The MQM: An Uncertain Future?

Ever since the November elections were announced, a number of political commentators and analysts, both local and foreign, have insisted that no political issues were involved in the campaign. They have maintained that the whole affair was really a tussle between the legacies of two dead men, namely, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Ziaul Haq. It was also widely believed that the key to power in Pakistan lies in the hands of the feudal elements, who could guarantee a victory for whichever side they decide to support. The Pakistani establishment, and its supporting classes, meanwhile, lapped up this wisdom and sat back complacently to watch the contest from their ringside seats.

The results of the elections, however, have proved this analysis wrong on all three counts. The people of Pakistan have voted overwhelmingly for those political parties (not the PPP alone) that have struggled for the restoration of the 1973 constitution, party-based elections, and fundamental human rights. In doing so, they have rejected those parties that have supported the concept of a patriarchal form of government, Islamic fundamentalism and political suppression. The tussle, therefore, was between the twentieth century and the medieval world. Since this was really the fundamental issue in the elections, the bulk of the leftist and regional parties, their popularity notwithstanding, were wiped out and even those “maha” feudal who supported the wrong side lost miserably to comparatively lesser known political figures. The Urdu speaking population of Sind, meanwhile, in contrast to the voting pattern in the rest of Pakistan, voted for a regional and ethnic organisation, the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). The MQM’s complete victory in Karachi and Hyderabad, Sind’s two major cities, and the Pakistan Peoples party’s sweep in the rural areas, have divided the province into two seemingly water-tight compartments. The significance of the MQM victory, therefore, in regional and national terms, needs to be comprehensively examined.

The main reasons for the emergence and rise of the MQM have been analysed by the media in considerable detail over the last two years. These analyses apart, there is no doubt that the mohajir population of Sind had over a period of time become gradually alienated from the mainstream of political life in Pakistan. Not being a part, or an out-growth, of the country’s feudal system, they could not identify with the centrist political parties whose mainstay was the landed gentry in the rural areas. Being small businessmen and white collar workers, with no sizeable Urdu-speaking proletariat behind them, they could also not support the left-of-centre parties that have played an important role in the past in Pakistan’s politics. In addition, the new generation that grew up in the post-partition urban environment of Karachi and Hyderabad, could not identify any longer with the reactionary religious parties that their parents supported, which was more due to a lack of choice than of preference. What intensified this sense of political alienation was the urban-rural quota system which discriminated heavily against them in applying for government and semi-government jobs and for admissions to colleges and universities in the province, as well as the indignity of having to give the birth place of one’s father when applying for a job or admission, something no other Pakistani has to do. Thus, while the Urdu-speaking population of Sind prospered in business and in the professions, it was largely felt, with some justification, that it was becoming increasingly difficult for its members to become soldiers, statesmen and bureaucrats, which is where the real power lies.

It is in this atmosphere of alienation and paranoia that the MQM was born. It has tackled the problem of alienation by giving the mohajirs a powerful political platform, and from this platform it has raised its voice for the recognition of a separate mohajir nationality as well as a demand for proportional representation for the mohajirs at the provincial and federal levels. Backed by the organisational, managerial and economic power of an educated electorate, the MQM’s victory is complete. However, the failure of the MQM leadership to relate the problems and the demands of the mohajir community with larger issues at the national and provincial levels constitutes the greatest weakness of the movement. This weakness, coupled with the mohajir militancy that is bound to follow so huge a victory, is likely to bring it into conflict once again with the Sindhi-speaking population in the rural areas and small towns, and with non-mohajirs in the larger cities.

The nationalities question that has emerged in this country today is no more than a debate among political parties. The constitution of Pakistan does not recognise any nationality apart from the Pakistani nation, and other than the MQM, all the parties supporting the nationalities concept have been soundly defeated in the elections. The four provinces that form the federation are merely administrative units. Thus, the recognition of a mohajir nationality, or the creation of a new federating unit in which the mohajirs are in a majority, cannot take place without a major change in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. For the foreseeable future, such a change seems out of the question. Furthermore, without such a change, the proposal for proportional representation at all provincial and national level, as put forward by the MQM, cannot be realised.

Regarding the abolition of the quota system, it must be remembered that forty-three percent of Sind’s population lives in urban areas. Fifty percent of this population is Urdu speaking, and as such, mohajir. Eighty-nine percent of the rural population of the province consists of Sindhi, Baluchi and Seraiki speaking Sindhis. Urban literacy is 50.77 percent with 74 literate females for every 100 literate males. Rural literacy is 16 percent with 21 literate females for every 100 literate males. In addition, the vast majority of the mohajir population is educated in urban schools, universities and professional colleges in Karachi. These institutions are in all ways superior to similar institutions in the remote rural areas and smaller towns of Sind, where the majority of the Sindhi population receives its education. Another major factor that works in favour of the mohajir community is that its members, unlike the majority of the Sindhis, are not bound by feudal or tribal ties. This gives them a tremendous social and economic mobility.

