Sunday May 29, 2022

The crisis of Mohajir identity

September 07, 2016


The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.

Before we come to the question of who is a Mohajir, let me state at the outset that the crisis of Mohajirs is that of their underclass, not of the elite. Therefore, today you see a clear distinction between those who support the MQM and those who do not.

The MQM and its founder-leader Altaf Hussain have remained in the limelight for one reason or the other since 1987, when the party as the Muhajir Qaumi Movement – renamed the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in 1997 – had first won local government polls in major cities of Sindh, including Karachi. They have provided a structure to a sentiment that was seething for long among a large section of people whose forebears had migrated to those parts of British India which are now Pakistan from those parts of British India which are now India.

Currently, a lot is being discussed in academic circles and the media when it comes to the structure of the MQM as a political party, the turmoil it faces after the scathing anti-state speeches made by its founder and the need for demilitarising its rank and file. However, the sentiment that shaped itself into the MQM is not being discussed as much.

So who is a Mohajir? The biggest migration in 1947 happened within the large province of undivided Punjab, when hundreds of thousands of Muslims from what are now the Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh migrated to what is now Punjab in Pakistan. It is estimated that about 80 percent of those who came from India lived in the British Indian Punjab which included three states in India and one province in Pakistan today. Initially, they were called Mohajirs by the natives of the districts they migrated to.

Even now you would find some older people referring to them as Mohajirs in some secondary towns and villages in Punjab. However, in Pakistan’s mainstream political parlance and social discourse for quite some time they are not Mohajirs. They are Punjabis because they migrated from within their old province. They spoke the same language, if not the same dialects.

Mohajirs as a category today would mean those whose ancestors migrated from areas of India other than Punjab. Derogatory words like Tilyar, Makkar, Matarwa or Panahgir – based on names of migratory birds or insects with certain characteristics, or even the term shelter-less – were also not used for immigrant Punjabis. ‘Hindustani’ was a more serious and respectable term used by the elderly in Punjab and Sindh for immigrants from the Indian states of Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh (which was then the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh), Madhya Pradesh (then called the Central Provinces and Berar), Bihar and Andhra Pradesh (then Hyderabad Deccan).

But over a few generations, it became difficult for people to call the children of those who had migrated from heartland India ‘Hindustani’ – as Hindustan was the name for India. The term ‘Mohajir’ gained more currency to describe these immigrants and their children. Besides, Mohajirs themselves liked it better as the term comes from Arabic and has a respectful religious connotation. It is used for those who leave their homes and migrate to another place for the cause of Islam.

However, the term was challenged by those among academia and media who thought that you cannot continue to be a Mohajir if you are settled in a place permanently for generations. And so the term ‘Urdu-speaking’ gained currency instead of Mohajir. Some also used ‘Urdu-speaking Sindhis’ for those who have settled in Sindh. But ‘Mohajir’ and ‘Urdu-speaking’ are the popular terms and also used interchangeably.

Therefore, the beginning of the Mohajir tragedy is their identity within Pakistan, which remains hitherto unsettled. Those who came from within Punjab remained Punjabis within Pakistan. But how would a large migrant population define themselves when they live among those who have their distinct ethnic, tribal, linguistic and cultural identities?

The ancestors of Mohajirs had come to Pakistan but had to settle in Punjab, Sindh, (then) NWFP and Balochistan. They did not realise that Pakistan was a concept and name given to a country, which in fact had areas with their own history and culture.

Today, even if we acknowledge that Mohajirs live everywhere in Pakistan, in practical political terms, the question is entirely limited to the province of Sindh. Their issues with the federation or with Punjab are not different from the issues of Sindh. But, as Pakistan progressed over the years and economic and political issues surfaced in Sindh, a part of the Mohajir leadership made claims to having a distinct ethno-linguistic identity in order to come at par with others.

I am afraid, though, that this does not solve their issue either. Yes, their ancestors had all come from what is now India but they had come from 15 diverse states within India. Will a person from Delhi in India claim the same ethnicity or linguistic association with a person from Srinagar, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad or Chennai? Why then do the children of those whose ancestors come from places as diverse as Meerut, Tonk, Malabar and Patna make a claim to a shared ethnicity?

Likewise, ‘Urdu-speaking’ is again a misnomer for everyone whose forebears migrated from what is now India. Scores of distinct languages were and are spoken in these different parts of India. Some are bigger languages than many spoken in Pakistan in terms of the number of people speaking them. Gujarati, for instance, which is spoken by Farooq Sattar and many others who support the MQM, is a major South Asian language.

A large part of Mohajirs from western India who live in urban Sindh had nothing to do with Delhi or UP. They spoke Memoni, Kathiawari, Malabari, Kokni and Katchi to name a few. Even many from Indian Punjab, Haryana and Kashmir who are settled in Karachi and vote for the MQM are not strictly Urdu-speaking if the term means identifying one’s mother tongue. Besides, those who have come from Assam, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala are all bracketed among the Urdu-speaking.

One may argue that now these communities settled in urban Sindh speak Urdu as their first language or even as their mother tongue. But if we take this as a rule, almost all of middle-class Punjabis across Punjab and Islamabad, and increasingly many among middle class Sindhis, Seraikis and Hindko-speakers and particularly those coming from mixed parentage including Pakhtuns and Baloch, speak Urdu as their first language of communication. Hence, using the term Urdu-speaking for a particular political community may well be seen as a respectful term for them but does not do justice to the language which is shared by a larger number of people and serves as the lingua franca.

Therefore, those settled in Sindh whose forebears had come from India can at best claim to have a political identity. That too is based only on their shared economic interest and fundamental rights due to living in a largely but not entirely contiguous geographical area within the province of Sindh.

The claim to an ethno-linguistic identity is farfetched. Asking for the division of the province is unjustified and wrong. The crisis of Mohajir identity can only end when those living in Sindh begin to believe in their Sindhi identity. Language/languages is not the only identity marker.

If Gujaratis and Tharis, and the Dhatki, Balochi, Brahvi and Seraiki speaking population that are settled in rural Sindh can all become a part of the larger Sindhi identity, those speaking Urdu and other languages as their mother tongues and living in urban centres of Sindh can also assimilate, politically first and culturally over generations. However, the enlightened Sindhi middle class also has to play a proactive role in making this happen.