Aug 13, 2008
The case of Muhajirs, Muslim refugees who migrated to Pakistan during Indian Partition in 1947, is unique in migration studies, says senior journalist Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed. Once a powerful community, it has slipped over a period from core to the periphery – now marginalised and divided by ethnic conflict.
By 1990, the city of Karachi was on the verge of becoming a second Beirut. The 1980s had seen increasing hostility between the Muhajirs (Muslims who migrated from India to Pakistan) and the Sindhis. Around 3,000 deaths had taken place since 1985 in Karachi and the smaller industrial city of Hyderabad.
All the ethnic communities of Pakistan had their ghettoes in the city – the Punjabis, the Sindhis, the Balochs, the Pathans and the Muhajirs. No person trusted the other and violent and bloody street battles had been fought between the Muhajirs and the Sindhis.
Around four decades earlier, many Muslims had migrated from India to their Promised Homeland, Pakistan – the Land of the Pure. They were the muhajirs – meaning refugees, but once the word is placed in its context it has a much more exalted meaning.
When the last Prophet of Islam, Mohammed, was spreading the message of Islam in Mecca his life was threatened by the Meccans, and Mohammed, along with his followers, migrated (performed the hijrat) to Medina. He was a muhajir and his protectors in Medina were the ansars.
The migrants from India had similarly run away from India and were welcomed in Pakistan with a fervour and generosity displayed by the original ansars.
In the initial days, in the period following Partition, the Muhajirs embodied and were responsible for the very idea of Pakistan. But by the 1980s, the Muhajir Qaumi Mahaz (MQM- Refugee Community Front) had been established to politically organise the Muhajir community and to air its grievances.
Partition and migration
In 1947, South Asia was witness to one of the largest forced migrations in world history when British India was partitioned into the states of India and Pakistan.
There is a general consensus that close to 15 million people were uprooted from their homes.
While more than 8 million Muslims migrated to the newly-created state of Pakistan, 6 million Hindus and Sikhs migrated to India.
This does not include the tally of the more than a million people who were killed in the accompanying riots.
Lahore, which was a multi-religious city, suddenly became a Muslim city. Many of the Muslims who migrated to Pakistan settled in Lahore and Karachi, changing these cities greatly.
In the first census that was taken in Pakistan, in 1951, Muhajirs accounted for 10% of the population (this figure became 20% after the formation of Bangladesh).
When we refer to Muhajirs as a political and ethnic group we usually mean the group of Muhajirs who migrated to Sindh.
Muslims who migrated to Pakistan settled in various parts of the country. Muslim Punjabis settled in the Pakistani part of Punjab, many Pathans settled in the North West Frontier Province, and both these communities, except for a few cases, were soon well integrated with the local population and their separate Muhajir identity gradually disappeared.
Unlike these two groups, the Urdu-speaking and the small number of Gujarati-speaking Muslims who had migrated from Delhi, the United Provinces, Central Provinces, Bombay and Hyderabad, tended to concentrate in the urban parts of Sindh, especially in the two cities of Karachi and Hyderabad, creating divisions between the rural Sindhi and the urban Muhajir.
It was difficult for the migrants to mix well with the locals as they differed from the Sindhi population in their cultural and religious habits. The process of integration was non-existent in several parts of Karachi and the initial friendly attitude of the Sindhis gave way to mild hostility with Sindhi politicians beginning to feel insecure.
Early years in Pakistan
Karachi was designated capital of the new state and since it already had a slight reputation as a commercial centre many of them decided to make it their home.
The Muslims who migrated to Pakistan during Partition belonged to four different (though not mutually exclusive) sections of society.
First was what Hamza Alavi calls the ‘salariat’. The salariat was the auxiliary class that consisted of journalists, urban intellectuals, bureaucrats, military officers, lawyers, teachers, etc. They were the vanguard of the Pakistan movement. Most of the Muslim League leadership belonged to this class and it consisted of the elite of Muslim society in India.
Muslim bourgeoisie formed the second category of people. Compared to the Hindu capitalist class in British India, Muslims were almost insignificant. They felt that there was great potential for commercial expansion and growth in a new country unfettered by competition from entrenched Hindu capitalists.
Many members of the ulema who migrated from India formed a leading support base for right-wing parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami. Much of the clergy had rallied behind the composite nationalism propagated by leading alims from Deoband, but once Pakistan was formed they chose to migrate.
The petty bourgeoisie, consisting of small merchants and artisans, formed the last category of Muslims who migrated. They moved reluctantly but once they went over they goaded their friends and relatives living in India to come and join them.
