The MQM and Identity Politics in Pakistan

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Niloufer Siddiqui[1]


(The MQM, Pakistan’s third largest political party, was formed in the mid-1980s as the Mohajir Qaumi Mahaz to represent the interests of the Mohajir (migrant) community. Its success in tapping into an increasing sense of Mohajir insecurity was evident upon its formation as the party gained, almost overnight, the support of the majority of the Mohajir community. Socio-economic factors were integral both to the MQM’s immediate impact and to the cementing of a common notion of Mohajir identity, as was the failure of successive governments to achieve their goals of state-building and nation-building. Both Z.A. Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq struggled to deal effectively with increasing demands made on ethnic grounds, particularly on behalf of Sindhis. Over the years, the party-cum-political movement has seen a change not only in its name (becoming the Muttahida Qaumi Movement), but also ostensibly its central ideology. While the party’s support base remains strong, and the following of its leader, Altaf Hussain, borders on god-like veneration and reverence, many others view the MQM as a fascist organization and accuse it of employing terrorist techniques to achieve its aims. The mobilization of Mohajir identity, and the MQM’s role in this identity formation, is a valuable case study of the means by which ethnicity can become a symbol of identity when threatened and how in the face of failure to provide for basic socioeconomic needs, a political party based on ethnic mobilization can gain ground. Author).

On 12 May 2007, 48 people were killed and hundreds injured in Karachi as riots broke out during the visit of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who was, at the time, facing a presidential reference. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), then a coalition partner of the government in Sindh and “generally considered as the government of Karachi,”[1] held a rally against what it termed as the politicization of the Chief Justice issue. Opposition parties responded in kind. The ensuing tragedy was integral to the broader political instability which reflected growing resentment of the Musharraf administration. It was the precursor to a series of events that led to the declaration of national emergency on 3 November. The violence captured on television and the print media propelled, not for the first time, the MQM to the centre of people’s mind, some even went so far as to brand it a “terrorist organization.”

The recurring unrest and violence in Karachi over the last three decades has been linked by many to the emergence of the MQM, which in itself was partly a consequence of riots in the city in the early 1980s. The MQM, the country’s third largest political party, was created in 1984 as the Mohajir Qaumi Mahaz to represent the interests of the Mohajir, or migrant, community. The brainchild of Altaf Hussain, the MQM aimed to have the Mohajirs recognized as a fifth ethnicity in Pakistan – in addition to the Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis and Balochis. According to the 1951 Census, “A Mohajir is a person who has moved into Pakistan as a result of Partition or for fear of disturbances connected therewith.”[2] However, the term today has come to refer specifically to the non-Punjabi migrants who moved from India to West Pakistan after Partition and settled in Sindh, primarily in the urban centres of Hyderabad and Karachi.[3] The majority of the migrants from India who came from East Punjab, settling and assimilating into life in West Punjab, aren’t included in contemporary discussions of the Mohajir movement.[4] Rather, discussion centres on only those migrants who, despite being from distinct ethnic groups, gravitated towards a singular Urdu-speaking identity. Even though these groups comprised only 20 percent of the migrants from India, they radically altered the ethnic composition of Sindh.[5] This ethnicity, however, became a central means of identification only as the Mohajirs began losing the socio-economic privileges they initially possessed. According to the 1951 Census, the Mohajirs made up 6.3 million of the 33.7 million people in West Pakistan, about one-fifth of the population.[6] Another 700,000 settled in East Pakistan. Only 14.28 percent of the residents in Karachi spoke Sindhi as a first language in 1951 as opposed to 58.7 percent who spoke Urdu as their mother tongue.[7] By 1981, according to census data, the city’s population was made more diverse by later migrations of other ethnic groups and stood at 61 percent Mohajir, 16 percent Punjabi, 11 percent Pashtun, 7 percent ‘indigenous’ Sindhi and 5 percent Balochi.[8] Today, the figures represent a similar pattern of linguistic composition; according to the 1998 census, while Urdu-speakers make up only 7.57 percent of Pakistan’s population, the distribution in Karachi is 48 percent Urdu speaking, 14 percent Punjabi, 7 percent Sindhi, 11 percent Pashtu and 4 percent Balochi.[9] It isn’t surprising that this city, the original capital of the new state of Pakistan, became the locale of most of the unrest, and has remained so till this day. As Yunas Samad argues, “the emergence of Mohajir identity politics has been synonymous with ethnic conflict in Karachi.”[10]

While the growing importance of Mohajir identity and the creation of the MQM should not be viewed as identical processes, as they represent differing approaches to ethnic configuration,[11] they are nonetheless inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing. The success of the MQM in tapping into an increasing sense of Mohajir insecurity was evident upon its formation, as the party gained, almost overnight, the support of the majority of the Mohajir community. In 1988, the MQM won a landslide electoral victory in municipal elections in Hyderabad and Karachi. By 1991, it had “established a virtual monopoly over representation of the Urdu-speaking community in urban Sindh.”[12] Socio-economic factors were integral to the rather drastic switch from supporting a Pakistani notion of identity to rallying behind a Mohajir identity. Yet, any analysis of this transformation needs to take into account the broader failure of the federal government in achieving either its goals of state-building or nation-building, creating a vacuum which was filled by ethnic groups and political parties based on ethnic mobilization.

