethnic communities, he wrote, muhajirs merited a “Commandment of Distinction” (Tumghae-Imtiaz) for their participation in the Pakistan Movement, and eventually, for their willingness to leave their homes in India. Both acts not only offered “absolute proof” (mujassam daleel) of their loyalty to Pakistan but confirmed the very coherence of Pakistani “national culture” as such (takhleeq-e-Pakistan). This reading of history allowed Suleri to equate the marginalization of the muhajir community at the hands of provincial forces with the “erasure of Muslim national ideology.” In other words, the marginalization of muhajirs was tantamount to the erasure of Pakistan nationalism.

The marginalization of the muhajir bureaucratic elite throughout the sixties and seventies, coupled with the relatively greater acceptance of ethno-provincial identities during the tenure of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1971-1978), exposed the limits of this universalizing fiction to the second generation of muhajirs, and to Karachi’s lower middle-classes in particular. In a radical departure from earlier muhajir political organizations, the MQM’s leaders staged a refusal of Muslim nationalism and demanded the recognition of muhajirs as a “fifth nationality” within Pakistan. Rather than exemplars of Pakistani-Muslim nationalism, they would become an ethnicity like any other. Shahzeb, a senior MQM activist I came to know towards the end of my fieldwork in Karachi in 2003, reflected on the limits of the muhajir community’s intimate association with Pakistani nationhood by recalling his childhood: “In school we read about Sindhis and their camels, Pathans and their jirgas (tribal councils), and the toil (mehnat) of the Punjabi farmer. Only we (Muhajirs) were missing. Where were we? We were in the words every child used to read the (Urdu) textbook. But this is how it became so easy to pass us by and steal our rights from us.”

“You can call us anything you like”

By 1986, the MQM had galvanized urban Sindh’s (then) significant Urdu-speaking majority along ethnic lines by offering an organized line of local defense during ethnic riots that plagued parts of Karachi at the time. It re-framed Muhajir-Pathan tensions into a militant style of territorial politics that brought poorer sections of the Urdu-speaking population into the fold of the movement. This framing, coupled with the fiery rhetoric of Altaf Hussain, mobilized the Urdu-speaking community to vote along solidly ethnic lines in 1986 for the MQM in Sindh’s “non-party” local council elections, which were held during Zia’s military dictatorship.

Waging their ascent through the military-inspired local council structure, the MQM’s lower middle class leadership relied on the relative absence of national and provincial political institutions during martial rule. The martial state’s ban on mainstream parties consequently provided the leadership with a unique opportunity to exercise political autonomy beyond the elite-driven networks of patronage that continue to dominate mainstream democratic politics in Pakistan.

At the same time, the state’s suspension of larger scales of democratic participation compelled council candidates to draw on sectarian and ethnic loyalties. Like them, the MQM relied on the structured parochialism of the council arena to move its candidates. The crucial difference, of course, was that the MQM candidates were subordinate to an emerging movement (this, in contrast to the local intermediaries, lower level party workers, and fixers who ran in previous military-led council elections), one that used the municipal council to solidify claims to power at the provincial, and eventually, national level. It demanded the cessation of upcountry migration into Sindh and the removal of rural-urban quotas for employment in the provincial government. This drew the ire of Sindhi nationalists, who saw the rise of muhajir nationalism as an attempt to divide the sacred cultural territory of Sindh.

During the brief yet decisive period between the local council campaign and the unexpected return to general elections (1990), the MQM’s leader, Altaf Hussain, campaigned to “convince” muhajirs that they were a separate nation. One of the greatest conceptual and political challenges he faced at the time was how to articulate a meaningful distinction between muhajir and Pakistani nationhood. This is captured in Hussain’s provocative statement to a muhajir audience in 1986 where he asserted that like Pakistan’s oppressed native minorities, muhajirs were not bound by any “contract to uphold Pakistan and Islam,”2 a confounding refusal that led many to question whose interests the movement actually stood for.

