By Maria Sartaj
March 10, 2016
“Acha toh aap log kahan ke rehne wale hain?” (So where are you from?) is one of the primary questions thrown around when matrimonial alliances in Karachi are in their beginning stages. The other party is expected to name the city of India they migrated from during the partition. Many mahajirs (refugees) are still a part of India in the context of their ways but they are citizens of Pakistan, and but of course not on the payroll of the RAW! Their roots still lie on the other side of the border and their customs and cuisines reflect flavours of their beloved region in Hindustan. There is nothing repulsive about showing pride in one’s subculture, and I don’t know any mahajir who roots for India when Pakistan plays cricket against them. Their dual emotional citizenship is a reality, which is a consequence of the two-nation theory that resulted in the division of the subcontinent, and must be accepted as valid as history cannot be undone.
Former mayor to Karachi, Mustafa Kamal’s explosive press conference has once again thrown the spotlight on the connotation of being a mahajir, a term that is sullied now due to its exploitation on various levels. His claims that mahajirs have now become a tainted lot is not far from the truth but it has taken a number of external circumstances and internal practices for the Urdu-speaking lot to have landed themselves where they have.
Ethnic bias has never really left our social subconscious, as even today one is acutely aware of the other person’s ethnicity. We know our Baloch friends from the Pashtun yaars (buddy) and our Punjabi dosts (pals) from the Sindhi ones. This awareness does not stem from a pleasant curiosity about someone’s subculture but from our need to slot people according to stereotypes.
The sterotypical mahajir of street legends is a paan-chewing, dilli-wala- (Delhi denizen) accented, lazy person who has done a PhD in golibaazi (lying). We all know such a person yet there are many types of Urdu-speaking folks who have now been reduced to one prototype: he lives in the fear of the MQM yet is someone to be feared as well. He is a small replica of the ‘Bhai’ himself.
Back in the 1980s, I remember being perched up on the shoulders of my grandfather, who was a diplomat, and shouting “Naaray Mahajir, Jeeaye Mahajir” (Slogans of refugees, long live refugee) using the full capacity of my lungs to impress my dada. I wore bangles in white, red and green representing the colours of the MQM flag. I was around six years old then but I loved being a part of the rallies; there was a renewed energy in my people, something good was about to happen and I was responding emotionally.
Altaf Hussain, then a charming orator, had managed to lure the elite, the educated class and the economically suppressed, Urdu-speaking classes for a single cause. Each stratum believed it was being discriminated against based on their mahajiriyat (refugee status). There must have been a valid social gap and need that led to the creation of the MQM. People felt short-changed and often complained “Yeh Punjabi log toh hote hee aise hain” (These Punjabis are like that only). Lawns and streets were filled with echoes of a new Hong Kong that Karachi was set to become under this new man within “Kuch hee maheeno mein” (in a few months). This was years ago and we are still waiting.
Youth of that time enrolled in huge numbers as volunteers in the party, the directionless young men found a new goal to live and die for.
Many people don’t understand that mahajir itself is not an ethnicity but a created identity under which many communities combined to form a show of strength. A mahajir is anyone who migrated from India during the partition; some came from the northern areas, others from Hyderabad, the Memons had homes in the Kutch region of Gujarat and so on and so forth.
So all you folks who had palaces back in India and yet you chose to come here mocked a non-mahajir friend once. Yes, there is a tendency to live in nostalgia, the palaces and havelis one talks about are not actual fancy buildings but family homes that were named lovingly ‘bada mahal’ (big palace) etc. Many people left all their assets behind because they believed in the idea of Pakistan, and they had to build from scratch, which is not an easy task to achieve.
“Jinnah’s own daughter stayed back in Bombay, and we were all fooled into coming here,” was the lament of an anguished youth of Karachi after suffering from unemployment for years during the 1990s.
East Pakistanis are another subgroup of mahajirs who came to Pakistan around the time Bangladesh came into existence. These people lost many of their loved ones during the agitation with the Bengalis. Entire families were taken to riversides and shot at point blank; war requires blood and this community has certainly paid the price for their migration.
However, the mahajirs lost their narrative a long time ago when some of the workers of the 1980s became the scoundrels of the 1990s, and exchanged their low economic status for lavish cars and bungalows in posh areas. Citizens silently watched and turned a blind eye to the deteriorating conditions of Karachi. They went from the frying pan straight into the fire. City’s governmental organisations were filled with mahajirs who landed positions based on their connections, and not merit. They became everything they were fighting and complaining against.
Abraham Lincoln once said that to test a man’s character give him power; Altaf Hussain may have started on the right note but lost his way many years ago. What happened to his vote bank is far more tragic: the humans of Karachi are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, a condition where the hostage starts expressing empathy for his captor. Karachites are psychologically ailing on many levels and need healing of all sorts but this can only come from introspection. If he were alive today, Mohammed Ali Jinnah would be considered a mahajir and a person of a persecuted religious minority as well, and this certainly isn’t the Pakistan one’s forefathers moved hundreds of kilometres for. But staying passive now will only keep the notion of an immigrant, an outsider alive in one’s minds and hearts; one will keep going around in circles without reaching anywhere. It is time to settle down, dear mahajirs; you cannot afford another migration or keep having a separatist’s feelings. This is where you rightfully belong... Pakistan is yours.
Maria Sartaj is a freelance columnist with a degree in Cultural Studies and a passion for social observation, especially all things South Asian. She tweets @chainacoffeemug
Source: The Daily Times, Islamabad.
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