That the MQM has substantially altered its political agenda during its short period of existence indicates, however, a limitation to its ethnic basis of support as well as a recognition of broad political gains that could be achieved through expansion. As the change in the organization’s name suggests, the MQM has transformed from a political movement that represents solely the interests of a particular ethnic group to one which is attempting to solidify its position as a mainstream political party with support bases around the country. Its lack of success in achieving the latter, as seen in its recent failure to grab seats in non-Mohajir areas in the February 2008 election, is indicative of a fundamental contradiction in its very political existence. Julian Richards argues to this effect when he states, “the party remains somewhere between a traditional political party, with seats in local and national parliaments, and a spiritual ethno-nationalist movement with little to offer beyond “protection” against the opposing “other.”[13]

The Stimulus for Organization

Many scholars, notably Farhat Haq, have analyzed the Mohajir situation in Pakistan as fitting within a framework of relative deprivation. According to Ted Gurr, tension leading to violence can develop where a discrepancy exists between what a collective group believes they should have and what they actually have. The point of reference is what the group had in the past, an abstract ideal or standards articulated by a leader.[14] Mohajirs, primarily in Karachi, have gradually lost the privileged position – both economic and political – which they possessed immediately after independence, giving way in relative terms to other ethnic groups in the country. The independence struggle for Pakistan, engineered and propelled by Muhammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League, had drawn the basis of its support from Muslims living in areas that remained part of India following Partition. The ‘indigenous’ Pakistanis – Muslims living in parts of British India that became Pakistan – played a much smaller role in the struggle for a Muslim homeland. Aside from the Punjabis, who were the majority ethnic group in West Pakistan, these groups received few immediate benefits upon the creation of the country. In fact, pockets of resistance in Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP provided early challenges to the fledgling government, with many groups viewing the Muslim League and the Mohajirs as akin to foreign colonizers.

The vagueness of the call for independence in the 1940s had resulted in different groups, both in East and West Pakistan, attaching different meanings to what the new state for Muslims was meant to achieve.[15] “For the Pakistanis of the west wing, and particularly for the muhajirs, Pakistan was a state in which the Muslim nation would reach fulfilment, developing its strength on the basis of Islam and Islamic solidarity.”[16] In being premised upon a two-nation theory which rendered Muslims a distinct nation of their own, Pakistan was created on the basis of a united religious identity. The Mohajirs’ notion of national identity fit with that put forward by Jinnah; the importance given to distinct ethnicities was, therefore, antithetical to what the Mohajirs stood for. They clashed with other ethnic groups on such issues as further migration of Indian Muslims, local languages and provincial autonomy, and supported initially the religious political party, the Jamaat-i-Islaami.[17]

After independence, Mohajirs continued to occupy a privileged position in the new Pakistan government. Both the first Governor-General and Prime Minister were Mohajir, and Mohajirs held 21 percent of the jobs in the Pakistan Civil Service. By 1973, they held 33.5 percent of all senior jobs in the federal bureaucracy and 20 percent in the Secretariat group in 1974.[18] Mohajirs also dominated business and industry in the early years of Pakistan’s industrialization. Many were of an urban and professional background and were able to fill the gap that Hindus had left after migrating to India post-Partition. Their position remained strong through Ayub Khan’s rule, and the bureaucratic-military alliance which dominated politics in Pakistan was in turn characterized by a Punjabi-Mohajir nexus.[19] Land policies further privileged the Mohajirs at the expense of Sindhis, as refugees were given land to compensate for their losses in India.[20] These early skirmishes over who was entitled to land left by evacuees from West Pakistan worked to create an initial divide between ‘migrants’ and ‘indigenous’ Pakistanis.[21]

