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The Muhajirs in the promised land

By Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

The Muhajirs of Pakistan were the Muslims who migrated to Pakistan after Partition. They were going not as refugees but as citizens of a promised homeland - a country for Muslims where they would not face political or religious discrimination. How then did the Muhajirs of Pakistan, four decades later, find themselves moved from the core to the periphery, marginalised and divided by ethnic conflict?

By 1990, the city of Karachi was on the verge of becoming a second Beirut. The '80s 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. The army had to be called in and a journalist for The Guardian wrote in a report dated July 16, 1990: "For a week or more, Karachi resembled a ghost city, its citizens too scared or prudent to leave their homes. Now the streets and bazaars are busy again. But, according to the universal testimony, it is not a recovery but a lull."

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 Muhajirembodied 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 Muhajircommunity and to air its grievances. Its founder, Altaf Hussain, proclaimed that the Muhajirs were the fifth nationality in Pakistan.

What had happened in these four decades? Why did this group of people feel that they had been marginalised in the Pakistani polity? What did it mean for the identity of Pakistan itself, that a country established on the basis of a common religion was divided by ethnic/linguistic conflicts? And what does it mean for the shifting identities of migrants themselves?

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 1 million people who were killed in the accompanying riots (1).

Almost all of us have seen images or films (re-enactments) of the manner in which these migrations occurred. Two iconic images are etched in my mind, most probably from my school history textbook. First, a long winding snake of people and assorted paraphernalia of rural life -- bullock carts, goats and the like -- stretches across a barren plain. Many of the men wear turbans and dhotis and some of them are piggybacking little children. Some women are visible, their heads shrouded with the ends of their pallus. It was not uncommon to have more than 100,000 people moving in these caravans that stretched for more than 60 miles (2).

The second picture, even more striking, is of a train densely packed with people. The men cling on to every possible hold and the body of the train itself has disappeared under the mass of humanity. Almost all the men are swathed in blankets, their eyes listless and despondent. In both the images it is impossible to make out which religion the migrants belong to. People were uprooted from their homes and sent away to new places, changing the demographics and character of old cities and the new states.

Delhi, for example, was severely affected by the moving populations. Many Muslims whose families had lived in Delhi for centuries, left for Pakistan, while legions of Punjabis -- Hindus as well as Sikhs -- moved in, turning New Delhi into a Punjabi city (10% of all migrants came to Delhi and the city registered an amazing 90% growth in population from 1941 to 1951) (3). Many posh neighbourhoods of Delhi were initially established for the refugees. The almost negligible population of Muslims in the modern Indian state of Punjab is proof of the scale of Muslim migration that took place from these areas. Almost all the Hindus and Sikhs of modern Pakistan (West Pakistan, when it was created) fled to India. 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).

The Muhajirs

When we refer to Muhajirs as a political and ethnic group we usually mean the group of Muhajirswho 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 Muhajiridentity gradually disappeared (4).

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(5). 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.

The meaning of the word Muhajiris further complicated because there is a difference of opinion among migrants to Sindh themselves about the definition of muhajir. Many older Muhajirsdo not refer to their children and grandchildren as Muhajirs because they were born in Pakistan. But some amongst the younger generation of Muhajirs in Pakistan choose to consciously identify themselves as Muhajirs(6).For the remainder of the article, when I use the word MuhajirI am referring to the Muslims who migrated from India to urban parts of Sindh.

Early years in Pakistan

In the decades leading up to the partition of India, the Muslim League went from strength to strength. In a masterful stroke of political strategy it managed to lure Mohammed Ali Jinnah to its side and then there was no stopping the stubborn lawyer. The League's organisation grew in stature but its support, much to Jinnah's chagrin, was limited to Muslim minority provinces. Its leading lights were landlords and the urban intelligentsia, a significant section having gone through the portals of Aligarh Muslim University. Till 1946, Jinnah's rhetoric of a separate state hardly drew any support from Punjab and Bengal (the two provinces with the most number of Muslims) while support in the Muslim minority provinces was significant. When the state of Pakistan, moth-eaten as it was, came into being, these Muslims from India who had been vociferous supporters of the Muslim League migrated to Pakistan. Many also fled fearing for their own personal safety. For many of them it was something they had never imagined they would have to do.

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 (7).

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 of these Muslim businessmen belonged to minority Shiite groups in Bombay Presidency (8). Their hopes were realised in Pakistan and the community of Halai Memons, several of whom had migrated from India, controlled 26.5% of private capital in Pakistan in 1959 when they formed only 0.16% of the population (9). Many of them preferred to migrate to Karachi because it had a port, was the new capital of the state and because it had cultural links with the city of Bombay.

Many members of the ulema who migrated from India formed a leading support base for right-wing parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami (10).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 (11).

Many of the Muslims who migrated to Pakistan (once they realised that they did not have an alternative) went with almost a proprietary sense. They were going to their country -- a country for Muslims where they would not face political or religious discrimination. Their personal sacrifices were felt to have been responsible for the creation of Pakistan. In this sense, Muslims who migrated to Pakistan did not consider themselves refugees. Many historians and political commentators often draw an analogy between Israel and Pakistan, as in both cases the migration was to a Promised Homeland.

