How Urdu-Speaking Muhajir Domination Shaped Pakistan

Urdu-Speaking Muhajirs accounted for 3.5 percent of united Pakistan’s population in the 1960s but they occupied 21 percent of the positions in the civil services that helped them shape the country in its infancy including through the adoption of their mother tongue as the national language

Urdu-Speaking Muhajir accounted for 3.5% of population in the 60s but occupied 21% positions in the civil services
A bulk of Urdu-speaking Muhajirs from India made Karachi their home after Pakistan’s creation as the city was then the newly-founded country’s capital. Associated Press

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In November 2019, the Indian media suddenly pulled Altaf Hussain, a British citizen and the expelled leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) representing Pakistan’s Urdu-speaking Muhajir community, out of oblivion. He was given hours of airtime to praise India and condemn his country of origin.

‘Insiders’ such as Hussain have been most sought-after in much of allied media since the emergence of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Pakistanis and ex-Pakistanis reinforcing the negative view of their country have been regulars on prime-time debates, which have been among the mainstays for TV channels to boost their ratings.

The constant desire for this reinforcement has grown of late. But it predates the rise of the Hindu right as the predominant force in Indian politics. Indian liberals and secularists were more subtle and intellectualized in credibly establishing their moral superiority over Pakistan.

Hussain, once a great proponent of secularism in Pakistan, appeared on Indian TV channels days after justifying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right to impose Hindu rule. It was also clear that reports about the deterioration in Hussain’s physical and mental health were true. Hussain slurred through the course of his interviews, struggled to collect his thoughts, and was incoherent while his interviewees chose not to speak about the serious charges that he faced.

Manisha Pande of, one of the independent, liberal digital media platforms that have mounted some challenge to the monopoly that the far-right has over the mainstream TV media, was perhaps the only journalist to point to Hussain’s problematic background.

In her show titled ‘TV Newsance’ reflecting the nuisance that most prime debates have become, Pande cited the terrorism offense Hussain was charged with in the United Kingdom in October 2019 for inciting violence in Pakistan. Hussain has lived in the UK since the 1990s when he fled Pakistan to escape prosecution for inciting ethnic rioting in Karachi.

Pande got most things right about Hussain except the background of Pakistan’s Urdu-speaking Muhajir community he belongs to. She likened Mujahirs to around two million people, who were effectively stripped of their citizenship in India’s north-eastern state of Assam as part of an exercise under the pretext of identifying ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’.

There could not have been a more farfetched comparison than this. It reflected, to put it mildly, the lack of understanding in India about Pakistan even among the liberal circles. To put the process in Assam in perspective, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in November 2019 said it was being used to target and disenfranchise the state’s Muslim population.

Assam has around 34 percent Muslims, but there is no Muslim representative in the state government. The increasing invisiblisation of the Muslim minority, accounting for 14 percent of the population, has been one of the manifestations of India’s radical transformation.

None of the 36 Indian states or federally administered territories have an elected Muslim head or chief minister. There is no Muslim elected official in 15 states; 10 have one each mostly in charge of the insignificant minority affairs. None of the ruling BJP’s 303 lawmakers in India’s lower House of Parliament is Muslim.

The BJP chose not to re-nominate its three Muslim lawmakers to Parliament’s Upper House in 2022, which forced the lone Muslim federal Cabinet minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who headed the minority affairs ministry, to quit. Even the so-called secular political parties dependent on Muslim voters have been trying to avoid being identified with Muslims and forget about speaking up for them. They can no longer afford to be seen close to Muslims even when they are targeted in what journalist Shekhar Gupta called a ‘21st-century form of colonial-style collective punishment’ of demolition of houses.

Most political parties chose silence when 11 men accused of raping Bilkis Bano and murdering 14 members of her family, including her infant daughter during the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, walked free and were welcomed with sweets and garlands.

The New York Times called the case of Bano ‘a tragic reflection of India’s halting progress in addressing violence against women and of the deepening divides engendered by swelling Hindu nationalism.’ A BJP lawmaker added insult to injury by justifying the premature release of the 11 convicts saying they were Brahmins (highest caste Hindus) with good values.

Many well-meaning liberals have been comparing the situation of Indian Muslims with Pakistan’s Urdu-speaking Muhajir community. But the two are incomparable. The Urdu-speaking Muhajir community accounts for just 10 percent of Pakistan’s population but has had a disproportionate influence in shaping that country. They accounted for 3.5 percent of united Pakistan’s population in the 1960s when Bengalis were the largest ethnic group but occupied 21 percent of the positions in the civil services.