By the end of the 1950s, however, the rising power of the military, which was beginning to become more dominated by Punjabis and Pashtuns, began to push the Mohajir elites into a subordinate position. Many Mohajirs contested the decision to move the federal capital from Karachi to Islamabad, but continued to hold many prominent policy-making positions.[22] It was primarily after the separation of East and West Pakistan, as Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, himself a Sindhi, began implementing his policies of Islamist socialism,  that much of the antagonism in Sindh against Mohajirs came to the fore. Many Sindhis expected Bhutto to rectify what they perceived as a longstanding socioeconomic imbalance. In the initial years of Bhutto’s rule, in 1973, Mohajirs, while still about 7 percent of the population, occupied 33.5 percent of the posts in the bureaucracy.[23] Sindhi agitation led to Bhutto’s recognition of Sindhi as an official language in the province as well as the imposition of a quota on the number of Urdu-speakers entering the Pakistan Civil Service.[24] Bhutto’s nationalization policies resulted in a drop in business confidence and industrial growth stalled, with the Gujarati-speaking community particularly harmed by these policies.[25] The language issue was a source of much agitation, first on the part of the Sindhis, for whom the imposition of Urdu was seen as discriminatory and served as a significant disadvantage in terms of education and jobs. Bhutto’s support of the Language Bill was couched in ethnic terms. In a speech, he spoke about how the Sindhis had “given our lands; we have given our homes; we have given our lives . . to people from all parts . . living in Sindh. What else can we do to show our loyalty . .?”[26] The Language Bill required Sindhi to be taught as a second language to those students for whom Sindhi wasn’t a first language and for all provincial government officials to learn the language.[27] While this could hardly be seen as a threat to the dominance of the Urdu language, the bill and resulting controversy became symbolic of more than the dispute itself, as had the language issue in the crisis of East Pakistan/Bangladesh. In 1972, language riots broke out, and worked to further divide the two communities. According to a biographical account, Altaf Hussain points to these Sindhi-Mohajir language riots as a turning point; it was then that he began to fully realize the need for Mohajirs to organize on an ethnic basis if their rights were to be protected.[28]

The implementation of the quota system was another central source of contention and unrest, leading directly to a decline in Mohajir socioeconomic status. The quota system differentiated between the rural and urban and meant an ethnic quota for Sindhis (rural) and Urdu-speaking Mohajirs (urban).[29] Allocation was made based on 60 percent rural and 40 percent urban “domiciles” in Sindh.[30] 11.4 percent of the seats in the federal bureaucracy were reserved for indigenous Sindhis and strict rules were laid down for the definition of a rural Sindhi.[31] The very notion of a quota system flew in the face of what the Mohajirs stood for – because Pakistan had been created on the basis of a united identity, to have quotas in place which questioned where you were from in your ‘own’ land and assigned opportunities on the basis of this designation seemed unwarranted.[32]

The quotas ensured that the Mohajirs lost in relative, not absolute, terms. However, the prominent role which the Mohajirs saw themselves as having played in the independence struggle is integral to contemporary notions of superiority and is used to justify claims that the Mohajirs are entitled to, and deserve, certain preferential treatment for all that they wagered and lost. Azim Ahmed Tariq, the former chairman of the MQM, effectively conveyed this emotion in a 1991 interview when he stated, “We thought, we had given such sacrifices: two million were killed in the Partition.”[33] Altaf Hussain too has been quoted as saying, “What have we gained after sacrificing 2 million lives for the creation of Pakistan?”[34] As with any discussion of ethnicity, the mythic components of collective solidarity are integral to understanding what transforms a latent ethnicity into a central means of identification. In the case of the Mohajirs, this is based on the idea that they, more than any group, were committed to the idea of the nation of Pakistan and hence, should be treated as such.

The hope that General Zia-ul-Haq’s coming to power would reverse these policies and reinstate the Mohajirs to their ‘traditional’ place of power was soon thwarted when Zia retained many of Bhutto’s policies. Zia’s deeply held religious beliefs and emphasis on a Pakistani culture with a strong Islamic basis, “and above all his determination to defuse Sindhi nationalism” encouraged many Mohajirs to place their support behind him.[35] However, his retention of seat reservations in the federal and provincial bureaucracy and institutions of higher education worked against the Mohajirs, and solidified Punjabi dominance.[36] The inability of both the Bhutto and Zia administrations to provide for the needs of either the Mohajir or Sindhi groups was partly a result of the leaders’ pitting groups against one another to serve their own political needs. Bhutto’s inconsistency with presenting the PPP as a national party while also appealing to his own Sindhi identity served to spread nationalist feelings among Mohajirs. Additionally, allegations abound that Zia played a key role in promoting the MQM as a counterweight to the PPP.[37]

The growing influence of the Pashtuns in the military, partly due to Pakistan’s intervention in Afghanistan, during Zia’s time meant that the Mohajirs had another ethnic group to contend and compete with.[38] In fact, these patterns of migration, particularly to Karachi, played a defining role in the city’s continually changing demography and in turn, the relative privileges received by various ethnic groups. Waseem characterizes four waves of migration into Karachi: Mohajirs in the 1940s-50s, Punjabis and Pashtuns in 1960s-80s, Sindhis in the 1970s-90s, and foreigners in the 1980s-90s. By 1998, migrants as a proportion of the total population amounted to 22 percent. Of these, 31 percent had arrived from outside the country.[39] The initial wave of Mohajir migration is differentiated from the later wave of the Punjabis and Pashtuns. The latter migration, referred to as “circular migration,” is characterized by migrants maintaining relations with their families back home and visiting often.[40] This difference has enabled the Mohajirs to consider themselves “natives” of Karachi and Sindh and to effectively pursue a ‘sons of the soil’ movement. Mohajirs and Sindhis have even managed to ally with one another against these later migrants, although each alliance has been politically motivated and short-lived.

