Sinhi-Muhajir Violence in Pakistan 1984-1992

[ 1984 - 1992 ]

But the long-festering division between Sindhis and non-Sindhis exploded into violence in Sindh. The muhajirs formed new organizations, the most significant-being the Refugee People's Movement (Muhajir Qaumi Mahaz). The incendiary tensions resulted not only from Sindhi-muhajir opposition but also from Sindhi fear of others who had moved into the province, including Baloch, Pakhtuns, and Punjabis. The fact that Sindhi was becoming the mother tongue of fewer and fewer people of Sindh was also resented. The violence escalated in the late 1980s to the extent that some compared Karachi and Hyderabad to the Beirut of that period. The growth of the illicit drug industry also added to the ethnic problem.

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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.

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. 

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.

Related Conflicts

No Releted Conflicts