Don’t stoke the fire

May 25,2019

Karachi has seen a lot, pain and pleasure. After a long time, the city is enjoying relative peace. For the past two decades, we have not the witnessed mass-scale ethnic and sectarian riots that...

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Karachi has seen a lot, pain and pleasure. After a long time, the city is enjoying relative peace. For the past two decades, we have not the witnessed mass-scale ethnic and sectarian riots that Karachi experienced intermittently from the 1960s to the 1990s. Yes, street crimes are there but their intensity has waned. Apart from occasional car theft and phone snatching, big crime has been controlled. For this transformation, both the Sindh government and state institutions deserve credit. Though Karachi has not been turned into heaven, it is no more the hell it was.

So, now what is this talk about a new province and where it is emanating from? Who are the forces that off and on resurrect an issue that should have been buried long ago? Not that new administrative units don’t emerge in the world – they do. Not that creating new provinces in a country is a bad thing – it is not. The issue is the manner and the timing in which it is raised again and again. Remember how, in the early 1990s, an alleged plot was unearthed to create a new country in Karachi called Jinnah Pur? That was used as an excuse to crush the MQM ruthlessly by unleashing a new faction within it. Prior to that, the emergence of the MQM itself, led by Altaf Hussain, is not a secret. So, if you look at the ethnic politics of Karachi, you must remember that in the early 1950s, the city was a centre of left-wing and progressive politics. The Democratic Student Federation led by the likes of Dr Muhammad Sarwar, Dr Adeeb Rizvi, Dr Haroon Ahmad, Dr Rahman Hashmi and many others was a vibrant voice of the political left.

When the National Awami Party was formed in 1957, it was Karachi that became a favourite place of democratic leaders such as Bizenjo, Bhashani, G M Syed, Iftikharuddin, Shaukat Ali, Suhrawardy, Wali Khan, and many others. The city was always welcoming to emerging ideas and parties on the intellectual and political horizon of the country. After Partition, there were many Urdu-speaking migrants who had settled in Karachi and other urban areas of Sindh and involved themselves in progressive politics. Their names are too many to cite here.

In the following decades, these comrades had established good relations with Sindhi comrades such as Sobho Giyanchandani, Jam Saqi, Nazeer Abbasi, Suhail Sangi, Dr Jabbar Khattak, Shabbir Shar, Arbab Kuhawar, Ghulam Rasul Sehto, Mir Thebo, and many others including Rasul Bakhsh Palijo who had strong likes and dislikes. But these comrades had to work under tremendous difficulties, since state institutions never tolerated any progressive politics in the country. They were constantly arrested, harassed, and hounded by state functionaries, right from the early years of Pakistan through the dictatorships of generals Ayub, Yahya, and Zia.

It was during General Ayub Khan’s dictatorship that the landscape of Karachi and Sindh once again changed drastically. After the huge influx of Urdu-speaking people from India in the 1940s and 1950s, now the next influx came from the former NWFP and Punjab in the 1960s. The creation of One Unit in 1955 after the dissolution of provinces in the western wing of Pakistan, had spurred mass migration to Sindh from upcountry. This process gained momentum when Gen Ayub Khan usurped power in the country.

The appointment of the Nawab of Kalabagh as the governor of West Pakistan also facilitated this move as he was very keen to appoint Pashtun and Punjabi officials across Pakistan, especially in Balochistan and Sindh. A turning point in Sindh’s politics came about in 1965 when both Sindhi and Urdu-speaking people of Sindh unequivocally supported Fatima Jinnah against Gen Ayub Khan. They outright rejected Ayub Khan’s sham election and from then onwards there was no soft corner in state institutions for Karachi because they had voted for democracy and rejected dictatorship.

It was only after the demolition of the left-wing politics, initiated in the early 1950s and completed in the 1960s by Gen Ayub Khan, that Karachi had no option but to turn to religious parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami led by the likes of Professor Ghafoor Ahmed and Munawwar Hasan in Karachi, and Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Pakistan led by Maulana Shah Ahmad Noorani. The elections of 1970 saw covert support by Gen Yahya and his cabal to religious parties, especially in Karachi and Hyderabad. The result was that while the rest of Sindh voted for Z A Bhutto, Karachi and Hyderabad swayed toward the JI and the JUP.

The Urdu-speaking population of Karachi somehow fell into the trap of dividing Sindh on ethnic and linguistic lines. The introduction of Sindhi language as the medium of instruction in some schools and as a compulsory subject in all schools was a positive step, which should have been supported by the people of Karachi and Hyderabad. Unfortunately this didn’t happen, and opposition to Sindhi language caused an irreparable damage to Sindhi-Urdu relations. While Sindhis were eager and willing to learn and speak Urdu, the Urdu-speaking population kept aloof from Sindhi.

As a result, even now, when almost all Sindhis can speak and understand Urdu, the ‘Mohajirs’ – including the family of this writer – cannot speak Sindhi. A lack of opportunities to learn Sindhi, especially in Karachi, has also contributed to this alienation. Most Sindhi friends don’t speak Sindhi to me even if I insist that I can understand it. They start in Sindhi but quickly turn to Urdu, wrongly assuming that there is a communication gap.

With this background, the 1970s saw an increased rift between Sindhi and Urdu speakers, resulting in a mass agitation mostly in Hyderabad and Karachi against Z A Bhutto in the aftermath of the general elections of March 1977 which were allegedly rigged. General Zia had a special soft corner for Mohajirs as the JI became one of the prime beneficiaries of the dictatorship. While most of Sindh simmered in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Urdu speakers of urban Sindh largely remained unconcerned even after Bhutto was hanged and his family and party workers were targeted.

With the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in the early 1980s, it became clear that Sindh was burning; and apart from the feudal elite that was corrupt and venal, most Sindhi people were not ready and willing to tolerate General Zia. This was the deciding factor behind the sudden and rapid emergence of Altaf Hussain and his MQM. The dictatorship of General Zia, which was not ready to brook any opposition, was not only tolerant but encouraging towards the MQM. A heavy and strong counterweight had been created in Sindh that could perpetually challenge and force the PPP to bend and bow to its demands.

This counterweight stood in good stead for the establishment when the PPP was deprived of its majority in the general elections of 1988. After the initial honeymoon with the first Benazir government, Altaf Hussain ditched her and sided with the then political stooge, Nawaz Sharif. This parting of ways of the MQM from the PPP when BB was in trouble sowed the seeds of long-lasting misunderstandings in Sindh. Interestingly, it was Nawaz Sharif during whose first government from 1990 to 1993 the MQM was made to bear the brunt of the state’s wrath. The 1990s was a seething cauldron for the MQM.

General Musharraf was a benefactor of Altaf Hussain and the MQM. After Musharraf, the PPP (led by Zardari) once again involved the MQM in coalition government though there was no compulsion to do so in Sindh. But continued miscalculations by Altaf Hussain resulted in a complete breakdown of communication between the MQM and the PPP. Now the MQM is out of power and deprived of even its legitimate rights. For example, the PPP government’s attitude towards handing over local bodies’ powers has affected not just Karachi and the MQM but Sindh overall too.

But the demand for a separate province will greatly harm Sindh and its people once again. Those in power should not play with fire, and let Karachi live peacefully. There is a need to reinitiate discussions between the MQM and the PPP to agree on a mutually beneficial formula for governance.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad



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