Riots and Unrest

A series of riots broke out between Mohajir and Pashtun migrants in Karachi during the mid-1980s. During 1985, the Karachi police recorded 608 cases of rioting, which resulted in 56 deaths,[41] and between January 1986 and August 1987, there were 242 incidents of rioting.[42] One of the most significant incidents between the two groups was what became known as the Bushra Zaidi affair of April 1985. A young Mohajir schoolgirl was hit and killed by a Pashtun bus driver and within two days, clashes erupted between Pashtuns, who owned and operated the minibuses, and Mohajirs, the passengers of these minibuses.[43] Violence continued in Karachi after the Sohrab Goth operation of December 1986, whereby government security forces bulldozed the homes of mostly Pashtun residents in an apparent cleanup of drugs.[44] The Operation was followed by rumors alleging that it had been launched at the behest of the Mohajirs. Seen as a plan to remove Pashtuns from Karachi, the Pashtuns in a “call to attack (that) was couched in highly emotive language provoking the pride and dignity of Pashtun manhood”[45] attacked Mohajir neighbourhoods. The riots were induced in part by the socioeconomic crises of state, including transport problems and lack of basic public services such as water and housing, lending credence to the argument that the demonstrations and unrest were consequences of direct or indirect government actions.[46]

Built-up frustration at the lack of socio-economic opportunities and the Mohajirs’ relative decline in power soon became politicized and it was in this context that the precursor to the MQM, the All Pakistan Mohajir Students’ Organization (APMSO) was formed. Created by Altaf Hussain and other students who felt victimized by the quota system in place at Sindh University, the party also represented the Mohajir students’ need to contend with a host of student organizations organized on a linguistic or ethnic bases, from which they felt excluded.[47] The religious parties’ student wings, to whom the Mohajirs had initially shown allegiance, were denounced as Punjabi-dominated organizations, effectively dividing student political life on stark ethnic lines. In this way, the university represented a microcosm of Pakistani society and indicated to the Mohajirs the need to unite around an identity of their own. By 1986, Mohajir’s share of senior jobs in federal bureaucracy had fallen to 18.3 percent from 33.5 percent in 1973, and to 14.3 percent of jobs in the Secretariat group from 20 percent in 1974.[48] The party’s Karadad-i-Maguasid, or Charter of Demands, demanded among other things, increased representation of the Mohajirs in the University and the administration, a change in the definition of domiciled in Sindh to refer to only those who had been living there for the last twenty years, the repatriation of Biharis to Pakistan, and nationalization of local bus services.[49] The question of Biharis remained a source of much contention for many years, partly for humane reasons but also on the basis of a politico-strategic recognition that moving the 250,000 Biharis into Karachi would increase the MQM’s support base. In an essay written just a couple of years after the inception of the MQM, Farida Shaheed described the creation of the party in clear-cut terms: “Sub-state nationalities have become so important that the multi-ethnic mohajirs have declared a nationality by the recently formed Mohajir Qaumi Mahaz (Refugee People’s Front).”[50]

Political Leanings

From the very beginning, the MQM showed itself to be politically malleable. Its definition of Mohajirs was largely in terms of what Mohajirs are NOT rather than in terms of what they are. In his autobiography, Hussain defines Mohajirs as those who do not belong to any of the other ethnonationalities of Pakistan; in other words, that they are neither Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi nor Pashtun.[51] Altaf Hussain has even gone so far as to admit that the banner of Mohajir nationality was indeed a reaction to the slogan of the other four nationalities.[52] While the party cannot be perceived as anti-state in the sense that it denounces Pakistani nationalism, there has nonetheless been some separatist talk, even mention of the creation of a “Karachisubha” or “Urdu Desh.”[53] On 25 March  2007, a statement by Hussain on the MQM website “warned the government that if provincial autonomy would not be given to the provinces the slogan of autonomy could turn into the demand for the right for self-determination.”[54] The extreme irony of this position (albeit more rhetoric than reality) is clear as Mohajir identity has historically been premised on a commitment to the nation of Pakistan and the Mohajirs’ own complaints against ethnic groups in Pakistan were on the grounds of their separatist tendencies. In a speech in Delhi in 2007, Altaf Hussain labeled the very creation of Pakistan a “blunder,” although he spent many subsequent months distancing himself from his comments. Hussain’s controversial rhetoric serves to emphasize the sometimes inconsistent and contradictory aims of the MQM, as well as the extent to which the party is itself continually developing and evolving its goals.