As has been written earlier, the Muhajirs were at the forefront of the struggle for Pakistan. Political activity in the provinces that eventually formed Pakistan was peripheral to the whole movement for Pakistan. 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 Mujahirs 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) (12), and judicial organs of the new state.

Even the first cabinet of Pakistan was dominated by Muhajirs.Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Liaqat Ali Khan, I I Chundrigar, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Fazl-ul-Haq completely dominated the political space. Raja Ghaznafarali Khan, Minister for Rehabilitation of Refugees, made sure that migrants were allocated land on a fair basis. Muslim Muhajircivil servants tended to help immigrant businessmen. As many of these migrants did not have local support, they were simply co-opted in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly. Chaudhary Khaliquzzaman, a senior member from the United Provinces, was made responsible for the Muslim League party in Pakistan. The MuhajirMuslim League-dominated central ministry went so far as to dismiss the Nawab Mamdot-led Punjab ministry in its efforts to have a strong centre, setting the tone for a provincial and centre Muslim League clash. Liaqat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan, and a Muhajir himself, levied a Muhajir tax to rehabilitate the refugees (13). This and other assistance schemes given to the migrants were resented by the locals.

Changing conditions under military rule and Zulfiqar Bhutto

The Muhajirsdominated the central government and the Karachi business sector, but 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 (14). Earlier, until the capital was in Karachi, most migrants felt empowered as Karachi was becoming a Muhajircity (15). When the first census was taken in 1951 it was found that the Muhajirs formed more than 50% of the total population of Karachi. (The percentage of Muhajirsonly increased further, and in 1981 they accounted for 61% of Karachi's population [16].) Later, when the One-Unit Policy was reversed, Islamabad continued to remain the capital with Karachi becoming the provincial capital of Sindh; it became the scene of identity politics between the Sindhis and the Muhajirs.

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.The Muhajirs had always been overrepresented in the bureaucracy in proportion to their population, but with this scheme there were restrictions in the number of Muhajirs who could join the powerful federal services.

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 Muhajirswho 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 Muhajirsfelt that this was particularly targeted against their successful Karachi-based businessmen (17). 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 (18).

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.

Throughout this period Karachi continued to grow, considering that it was the commercial capital of Pakistan, with Pashtuns and Punjabis migrating to it in large numbers. The Muhajirsfelt increasingly threatened by this influx. They believed their community had been marginalised from among Pakistan's most significant national elites -- the civil bureaucracy, the military, and the business elite - and this led to a latent antagonism. The seething discontent led to riots in the 1980s.

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. He became the totalitarian leader of this organisation and most of its hardcore cadre was thoroughly brainwashed into believing that they were marginalised people in Pakistan (19).

Hussain articulated the idea of the Muhajir being the 'fifth nationality' within Pakistan, the first four being Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun and Baloch (20). In early-1987, the MQM issued its Charter of Demands which showed how the Muhajirswere reconciling themselves to the fact that their glory days would never return and now they were trying to strike an alliance with the Sindhis (21). Some of the educated, unemployed lower-middle class youth among the Muhajirswere also involved in a separatist struggle for an autonomous area variously described as 'Jinnahpur' or 'Urdudesh' (22). The MQM achieved some success in Sindh and it did this by sidelining the right-wing religious parties whom the Muhajirs usually supported (23). In the November 1988 elections, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the MQM won in Sindh. The MQM was the third largest political party in the National Assembly.

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 Mahazrenamed 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 Muhajirhas moved from the core to the periphery of Pakistan. When Partition occurred, migrants to Pakistan were welcomed. The usage of Islamic terminology -- muhajir and ansar -- to describe what essentially was a refugee support system shows the extent to which religion was used to legitimise the influx. 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. An analogous situation would be if Zionists and their descendants in Israel began to feel that they had been marginalised and felt that they had to politically mobilise themselves.

Secondly, what does the behaviour of the migrants mean for the identity of Pakistan? While there are several arguments that Jinnah did not want a theocratic Islamic republic, what cannot be denied is that the rhetoric of a separatist Islamic state sustained the movement for 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. The non-Punjabi communities in Pakistan feel that the Punjabis have a disproportionate share of state resources. With the very core of Pakistan, the Muhajirs, feeling disgruntled with the state it can be said that religion has not managed to consolidate ethnically disparate people into a single nation in the case of Pakistan.

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. Large-scale migration has this effect; even Punjabi Muslims from India who migrated to Pakistani Punjab caused a slight disruption in cities like Faisalabad but the differences were not as acute as they were in cities in Sindh (24).

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.

(Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed completed his MA in modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and also holds a post-graduate diploma in print journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. Presently he is Principal Correspondent for Frontline in Bangalore)


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  12. Farooqi, M. Pakistan: Policies that Led to Break-up. New Delhi: Communist Party Publications, 1972, p 59 and 60
  13. Khan, Liaqat Ali. Speeches and Statements of Quaid-i-Millat Liaquat Ali Khan, 1941-1951. Coll and Ed M Rafique Afzal. Lahore: Research Society of Pakistan, 1967, p 508
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  18. Wright, p 199
  19. Dryland, p 131
  20. Ansari, p 165
  21. Kennedy, p 949
  22. Dryland, p 116. This is the only article where I have come across this claim. Dryland's research has relied substantially on oral sources. She does not give any footnote supporting her claim, so this claim seems sketchy
  23. Dryland, p 133
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InfoChange News & Features, July 2008