And yet, braided into the incipient politics of muhajir ethnic nationalism, was an emphasis on the provisional quality of the muhajir nation. For instance, during a press conference in 1989, Hussain replied to a journalist’s criticism about the movement’s choice of the label “muhajir” almost thirty years after independence, saying, “You can call us anything you like. Call us the anonymous nation (gumnaam quam).” In other statements to the press, he emphasized that the “Muhajir slogan (na’raa) is the result of similar calls made by the other (oppressed) nationalities in the country. If they take back their call and assume a Pakistani nationalist stance towards resolving the problems of all Pakistanis the MQM will also cease its call.” Taken together, these statements illustrated a certain politicized awareness of the contingency of muhajir ethnic nationality. The offer to take back the muhajir nationalist “call”, like Hussain’s insistence that muhajirs do not need a name, are statements that located the threat and agency of muhajir nationalism in the potential of the muhajir to be affected by, and emerge in relation to, others. But, this provisional sense of muhajir identity did not reduce antagonism. Far from it. Instead, it became the movement’s militant and discursive terrain. Within this framework, the stakes of antagonism were signified by the movement in terms of the appearance and reversal of a muhajir nation.

Movement Through Difference: Mutahidda Nationalism

By 1997, the MQM had begun its shift away from the ethno-politics centered on the muhajir identity Senior activists acknowledge that the MQM was heading in the direction of an “all-Pakistan” movement-party nearly from the outset and that political objective of the 1992 Operation Clean-up was to prevent this from happening. Today, the MQM seeks to consolidate the numerous struggles for recognition and provincial autonomy among Pakistan’s “oppressed minorities” under the ideological and organizational mantle of muttahida nationalism (united nationalism). A “Muttahida Organizing Committee” now exists which oversees the recruitment of non-muhajir activists in each of Pakistan’s provinces. I’ve had the experience of visiting “all-Pathan” local units in Karachi, and, a well-organized humanitarian mission was carried out in the northern-areas after the 2005 earthquake, yielding the MQM’s first and only national assembly seat outside its ethno-political stronghold of urban Sindh. Indeed, the “muhajir nation” is rarely mentioned in its ideological literature and public statements. The movement’s old rally cry, “long live muhajir” (jeay muhajir) has been supplanted by “long live United” (jeay muttahida). Tellingly, the new slogan only makes sense if the term “united” is understood as a proper name “United,” that is “Long live the Mutahidda” . . . long live the MQM. In other words, the slogan collapses the condition of being united with the health and well-being of the movement.

Alongside these many transitions, however, is the movement’s most enduring source of identification, its founder and leader Altaf Hussain, who is movement’s “sole individual” (fard-e-wahid) and its transcendent political ideal. Activists understand his leadership as a unifying force that militates against the movement’s dissolution or descent into a state of nature. As MQM’s activists are fond of saying in a testament to blind faith, “We don’t need an objective, we need a leader” (humeh manzil nehi chahiyeh, rehnumah chahyeh). The statement points to authoritarian logic of populism that is nevertheless open to the movement of history and the possibility of new collective identifications.

The challenge for the MQM today is this: To not speak in the register of fixity and essences can invite skepticism about a nationalist movement’s project. What, beyond the expansion of the movement’s structures of political representation, redistribution and control, might serve as the subjective ground for conviction? Thus, while the MQM evinces a capacity for a movement through difference, I propose that this must be accompanied by a capacity for movement beyond the movement.

Tahir Naqvi teaches anthropology and urban studies at Trinity University (Texas, USA). 

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  1. See Naqvi, T. 2007, “The Politics of Commensuration: The Violence of Partition and the Making of the Pakistani State”. Journal of Historical Sociology (March/June). See also: Zamindar, V. 2010, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia:  Refugees, Boundaries, Histories. New York: Columbia University Press. []
  2. Alavi, H. 2010, “The Politics of Ethnicity in India and Pakistan”, in K. Visweswaran (ed.), Perspectives on Modern South Asia: A Reader in Culture, History, and Representation. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell. p98. []

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