This inconsistency is seen partly in the MQM’s many political alliances. Because it was defined primarily as a party in opposition to others, the MQM was able to capitalize on different ethnic groups’ insecurities by forming alliances of convenience. In 1988, it entered into a tenuous alliance with the PPP, at the time led by Benazir Bhutto, despite the Mohajirs’ resentment of Sindhis and the many years during which the two ethnic groups had stood opposed to one another. The alliance was couched in terms of countering a Punjabi-dominated centre and proved possible due to the dramatic success of the MQM immediately upon its creation, winning 13 seats in the National Assembly in 1988. This consistent electoral success has, in fact, been the primary reason that the larger parties have had to engage with the MQM; the party’s seats have proved vital to helping the larger parties gain a parliamentary majority.[55] The 1988 PPP-MQM alliance was short-lived, despite a 59-point Karachi Accord that was signed between the parties. It broke down in just a matter of months over the contentious matter of repatriating Biharis from Bangladesh and general MQM resentment at “non-implementation” of the agreement.[56] This served to once again exacerbate tensions between the Mohajirs and Sindhis, which worsened when the MQM joined the Ittihed Jamhouri Ittehad (IJ) headed by Nawaz Sharif. This alliance was majority Punjabi and seen by supporters of the government as anti-Sindhi.[57] Tension between Mohajirs, on the one hand, and Punjabis and Pashtuns, on the other, however, worked to strain the alliance between the MQM and IJI.[58] Thus, while ethnic tensions interfered with the functioning of political alliances, the political alliances themselves had little lasting impact on easing ethnic relations. Bitter conflict and a power struggle continued in Karachi, with Samad arguing that a process of “ethnic cleansing” took place.[59] Throughout this decade of democracy, the MQM made politically strategic partnerships, as the various governments at the centre struggled to control the increasing violent nature of politics and ethnic conflict in Karachi.[60]

In 1992, in the infamous Operation Clean-Up, the military moved against the MQM, a decision taken by the army and prompted in part by increasing concern that the MQM was beginning to take control of the state machinery.[61] The military used the MQM’s separatist rhetoric as a justification for the operation and also unearthed 22 MQM torture cells.[62] At this time, the MQM split into two parties, with the breakaway party attaching the term Haqiqi (meaning real) to their acronym. The ideological battle over the party’s goals and objectives found its way on to the streets, making Karachi a turbulent and violent city for most of the 1990s.[63] The army employed a strategy of divide-and-conquer by initially supporting the Haqiqi group and then arresting its leadership and militants. It hoped to rid the country of Altaf Hussain’s MQM, but instead worked to de-legitimize the Haqiqi faction in the eyes of the Mohajir supporters, who viewed it as a puppet of the government.[64]

MQM: Political Movement or Political Party?

The internal division of the MQM centred partly upon Altaf Hussain’s decision to alter the party’s outlook from one representing only Mohajirs to one which represented all of Pakistan’s poor and oppressed. This transformation has been partial at best; the MQM’s actions have conflicted starkly with its rhetoric and even today, it has been unable to move away from being seen primarily as a “Mohajir party.” Because the MQM’s leadership and support, however, have both stemmed from the lower-middle and working class segments of the Mohajir population, it has allowed for a smoother transition than may otherwise have been possible. Because it was the middle and lower-middle class Mohajirs who faced the brunt of the quota system, while the upper and upper-middle classes continued to fare well, unemployed Mohajir youth and students historically held the central executive and leadership position in the party.[65] A significant source of the MQM’s support stems from these class origins, which are in sharp contrast to the feudal leadership which has historically dominated rural Sindh. Even the national mainstream parties, such as the PML and the PPP, have at their helm well-off, prominent families.

Altaf Hussain’s lower-middle class background contrasts sharply with the privileged position of these leaders and his personal history sheds light on the creation of the MQM. According to his autobiography available on the official MQM Website, “Altaf Hussain in his mid twenties not only saw and felt the unfairness of the admission policies in schools but also in the broader spectrum he saw and felt the unfair feudal framework consisting of only 2 percent of the elites who were busy in writing the faith of 98 percent of the middle and lower middle classes of the country. In general, a son of an immigrant started a struggle of awareness against the unfair feudal system of Pakistan.”[66] Hussain’s complete dominance of the MQM since its inception, despite being in self-imposed exile in England since 1992, effectively represents the notion of cult of personality. Referred to as the Quaid, a term which means Founder but is usually used in association with Muhammed Ali Jinnah, Altaf Hussain is often seen as the ‘spiritual leader’ and is also referred to as ‘pir.’ Videos of him speaking demonstrate the extent to which his oratorical skills and personal charisma are central to the party’s support. Richards argues, “The party demonstrates a curious combination of nationalist, secular, ethnic-chauvinist, and socialist tendencies, all led by an unelected spiritual figurehead – more “Pir” than President – with whom the party is inextricably associated.” A party with almost fascist tendencies, the MQM’s training pamphlet requires from its supporters “blind faith” in the party’s leadership and elimination of individuality.[67] A strong belief in the party’s ‘ideological’ base is also required, and in the case of the MQM, this ideological base is tied strongly to the opinions of Altaf Hussan. A common slogan at the time of the 1988 elections, loosely translated from Urdu, demonstrates this: “Any person that betrays the Quaid deserves death by execution.”