The Urdu-speaking Muhajir domination over bureaucracy ensured that their mother tongue—Urdu—became the country’s national language while 96.5 percent did not speak it as their first language. The move alienated the majority Bengali population and catalyzed a separatist movement in East Bengal that culminated in its secession and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

The Gujarati family of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, settled in Karachi much before the Partition, but Muhajirs consider him as one of their own. Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was also an Urdu-speaking Muhajir. The dominant position they found themselves in as the most educated and urban community in Pakistan helped their attempts to create a homogenous national identity.

They sought to subsume Pakistan’s ethnic and linguistic diversity to make up for their fewer numbers compared to other ethnic groups. The promotion of Urdu at the cost of other regional languages was an important element of it. The Urdu-speaking Muhajir community started losing its domination with the rise of Pakistan’s first military ruler, Ayub Khan, who began mainstreaming his fellow Pashtuns by offering them stakes beyond military service.

Urdu speakers resented him and backed Jinnah’s sister, Fatima, in her unsuccessful campaign against Ayub Khan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rise in the 1970s led to a resurgence of his fellow Sindhis, who had become a minority in Karachi and other parts of urban Sindh.

Sindhis accounted for Karachi’s 61 percent population in 1941. However, their share in the city’s population was reduced to 8.5 percent 10 years later with the influx of the Urdu-speaking Muhajir community from India to Karachi. A large number of them staffed the new state in its then-federal capital. The Sindhis also became a minority in other major urban centers of Sindh like Hyderabad.

The Urdu-speaking Muhajir community backed Zia-ul-Haq as he toppled Bhutto and had him executed after a sham trial in 1979. Zia and Pakistan’s powerful military establishment propped up the MQM to counter the popularity of Bhutto’s party and his political heir, Benazir Bhutto, in Sindh even as both were genuine national leaders.

The establishment turned a blind eye as the MQM began using violence to target its opponents. It created an armed militant wing, which has been accused of extortion, smuggling, gunrunning, and murdering policemen, journalists, and politicians. The strength of the wing is believed to have been larger than the Karachi Police.

Hussain would maintain his hold over Karachi and MQM thanks to the militant wing, issue orders via speakerphone and Skype, and call for strikes at will. He openly asked his supporters to prepare the body bags of those who dared to oppose him. Thousands were killed as ethnic violence regularly convulsed Karachi. The violence in Karachi in the 1990s prompted Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to crack down on the MQM, which also remained relevant as regular fractured mandates ensured that they needed the party to govern Pakistan.

Top political leaders would regularly visit Hussain in London to seek his support and to keep him in good humour as he maintained his stranglehold over Karachi, the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy. The MQM under Hussain’s leadership in 2013 swept Karachi again. It won 16 out of the city’s 20 seats in the national Parliament. Nawaz Sharif, too, managed a simple majority on his own and did not need MQM’s support. This allowed him to order an operation in Karachi that ended up disarming MQM’s militant wing and cutting Hussain to size.

Hussain could no longer shut down Karachi. He began to lose his grip over the party amid a deterioration in his mental and physical health. His decline strengthened other MQM leaders, who sought to end the culture of violence that had sullied the image of the community otherwise known for its high culture.

Hussain, who was also accused in the murder of MQM co-founder Imran Farooq in 2010 in London, has of late become a butt of jokes and memes with his drunken antics, awkward dance, and shrieking. The son of a refugee couple from Agra until 2009 faced 31 allegations of murder. He was an unlikely leader of the Muhajirs, who prided themselves on their sophisticated high culture and as the founders of Pakistan.

The MQM has also over the last few years splintered. Various factions of the party have focused on the need for the Urdu-speaking Muhajir community to assume the role of being arbiters of Pakistani nationalist politics again. The biggest faction of MQM, which Hussain headed from London until he was expelled from the party in 2016 for inciting an attack on a TV channel, has two ministers in Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s federal council of ministers.

The MQM has shared power in Islamabad since the 1990s even under Hussain’s leadership and dominated Pakistan’s economic nerve center of Karachi, which generates 55 percent of the country’s revenue. The cases against Hussain, MQM leaders, and cadres were put into cold storage when General Pervez Musharraf helmed the country for nine years and depended heavily on their support.