The Muslim migrants had formidable experience of political activity and had a strong and mobilised identity based on group interest politics. There was also a feeling among the Muhajirs that they shared a common experience of displacement and some of them even had a mild disdain for the culture of the nativists.
The migrants also were better educated and qualified for administration, and were much more suited to control the various organs of the state. They dominated the political (Muslim League leadership), bureaucratic (Muslim civil servants working for the Government of India who migrated to Pakistan), mercantilist (capitalists from Bombay – the famous 22 families) and judicial organs of the new state.
Even the first cabinet of Pakistan was dominated by Muhajirs. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Liaqat Ali Khan, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Fazl-ul-Haq completely dominated the political space.
Changing conditions under military rule and Bhutto
The reign of Ayub Khan marked a shift in the status of the Muhajirs, and their decline began.
Khan initiated the One-Unit Policy in 1958, making West Pakistan a single unit to counter the populous East Pakistan, shifting the political power base from the Muhajirs to various indigenous groups.
He also shifted the capital to Islamabad. Earlier, until the capital was in Karachi, most migrants felt empowered as Karachi was becoming a Muhajir city.
When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a Sindhi, became the prime minister in the 1970s, he initiated several policies that favoured Sindhi since most of his support was drawn from the province of Sindh. He changed the quota system in 1971 for recruitment to the federal services, leading to a loss in job opportunities for the Muhajirs.
Bhutto made Sindhi the sole official language of Sindh in 1972, sparking off major rioting by Muhajirs who perceived this move as targeted against them.
Before this, the official language of Sindh was Urdu and it was associated with the Muhajirs who were the economically dominant new settlers. With mounting pressure, Bhutto relented and both Urdu and Sindhi were made official languages of the province.
During this period, the Pakistani government nationalised large industrial and financial units and many Muhajirs felt that this was particularly targeted against their successful Karachi-based businessmen.
This was also the period when there was talk of carving out a ‘Mahajaristan’ from Sindh by additions from the Biharis of Bangladesh who were persona non grata in the newly-created nation of Bangladesh.
Bhutto’s chosen military head Zia-ul-Haq executed Bhutto, blatantly disregarding the judicial system. During the period of his martial law he shrewdly encouraged communal violence among Muhajirs, Pathans and Punjabis. In his military regime, preference was given to military personnel, largely consisting of Punjabis and Pathans, leading to the further sidelining of Muhajirs.
Establishment of the MQM
All these factors were responsible for the gradual politicisation of the Muhajirs, culminating in the birth of the MQM, founded in 1984 by Altaf Hussain who was a victim of the quota system.
Hussain articulated the idea of the Muhajir being the ‘fifth nationality’ within Pakistan, the first four being Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun and Baloch.
In early-1987, the MQM issued its Charter of Demands which showed how the Muhajirs were reconciling themselves to the fact that their glory days would never return and now they were trying to strike an alliance with the Sindhis.
Some of the educated, unemployed lower-middle class youth among the Muhajirs were also involved in a separatist struggle for an autonomous area variously described as ‘Jinnahpur’ or ‘Urdudesh’.
By the early-1990s, the MQM became notorious for its violence and its leader Altaf Hussain began to manage the party from the UK.
The Muhajir Qaumi Mahaz renamed itself the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (Combined Community Movement) in 1997, recasting itself as a national party against ‘feudal domination’, and is trying to make inroads into other parts of the country.
Three concluding remarks can be made after this brief narrative of Muslim migrants to Pakistan.
Firstly, the Muhajir has moved from the core to the periphery of Pakistan. When Partition occurred, migrants to Pakistan were welcomed.
The idea of Pakistan was conceived and fought for in provinces where Muslims were a minority and these people felt that they formed the core of Pakistan. Over the course of the four decades, this group began to feel that it was a different ‘nationality’ itself. There is no other instance in global migration where such an event has taken place.
Secondly, what does the behaviour of the migrants mean for the identity of Pakistan? The entire foundational premise of the state of Pakistan was commonality of faith, but Pakistan failed in this litmus test way back in 1971 when Bangladesh was formed.
Thirdly, the Muhajirs managed to bring about some changes in the class structure of Sindh. Having settled mainly in urban parts of the province they became the new bourgeoisie. With their high levels of literacy, political and business acumen and solidarity they effected fundamental changes in the polity, economy, society and culture of Sindh.
The case of the Muhajirs is rather unique in migration studies because of the way in which the migrants moved from the core to the periphery. It deserves to be further researched because there has been no other human movement of this sort in the world where a migrant population has behaved in this way.