The MQM’s 1998 agenda purports to outline its main goals, but is couched in vague jargon – “Ideologically speaking, MQM is not a proponent of Socialism, Communism or unbridled Capitalism. It only believes in Realism and Practicalism” – which prevents it from being too closely aligned with any specific ideology. The 1998 agenda does not associate the MQM with representing the interests of any specific ethnic group, nor does it propound a unitary Pakistani identity. Rather, it states:

MQM wholeheartedly accepts the cultural, linguistic, regional, racial and religious identities of all citizens of the state. To deny such distinctions and identifications is tantamount to denying reality. . . It is therefore imperative to recognise and accept the constitutional rights of Sindhi, Punjabi, Pakhtoon, Mohajir, Baloch, Saraiki, Brohi, Makrani and all other nationalities, fraternities, lingual, cultural and religious units to provide them justice so that the fervour of national integration could grow and kinship develop.[68]

The MQM’s website makes its transformation as a party representing the poor clear: “To further the programme of national development and a nation-wide campaign against feudal domination, Mohajir Quami Movement was formally transformed into Muttahida Quami Movement on 26  July 1997.” In an interview, Altaf Hussain outlined his party’s goals as such: “Our immediate political objective is to change the corrupt medieval feudal-military political system of Pakistan. We are, therefore, the only genuine party of the lower and middle classes, totally devoid of feudal lords and army Generals.”[69] However, the party has lacked any programs or policies aimed at the direct alleviation of poverty, land reform, or change in the social order.[70] In addition, when politically expedient, the party maintains ethnic divisions and rhetoric, even if this requires pitting the poor of two ethnic groups against one another.

A determining factor in changing the name and ideology of the organization was a simple recognition of political reality. Having become the third largest party in the country and having already achieved a loyal and substantial Mohajir support base, the MQM saw an opportunity to expand its influence in other provinces. In addition, its reputation as an anti-state organization had landed it in trouble in the past and it used this opportunity to tone down its divisive rhetoric.[71] Yet, much of the speculation regarding the change in nomenclature, and ostensibly ideology, is difficult to conjecture partly because of the revisionist history that the party has engaged in. By revising the very discourse surrounding its creation, the MQM has effectively shed any initial linkages to its exclusive Mohajir ethnicity, allowing that to take the back-seat. In an open letter written by Altaf Hussain about the events of 12 May 2007 and posted on the MQM website, for instance, the MQM’s origins are described as such: “Following the Constitution and the law of the land, in the history of the country, poor, middleclass and educated people broken away from the traditional and hereditary politics to establish the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). The formation of the MQM by the poor and middleclass people was not liked by the Establishment and feudalistic hereditary politicians and the parties on the payroll of the Establishment and all such political and religious parties formed an alliance against the MQM.” In fact, this letter contains no mention of the Mohajir community at all, even in discussion of how the party came into being. Hussain similarly rallied other ethnic groups in a speech made on 15 April  2008. “He appealed to the Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi, Pakhtoon, Seraiki, Hazarewal, Kashmiri and minority workers of the MQM to fully play their role and maintaining the peace and law and order, refrain from emotional reactions, observe and demonstrate peace and patience.”[72] The MQM is still today, however, referred to in common parlance as “the Mohajir party.”

Although the MQM is now a central player in Pakistan’s political system, it continues to function as much outside the system as a pressure group as within it. It has resorted to underhanded measures including street tactics. These have included targeting the press, such as burning thousands of copies of the widely-circulated Dawn newspaper and attacking the houses of journalists, as well as torturing those Mohajirs who hadn’t pledged allegiance to the MQM. The MQM today propounds an anti-Islamist stance, and is quick to portray itself along liberal and anti-terrorist lines.[73] That its main constituents are people who once provided support to religious political parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islaami indicates the tenuous nature of issue-based politics in Pakistan. Hussain had justified the MQM’s retention of pressure group methods by distinguishing the MQM from other political parties, arguing that it has a higher purpose: “Explaining the difference between a Movement and a Political Party, Mr Hussain said that sometimes a Movement is compelled to participate in politics, however, its aim remains the completion of its mission, whereas, the purpose of a political party is to get into power.”[74]

Constantly changing roles? A look to the future

Mohammed Waseem has termed the Mohajir identity an “ethnicity-in-making” and other scholars have similarly hesitated in classifying the Mohajir question in Pakistan as a straightforward ethnic dispute. This reflects, to an extent, the artificial nature of the Mohajir ethnic construction which lacks a singular origin and a common language. Yet, more significant is the manner in which ethnicity becomes a symbol of identity when threatened and how, in the face of state and federal failure to provide for basic socioeconomic needs, a political party based on ethnic mobilization can gain ground.