Musharraf, also an Urdu-speaking Muhajir, has been among Pakistan’s most influential and one of its four military rulers. Zia-ul-Haq, another military dictator who ruled for 11 years, was a Punjabi-speaking Muhajir from Jalandhar. Azamgarh-born Urdu-speaking Muhajir Mirza Aslam Beg succeeded Zia as one of the most powerful heads of the Pakistan army.

The disproportionate Urdu-speaking Muhajir influence in Pakistan has waned since the 1960s when other sub-nationalities began getting their share of power. If they have to be compared at all with any community in India, then it has to be with the upper caste.

Like the upper caste, the primary Urdu-speaking Muhajir grievance has been the policy of affirmative action that chipped away at their dominance. In India, the upper castes have generally resented the affirmative action that the so-called former untouchables and the other ‘lower caste’ get along with a tenuous share in the power that once Muslims enjoyed.

The upper castes remain entrenched in India’s power and wealth-generating structures even as they have been forced to go slow in dismantling affirmative action to be more accommodative towards the lower castes to break their social and political alliances with the Muslims. These alliances briefly ended in the 1990s and noughties the disproportionate upper-caste share in power at least in the Hindi heartland states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The upper castes comprise less than 20 percent of India’s population.

Urdu speakers were not also the only Muhajirs that made Pakistan their home in 1947. A much larger chunk of an estimated 4.6 million Punjabi Muslims migrated to Pakistan from places like Amritsar, which was virtually emptied of its Muslim residents, as a result of the violence that the subcontinent’s division triggered.

Muslims accounted for 49 percent of Amritsar’s population before the Partition. The proportion of Muslims in the city’s population fell to just 0.52 percent in 1951 as the post-Partition violence left tens of thousands dead and led to a virtual exchange of populations between the Indian and Pakistani sides of Punjab.

Similarly, Kapurthala in Indian Punjab had a 60 percent Muslim population before the Partition; a fraction of the Muslims—mostly recent migrants from other parts of India—now live there. The Punjabi Muslims displaced from Indian Punjab found refuge in cities like Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), where they accounted for 69 percent of the city’s population in 1951. They dominate businesses in the country’s third-largest city, which is also known as Pakistan’s Manchester for its textile production.

Punjabi Muhajirs have had a dominant role in business, politics, and other walks of life nationally as well as in Pakistan’s biggest province (Punjab). Three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shehbaz Sharif, whose family was forced to move from Amritsar to Lahore in 1947, have been among the most prominent Punjabi Muhajir politicians in Pakistan since the 1980s.

Shehbaz Sharif has also been Punjab chief minister four times and is the current Prime Minister. The Sharifs represent Lahore’s Amritsari ruling and business elite. Amritsaris maintain their distinct cultural imprint in Lahore. Muslim refugees from Amritsar were the first to land in Lahore. This advantaged them over other refugees. Familial, cultural, and business ties in Lahore helped Amritsaris establish themselves better in Lahore and they virtually run it. They have invested their wealth in cultivating political influence beyond Lahore and Punjab. Several prominent Pakistanis like champion cricketer Wasim Akram have roots in Amritsar.

Other non-Urdu-speaking Muhajir communities include Gujaratis, who dominate businesses and stock markets in Pakistan. In the 1960s, 36 out of Pakistan’s 42 largest industrial groups belonged to Gujarati/kutchi/kathiawaris with roots in the Indian state of Gujarat. They accounted for 0.4 percent of Pakistan’s population, but the Gujarati trading communities controlled 43 percent of the country’s industrial capital’ during the decade.

Urdu-speaking Muhajirs continue to be Pakistan’s most literate community and run big businesses and hold top positions. Arif Alvi, Pakistan’s president, is a Muhajir and so are notable Pakistanis from all walks of life. Muhajirs from Delhi, for instance, own Pakistan’s biggest media house Jang Group. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, was also an Urdu-speaking Muhajir from Bhopal.

Only Urdu speakers among the Muslim refugees from India, who mainly came from educated and urban backgrounds, chose to continue identifying themselves as Mujahirs because of the exalted status of the term in Islamic history. The term is used for the Prophet Muhammad and the people who migrated with him from Mecca to Medina to escape religious persecution. The Ansars or local inhabitants of Medina accepted Muhajirs from Mecca as the leaders of the nascent Muslim community in the seventh century.

In Islamic tradition, it is believed that Muhajirs are blessed to prosper since the Prophet was one too. And contrary to the enduring myth in India, the term Mujahir is not derogatory by any stretch of the imagination.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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