Paramilitary rangers in armored vehicles warily patrol the narrow back-streets of a residential neighborhood in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. A few months ago the presence of state security forces would have surely ignited a fierce gun battle in this middle-class Muhajir locality, a strong support base for the Muhajir Qaumi Mahaz Party. But for now a weary calm prevails as boys playing cricket in the street move to make way for these guardians of a fitful peace.

    Muhajir (literally "migrant" in Urdu) refers to those Muslims from Central and Northern India who migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1947. Thousands of Muhajirs, largely from urban middle-class backgrounds, poured into Karachi, transforming this small trading town in the province of Sind into Pakistan's most important industrial and port city.[1] But recently, this rapidly expanding metropolis of eleven million inhabitants has become an urban theater for what many have described as a virtual civil war between the security forces of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's government and a heavily-armed, ethnically-based political party, the Muhajir Qaumi Mahaz (MQM or Muhajir National Front), which claims to represent the interests of Karachi's six million Muhajirs.

    Last year alone over 2,000 people were killed as a result of political violence. Entire Muhajir neighborhoods were transformed into battlefields as MQM youth fought with army rangers from the sandbagged balconies of apartment buildings. Despite government claims of having subdued the MQM militants, the death toll for 1996 has already reached 300.

    But the relative peace in the streets today does not mark the end of the conflict. Benazir Bhutto's government has quelled the unrest with sheer brutal force. The government policy of allowing the security forces to terrorize, plunder, and jackboot all over the Muhajir community has further alienated the mass of already disgruntled and disenfranchised Muhajirs, and increased their disillusionment with the very idea of Pakistan itself.

    The ethnic discourse of violence

    In order to understand the complexities of this recent conflict it is important to go beyond categories like ethnicity, even though it has become the discourse of choice for many in Pakistan. The discourse of ethnicity tends to naturalize polarities between "us" and "them," and locates the source of violence away from the state. Thus the reliance on "ethnicity" as a causal factor of political violence and instability masks the repressive role of the state — its legitimization of the use of violence as the means for political participation and negotiation; and in particular, the role of the military, which from the very outset of Pakistan's history, has attempted to control the political process and gear the state towards maintaining what Aysha Jalal calls a "political economy of defense."[2]

    The usage of an ethnic term (Muhajir) by the state and the national media has tended to reify a category which clearly has a series of historically variable meanings and associations. It was, for instance, only after the spectacular rise of the MQM, which in the 1980s established itself as the dominant political party in the urban centers of Sind, that an otherwise nominal sense of "Muhajir-ness" was transformed into a powerful ethno-political identity. And with every act of torture, brutalization, and injustice by the state, this sense of ethnic "difference" becomes violently inscribed onto the very body of the Muhajir community.

    As Pakistan's history is increasingly written in terms of mutilated bodies in gunny bags, the space for an as-yet-imagined nation is precariously being carved out. The alienation and increasingly separatist nationalism of Muhajirs is particularly ironic — since during the anti- colonial movement in British India it was the Muslims of Central and Northern British India, today's Muhajirs, who were the main supporters of the idea of Pakistan. Muhajirs helped bring the Pakistani state into existence — their disillusionment with the state represents one of the most significant ruptures in the narrative of Pakistani nationalism.

    The origins of the conflict

    The conflict between the MQM and the Pakistani state dates back to 1992's "Operation Clean-up," a government- initiated military operation, ostensibly aimed at cracking down on all "terrorist" and "criminal" elements in Sind, but which effectively became a witch hunt against the MQM. The MQM's charismatic albeit autocratic leader, Altaf Hussain, was forced into exile, and the party which had dominated Karachi politics since its founding in 1984 was forced underground. May and June of 1994 marked a period of violent resistance by a militant wing of the MQM, but in May 1995 the conflict took its most bloody turn. MQM militants resurfaced once again, systematically ambushing police patrols — using rocket launchers, they attacked a number of government offices and police stations. During the months that followed Karachi came to a virtual halt as the MQM and paramilitary forces battled it out on the city's streets.

    While sporadic ethnic and sectarian violence had been a permanent feature of the Karachi landscape since 1992, the intensity and organized nature of the 1995 round of conflict was entirely different. Analysts began to compare the situation in Karachi to the insurrection in Kashmir as the death toll during the months of June and July peaked at over 600 people, marking only the beginning of months of carnage that were to follow. A new set of sensationalistic evening dailies cropped up in Karachi — front pages adorned with pictures of bloodied, bullet- ridden, or severely tortured bodies — the state's swift and brutal retaliation ensuring these tabloids ample material for their daily commodification of death.

    The MQM leadership was counting on its use of escalated violence to force Benazir's governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to the negotiating table. While talks did open in June 1995, it was clear that the government was only biding its time. During a series of high level government meetings a virtual declaration of war was issued. What followed was a harrowing campaign of state violence and terror unleashed against the Muhajir citizenry.

    In its attempts to exterminate the militant core of the MQM, the state resorted to a calculated policy of collective punishment — massive pre-dawn "siege-and-search" operations and house-to-house searches that led to the illegal arrest and detentions of over 75,000 men between the ages of 12 and 50. Most of these men, often innocent relatives or friends of MQM activists, were blindfolded with their own shirts, paraded down to the local police station, and tortured or beaten until their families paid an extraction fee for their release. The state's counterinsurgency measures also included outright murder — in the daily newspaper reports of the deaths of MQM militants, "killed in police encounters" became an accepted euphemism for blatant extra-judicial killings. As Karachi's citizens endured conditions of unprecedented terror and harassment, the growing economic crisis was aggravated by MQM's calls for general strikes — 25 in 1995 alone — paralyzing the city at a cost of one billion rupees a day.

    This, of course, is not the first time the Pakistani state has unleashed violence against its citizens. Having emerged from the violent throes of a bloody partition, Pakistan — "homeland" for the Muslims of British India — has, from its very inception in 1947, been reeling from one crisis to another: three wars with neighboring India, the traumatic birth of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan); a series of ruthlessly suppressed separatist movements in Baluchistan and Sind, and a virtually continuous imposition of martial law. Almost immediately after Partition, ethnic struggles took the form of sub-national movements for greater autonomy and even separation from what is largely perceived as a Punjabi-dominated center. But the particular irony of today's Muhajir disillusionment with Pakistan is that during the anti-colonial movement in British India, it was the Muslims of Central and Northern British India, today's Muhajirs, who were the main supporters of the idea of Pakistan.

    State power was not always centered in the Punjab. After Partition, predominantly Urdu-speaking and urban middle-class Muhajirs took over the bureaucracy of the fledgling country and developed into a powerful elite. Urdu, the language of this minority, was made the national language, and until recently the Muhajirs were among the most vocal advocates of nationalist sentiments. However this sense of primary identification with Pakistan underwent a dramatic shift after the formation of the MQM.

    From loyalists to separatists

    What has accounted for the sudden change in Muhajir political loyalties? Over the years, the Muhajir community saw a decline in its share of state power, as a Punjabi- dominated military increasingly took hold over the state apparatus and strengthened its control over the formerly Muhajir-dominated bureaucracy. During the first military dictatorship (1956-1969), the capital was moved north from Karachi to Islamabad in the Punjab. Then when the Sindhi feudal landlord Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir's father, came to power, he instituted a series of reforms which effectively cut back at an already diminishing bureaucratic base that was the source of power for the Muhajirs. During the most recent military dictatorship, General Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) doled out many key government posts and huge land allotments to Punjabi military personnel and retired army officers.

    This process of Muhajir disenfranchisement from the corridors of power was accompanied by the overall impoverishment of the middle-class. Clientelism, corruption, and inflation cut further into the pool of available jobs, frustrating the urban educated youth. This situation paved the way for the popularity of Altaf Hussain's MQM Party. The MQM's initial demands were dedicated to specifically urban, middle-class concerns — increased quotas in government jobs and educational institutions, and a greater share of provincial revenue for expenditure on urban development. But despite the Party's indisputable resonance amongst Muhajirs, it is now widely accepted that the MQM, after its formal establishment in 1984, was supported and backed by the military dictatorship, in part to break the opposition to the military in province of Sind. A Sind-based movement opposing General Zia's military regime had been gaining ground, and by promoting the MQM, the General had hoped to break the opposition by dividing it on ethnic lines.

    Rise and fall of the MQM

    During General Zia's dictatorship, the MQM had emerged as a highly disciplined party with a well-organized and widespread grassroots network. The party structure virtually mimicked the organizational model of the previously dominant right-wing party the Jamaat-i- Islami.[3] Almost all of the Muhajir members of the Jaamat switched their loyalties overnight, as the MQM effectively eliminated the Islamist party's Karachi base. Tired of the traditional Muhajir stand which has usually revolved around fundamentalist support for a strong center and army and staunch opposition to India, many saw the MQM as a means of solving local issues that had been ignored by previous governments.

    As a result, after the sudden and fortunate death of General Zia, the 1988 election results revealed the MQM's strong popular base. The Party won almost all the Sind Provincial Assembly seats from Karachi, emerging as the third most important party at the national level despite its extremely local base. However, once in power, MQM realpolitik was marked by opportunism and a failure to address popular social agendas.

    By 1991 the MQM, in partnership with the Sind provincial government, unleashed a reign of terror in Karachi — raids, witch hunts, and mass arrests of political opponents became the norm. Heavily armed MQM militants operated as an organized, government supported Mafia, and extortion and coercion became the order of the day. Journalists who wrote anything critical of the MQM were hounded and newspapers offices were raided. The dismal behavior of the MQM's political leadership and the Party's turn towards bossism were part of a pattern that all political parties in Pakistan manifest to varying degrees once they control the state apparatus. The MQM's tenure in power became merely a new group's opportunity to loot and plunder. Still, the MQM's incorporation into the ruling coalition challenged the almost total hegemony of the military and feudal elite.

    At the height of its power, the MQM began to lose much of its popular support, and would have certainly lost the following elections if it was not for the massive deployment of the army under the aegis of "Operation Clean- up." Afraid that the monster that they had supported had gotten out of control, the military junta attempted to splinter the MQM by promoting a dissenting faction within the Party, led by former commanders of MQM's dreaded militant wing, the Black Tigers. At the crack of dawn on June 19, 1992, three hundred MQM dissidents backed by the army rangers took control over key MQM offices.

    In the months that followed, the MQM Party was crushed — its workers arrested or forced underground, their families brutalized. An army press campaign against the MQM "exposed" MQM torture chambers, and stories of rape and extortion flooded the front pages. That half of these stories were true made the exaggerated and fabricated claims all the more believable. Despite military backing the dissident group, known as the "real" or Haqiqi faction of the MQM, failed to gain any following at all. [4]Since the Muhajir community as a whole bore the brunt of a program of systematic intimidation and harassment by the state, even those Muhajirs who had previously not supported the MQM, or did not believed in the politicization of their Muhajir identity, now felt that they had no choice but to support Altaf's MQM.

    On February 18, 1994 Altaf Hussain addressed a packed Karachi hall, via telephone from London. His message articulated the audience's sentiments: "We sacrificed two million people to achieve Pakistan, not to see our children killed and elders humiliated by the law-enforcing agencies." The experience of state repression has resulted in important shifts in the MQM's operational strategy. From their early platform of middle-class socio-economic grievances, the MQM has switched to calling for greater administrative autonomy for Karachi and demanding a separate Muhajir province within Sind.


    The state's campaign against the MQM "terrorists" has delegitimized a political party with a solid constituency. After the army forced the removal of many elected MQM officials, the movement's reliance on electoral politics gave way to the armed insurrection of 1994-95. With the repeated use of violence by the state to control the political process, violence has come to be the only available means of political negotiation. The MQM's militancy has come to be seen by many, especially by the Muhajir youth, as the only means of obtaining access to resources and privileges.

    Many analysts have interpreted the MQM's separatist demands and militancy as opportunistic and desperate measures for regaining a foothold within national politics. The MQM's brief tenure in power had made it clear that although the Party had successfully exploited widespread discontent amongst Muhajirs, it was in effect just another Mafia group competing for a share of the national spoils with the largest dacoit, or bandit, of them all: the state.

    The Muhajir case illustrates the often paradoxical and imagined nature of socio-political identities, and casts light on the importance of contingency and historicity in the understanding of ethnic politics and emergent nationalisms. While state persecution has made ethnic identity the most important marker for Muhajirs, it does not entirely explain why the Muhajir masses have continued to rally behind the MQM. As we have tried to demonstrate, the Party's continued popular support is not merely a reflection of ethnic politics but signals a deeper crisis within the Pakistani state. Not only has the government's veneer of legitimacy collapsed, but an already tenuous national ideology is beginning to fracture at the seams.

    For Muhajirs of all classes the state is increasingly viewed as a corrupt and repressive institution representing the interests of a Punjabi-dominated army and a Punjabi-Sindhi feudal elite. With the nation on the brink of financial collapse, a result of rampant mismanagement and corruption by a whole series of regimes, similar sentiments are gaining ground among the Pakistani urban population at large.

    Not surprisingly, apprehension trails the armored rangers patrolling the Karachi's back streets: how long can the Bhutto government continue its facade of governance, and how many will they have to kill before dissent and discontent can be erased?

    Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali is a graduate student in Anthropology and History. Najeeb Jan is a graduate student in History.

      1. Pakistan inherited four provinces — Punjab at the center; the North West Frontier Province whose population is largely Pathan; Baluchistan (bordering Afghanistan and Iran); and Sind in the south. The partition of India led to an unplanned mass transfer of populations. While Muslims from East Punjab were settled in West Punjab, most of the Urdu-speaking refugees and migrants from the urban centers of Uttar Pradesh and central India, were settled in the cities of Sind, mainly Karachi, Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas, and Sukkur. return to text

      2. Ayesha Jalal, The State of Martial Rule: the Origins of Pakistan's Political Economy of Defense (Cambridge, 1990). return to text

      3. The Jamaat-i-Islami is Pakistan's strongest and best-organized Islamist party. While currently an official opposition party, it has historically relied on its collusion with martial law regimes (General Zia's most significantly), in order to gain political power. But this strategy has cost the party dearly in terms of electoral support. return to text

      4. The Black Tigers, formerly denounced as "terrorist" by the state, have now become the leaders of the state-supported dissenting group, the Haqiqis. The extortion of the business community by the Haqiqis, especially muhajir-owned businesses, is far worse now than when the MQM were in control of Karachi. return to text