With the advent of a new ruling coalition government in Pakistan following the 18 February 2008 elections, the political scene in Pakistan remains far from certain. Questions regarding the future of President Musharraf and the reinstatement of the judiciary, continue to be, at the time of writing, unresolved issues. On 29 April the PPP and MQM finally reached a power-sharing agreement for the Sindh Cabinet, whereby the MQM would be given 13 ministries.[75] The MQM has shown that, despite its political ideology, it is willing to form alliances and engage in coalitions with various power holders in the country. These coalitions have allowed the MQM to come to power at the provincial level and have helped establish it as the third largest party in Pakistan, although it is often regarded with suspicion by other parties and groups. No discussion of Pakistan’s political future is complete without a serious reckoning of Hussain’s party. However, what the MQM’s precise ideology is has been subject to change over the years, and is likely to continue evolving with the political climate in Pakistan.

Table I

Taken from: Mohammad Waseem, “Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan: The Case of MQM.” The Pakistan Development Review. 35:4 Part II (Winter 1996).

Table II

Source: Population Census Organization, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Statistics, Government of Pakistan. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

Table III

Results of National Elections in Pakistan and Provincial Elections in Sindh

Year National Elections: Number of Seats Provincial Elections: Number of Seats
1988 13 31
1990 15
1993 Boycott 28
1997 12 28
2002 17 42
2008 25 51


[1] Niloufer Siddiqui is an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC.

[1] Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, “Carnage in Karachi: A City Under Siege 12/05/07.” Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[2] South Asia Forum for Human Rights, “The Mohajirs of Pakistan.” Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[3] This paper, too, will use the term Mohajir (alternative spellings include Muhajir) to refer to the specific ethnonationalist subset of people to which the MQM appeals.

[4] The situation differed between the various migrants for a number of reasons. The Mohajirs who migrated to Sindh differed substantially from the indigenous Sindhis in terms of linguistic, cultural and historical background. On the other hand, Muslims migrating from East Punjab found more cultural similarities with their counterparts in West Punjab. Rehman, J. “Self-Determination, State-Building and the Muhajirs: An International Legal Perspective of the Role of Indian Muslim Refugees in the Constitutional Development of Pakistan.” Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 1994.

[5] Rashid, Abbas and Farida Shaheed. “Pakistan: Ethno-Politics and Contending Elites.” Discussion Paper No. 45, June 1993. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:$FILE/dp45.pdf

[6] Jaffrelot, Christophe. A History of Pakistan and its Origins. Wimbeldon Publishing Company, London, 2002. Page 34. See Table I.

[7] Mohammad Waseem, “Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan: The Case of MQM.” The Pakistan Development Review. 35:4 Part II (Winter 1996). Page 620.

[8] Jaffrelot. A History of Pakistan and its Origins. Ibid. Page 34.

[9] The rural-urban linguistic divide in Sindh is also clear: while 92percent of the people in rural Sindh speak Sindhi and only 1.62percent speak Urdu, in urban Sindh, there are 42percent Urdu-speakers as opposed to 25percent Sindhi-speakers. See Table II. Population Census Organization, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Statistics, Government of Pakistan. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[10] Samad, Yunas. “In and Out of Power but not Down and Out: Mohajir Identity Politics.” In Pakistan: Nationalism without a Nation. Ed. Christopher Jaffrelot. Zed Books, London, UK. 2002.  Page 63.

[11] Samad distinguished between the two by arguing, “One was about the construction of a community, which in Anderson’s terms was about imagination, and the other was the instrumental character of political organizations representing Mohajirs’ interests. . ” Ibid. Page 65.

[12] Haq, Farhat. “Rise of the MQM in Pakistan: Politics of Ethnic Mobilization.” Asian Survey, Vol. 35, No. 11, Nov. 1995. Page 991.

[13] Richards, Julien. “An Uncertain Voice: the MQM in Pakistan’s Political Scene.” Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU), Brief Number 11. 26th April, 2007. Page 4.

[14] Gurr, Ted Robert. Why Men Rebel. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1970.

[15] Cohen, Stephen. The Idea of Pakistan. Brookings Institution Press, USA. September 2004.

[16] Oldenburg, Philip. “A Place Insufficiently Imagined: Language, Belief and the Pakistan Crisis of 1971.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 4, August 1985.

[17] Waseem, “Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan: The Case of MQM.” Ibid.

[18] Ibid. Page 621.

[19] Samad, “In and Out of Power but not Down and Out: Mohajir Identity Politics.”  Ibid. Page 66.

[20] Shaheed, Farida. “The Pashtun-Muhajir Conflicts, 1985-6: A National Perspective.” In Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia. Ed. Veena Das. Oxford University Press, Delhi. 1990.

[21] Maniruzzaman, Talukder. “Group Interests in Pakistan Politics, 1947 – 1958,” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 39, No. 1/2, (Spring – Summer, 1966), pp. 83-98.

[22] Haq, “Rise of the MQM in Pakistan: Politics of Ethnic Mobilization.” Ibid. Page 991.

[23] Jaffrelot, Christophe. “Nationalism without a Nation: Pakistan Searching for its Identity.” In Pakistan: Nationalism without a Nation?. Ed. Christophe Jaffrelot. Zed Books, London, UK. 2002. Page 23.

