Resultantly, the MQM, which carries the banner to safeguard the rights of migrants from India, has tucked up its sleeves and broken with the PPP. The use of the word ‘Muhajir’ by Syed Khurshid Shah has created quite a furor in and out of the legislature.

The conflict is not new. The Muhajirs, especially those residing in Sindh have always been sensitive about their ethno-cultural identity. More so has been the case with the local Sindhis who have the same kind of attachments with their language and culture. But to locate the pulse of the present conflict, we shall have to delve deep into history for reasons that never allowed the two communities to merge with each other.

Even before the formation of Pakistan, Sindhi nationalist sentiment was present.   

The act of making Sindh part of the Bombay Presidency in 1847 by the British was strongly resented by the Sindhis. They equated this with an attack on their socio-economic patterns. At last, the long political struggle for their disparate identity bore fruit – Sindh was separated from the Bombay Presidency in 1936, and given the status of a province.  But Sindh was never antagonistic to the communities that came in, adopted the Sindhi language, and assimilated into the culture of Sindh. There were Baloch and Punjabi settlers abiding the area with no problem.

Though Sindh was the first province that passed the resolution for the separate land of the Muslims, the awareness to protect their socio-economic values existed there along with the sense of ethno-nationalism. This awareness emanated from the apprehension that the Punjabis may dominate the scene after the establishment of Pakistan.

The fears were penned down by Pir Ali Muhammad Rashidi in a series of articles in G.M. Syed’s daily ‘Qurbani’, fuelling and fanning the ethnic fire against the Punjabis. But the fight back to reject such ethnic assertion was also present with all vigour. In a letter addressed to Jinnah just before the partition, G. H. Hidayatullah, a Sindhi leader, avowed ardent support for Pakistan. The same faith was shared by Abdus Sattar Pirzada, who later became the chief minister of Sindh. Mr. Pirzada said, “Sindh has been the gateway of Islam in India, and it shall be the gateway of Pakistan, too.”

At the time of partition, about seven million Indian Muslims crossed the border to reach Pakistan. The Muslims who reached Punjab from the East did not pose an ethnic threat to the local Punjabis because of the ethno-cultural similarities.

But the dichotomy emerged in Sindh where the migrants were different from the Sindhis in many respects. These migrants, who came from Uttar Pradesh, Bombay Presidency, Delhi, Hyderabad Deccan and Ajmer, had many things in common; the most noticeable being the Urdu language.

Shahid Kardar posits in his book, “Polarization in the region: The Roots of discontent,” that the first point of conflict between the Urdu speaking migrants and the local Sindhis cropped up when there surfaced the issue of the allotment of lands left by their Hindu counterparts while leaving for India. Such lands in Sindh sprawled the area of two million acres. Sindh assembly showed nimbleness to pass a bill requiring the allotment of these vast tracts of lands to the local Sindhis, but the Quaid-e-Azam intervened in before it was converted into law. Thus, the lands were allotted to migrants from India. But Altaf Hussain maintains a different story and feels miffed for not having allotted lands to the Muhajirs.  

The other points of conflict emerged when the Muhajirs made an alliance with the Punjabi dominated ruling class that imposed certain decisions against the desires of the Sindhi nationalists. Making Karachi the capital of Pakistan and the imposition of the ‘One Unit Plan’ were strongly opposed by the nationalist Sindhis, but supported by the Muhajirs much to the angst of the locals.

Then came the most venomous issue – ethnic strife. At the time of partition, Sindhi was the medium of instruction in state schools. The Sindhis proudly wielded it at the lower level of administration, judiciary and journalism. But in 1958, Urdu language replaced Sindhi as the medium of instruction at schools in the urban areas of Sindh. The Sindhis regarded it as a conspiracy by the Punjabi Muhajir nexus against the Sindhi language.  

Another factor, which estranged the Sindhis further from the Muhajirs, was the prominence of the latter in many affairs of the state. The Muhajirs, who were well educated, had settled in the urban areas of Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkar, gained dominance in politics, bureaucracy, military and business, leaving local Sindhis behind.

The Muhajirs’s fortunes kept soaring high until Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a Sindhi leader, rose to reign in the helms of affairs at Pakistan. Having assumed the premiership of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party introduced a set of reforms to soothe the Sindhis. The Sindhi language was again made the medium of instruction from July 1972 ensuing severe ethnic clashes between these two groups. Karachi for the first time, saw violence on its streets. The Muhajir students burned Sindhi books in the Institute of Sociology and Sindhi department at Karachi University. From here starts the tale of violence that still continues, but on different patterns.

Bhutto’s pro-Sindhi policies and later Zia’s pat on the Mohajirs further escalated the tension in urban areas of Sindh in the aftermath of the establishment of MQM in 1984.

Towards the end of the 80’s, the MQM emerged as a highly disciplined party with a well organized and widespread set-up in the big cities of Sindh. In the 1988 elections, the MQM broke through and the party came out to be the third largest in the National Assembly. Now it was in a position to resist and retort any onslaught aiming to slash the interests of the Muhajirs.

In the 1990’s, the MQM showed resolve to go to any lengths in bids to protect the rights of the Urdu speaking community in urban cities – it did not even flinch from using the tools of violence. With the inclusion of other hostile political, ethnic, sectarian and foreign elements, the turf got all the more exacerbated with vicious murders, target killings, extortions and abductions.  

If urban areas, especially Karachi, is to repossess peace and prosperity with business activity as it used to be in the first four decades of Pakistan, the MQM has to play a role as it is the biggest stakeholder. It should cease playing with the ‘Muhajir card’, as the PPP has been playing with the ‘Sindh card’. The differences ought to be settled within the four walls of the assemblies, not on the streets.

n    TThe writer is a lecturer at Punjab Group of Colleges, Lahore