Given these enormous inequities, the Sindhis can never accept the abolition of the quota system or the removal of weightage in their favour in admissions to educational institutions and for applications to government jobs. In fact, acquiescence to such a move would be suicidal for the Sindhis. Their stance on the issue is backed, not only by their voting power, but also by a new found awareness of their precarious situation, which the above statistics highlight, in the land of their forefathers. One cannot ignore the fact that the feudal system is finally beginning to give way to a rapidly governing Sindhi middle class which is challenging the mohajir monopoly in the professions, though it has not yet dented the mohajir hold over business and commerce.

In the MQM’s 25-point charter of demands, the ones related to nationality and quota are the only ones which affect not only the mohajir community as a whole, but also provincial politics in a big way. And it is these demands alone that cannot possibly be met in the present political situation. All other demands, apart from the ones relating to the repatriation of Biharis and the opening of the Khokrapar route, are really local in character and have to be tackled at the city and district level. Many of these demands are not mohajir demands alone, but reflect the sentiments and aspirations of all citizens, irrespective of the language they speak, who live in the two major cities of Sind.

What will be the future of the MQM if it fails to give the mohajir militancy it has developed a nationality and proportional representation in all walks of life in Pakistan? Will the pragmatists among them settle for ministerships and minor benefits and claim that the position they had taken earlier was simply for bargaining with the new government? Will the militants among them accept this view, or will they continue their struggle in the streets of Karachi and Hyderabad and increase the already dangerous polarisation between the Sindhis and mohajirs on the one hand, and the mohajirs and the PPI on the other? And will not this polarisation increase the centre’s involvement in provincial affairs and make the long cherished dream of provincial autonomy impossible to realise? Will the mojahir electorate be disillusioned with the MQM if it gives up its main demands and searches for new political alternatives that relate it more closely to the larger realities of Pakistan in general and Sind in particular?

One would not have been asking these questions today if the MQM had looked upon the quota issue as an integral part of rural Sind’s under-development keeping in view the inequities that characterise the Sindhi landscape. Nor would one be asking these questions if the MQM had stated clearly that the causes for the miserable state of urban services and the lack of jobs in Sind’s urban centres are the same as those for the anarchy, unemployment and the non-maintenance of agricultural infrastructure in the rural areas, and that it is not only the mohajirs but all the citizens of Sind who are affected by this state of affairs. Again, these questions would have been meaningless if the problems faced by the mohajir community had been related to the manner in which the state is governed, or to the prevalent taxation system, and the need to institutionalise the social and economic changes that have taken place in our country. It is precisely because the MQM has not bothered to make the connection between national and parochial interests that we find the MQM negotiating both with the PPP and the IJI – two diametrically opposed forces in the context of Pakistan – for ministerships, bureaucratic postings and peripheral benefits.

Perhaps it is because the mohajir leadership has recognised this divorce of the MQM from national issues, that it has called upon the exploited classes among other ethnic groups in Pakistan to follow the MQM example and struggle against their elite, while assuring them of the MQM’s support and assistance. However, the nature of struggle in other groups cannot follow the MQM pattern, nor can it be purely ethnic in nature, as every group’s sociological composition is complex and distinct. Here it may be mentioned that while Altaf Hussain speaks of class struggle to other groups, the mohajir elite seem to have no conflict with the MQM, because he has succeeded in uniting the posh residences of Clifton and Defence with the squatter colonies of Orangi and Qasba.

The solution to the real problem of not only the mohajirs, but of Sind in general, which includes a diffusion of the polarisation in the provinces, does not lie with the MQM but with the government which is to be formed at the centre and the PPP in the province. The most important part of this solution is related to the development of an effective system of local government throughout Pakistan, which, at the local level, generates adequate revenues and decides on their disbursement; sets its own development priorities and involves the people in planning and implementation; controls the police, development agencies and the bureaucracy and has the power to institutionalise the social and economic changes that are taking place.

A number of MQM demands for the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad indicate that they would support such measures. If such a system cannot be established, then in the long run, polarisation in Sind will not be diffused, new jobs will not be generated, and the inequities between the urban and rural areas, and between the different regions of Pakistan, will increase, irrespective of whether an understanding between the PPP and the MQM is arrived at or not. In the absence of a clear understanding and agreement between various groups about the causes of the inequities in Sind, and an agreed formula on how they should be tackled, any MQM-PPP agreement which is likely to take place, will be no more than a brief and turbulent honeymoon.

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