[24] Samad, “In and Out of Power but not Down and Out: Mohajir Identity Politics.”  Ibid. Page 67.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Jaffrelot, “Pakistan: Nationalism without a Nation.” Ibid. Page 23.

[27] Rashid, Abbas and Farida Shaheed. “Pakistan: Ethno-Politics and Contending Elites.” Discussion Paper No. 45, June 1993. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:$FILE/dp45.pdf

[28] Waseem. “Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan: The Case of MQM.” Ibid.

[29] Haq, “Rise of the MQM in Pakistan: Politics of Ethnic Mobilization.” Ibid. Page 992.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Richards, “An Uncertain Voice: the MQM in Pakistan’s Political Scene.” Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Hussain, Altaf. “Life and Death of Mohajirs is Associated with Sindh Province.” January 6, 2006. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[35] Rehman, J. “Self-Determination, State-Building and the Muhajirs: An International Legal Perspective of the Role of Indian Muslim Refugees in the Constitutional Development of Pakistan.” Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 1994.

[36] Haq, “Rise of MQM in Pakistan.” Ibid. Page 993.

[37] Rashid and Shaheed. “Pakistan: Ethno-Politics and Contending Elites.” Ibid. Page 28.

[38] Waseem, “Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan: The Case of MQM.” Ibid. Page 624.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Richards, “An Uncertain Voice: the MQM in Pakistan’s Political Scene.” Ibid. Page 7.

[42] Hussain, Akmal. “The Karachi Riots of December 1986: Crisis of State and Civil Society in Pakistan.” In Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia. Ed. Veena Das. Oxford University Press, Delhi. 1990. Page 189.

[43] Haq, “Rise of the MQM in Pakistan.” Ibid. Page 990.

[44] Hussain, “The Karachi Riots of December 1986: Crisis of State and Civil Society in Pakistan.” Ibid. Page 187.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Haq, “Rise of the MQM in Pakistan.” Ibid.

[47] Waseem, “Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan: The Case of MQM.” Ibid. Page 625.

[48] Ibid. Page 621.

[49] Rehman, J., “Self-Determination, State-Building and the Muhajirs: An International Legal Perspective of the Role of Indian Muslim Refugees in the Constitutional Development of Pakistan.” Ibid.

[50] Shaheed, Farida. “The Pashtun-Muhajir Conflicts, 1985-6: A National Perspective.” Page 200.

[51] Waseem, “Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan: The Case of MQM.” Ibid. Page 625.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] “Autonomy denial can lead to demand for self-determination: Altaf.” The Nation. March 25, 2007. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[55] See Table III.

[56] Haq, “Rise of the MQM in Pakistan.” Ibid. Page 999.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Samad, “In and Out of Power but not Down and Out.” Ibid. Page 69.

[60] In 1997, for instance, the MQM entered an alliance with the PML(N), both at the federal level and in the Sindh province. The alliance was achieved after negotiations on continuing MQM concerns, such as the repatriation of Biharis and the quotas for Mohajirs. Samad, “In and Out of Power But not Down and Out.” Ibid. Page 75.

[61] Waseem, “Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan: The Case of MQM.” Ibid. Page 627.

[62] Ibid.

[63] “Why Karachi is so Violent.” BBC News. October 7, 1999. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[64] Haq, “Rise of the MQM in Pakistan.” Ibid. Page 1001.

[65] Rashid and Shaheed. “Pakistan: Ethno-Politics and Contending Elites.” Ibid. Page 27.

[66] “Altaf Hussain: Founder and Leader of MQM.” Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[67] Haq, “Rise of MQM in Pakistan.” Ibid. Page 1002.

[68] “What Does MQM Want?” MQM Manifesto. 1998. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[69] Ali, Dean. “Altaf Hussain Visits India: His Keynote Speech.” Chowk. November 8, 2004. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[70] Waseem, “Ethnic Conflict in Pakistan: The Case of MQM.” Ibid. Page 625.

[71] Samad, “In and Out of Power but not Down and Out.” Ibid. Page 76.

[72] Hussain, Altaf. “MQM Does Not Want Confrontation with any Party.” April 15, 2008. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[73] Others outside of the party, however, continue to deem the MQM terrorist in nature. This was evidenced in the recent legal action filed by Imran Khan, leader of Tehreek-e-Insaf, against Altaf Hussein, holding the MQM Chief responsible for violence in Karachi and referring to it as both “fascist” and “terrorist.” “Imran Khan Plans UK Legal Action.” BBC News, June 2, 2007. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[74] Hussain, Altaf. “Life and Death of Mohajirs is Associated with Sindh Province.” January 6, 2006. Available on the World Wide Web at URL:

[75] Ul-Ashfaque, Azfar. “MQM to Join Sindh Cabinet.” Dawn Newspaper, April 30, 2008. Available on the World Wide Web at URL: