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Political and Ethnic Battles Turn Karachi into Beirut of South Asia


By Zulfiqar Shah

24 September, 2012

In Pakistan, powerful ethnic minorities rule the under-developed majorities. In the context of Sindh, especially in Karachi, this ethnic contest of power has turned this historical land into Beirut of South Asia.

SINDH IS a volcano of ethnic frictions. The simmering violence in its capital Karachi during last ten years has taken 5549 lives, whereas 227 lost lives during first eight months of 2012. It can potentially explode into the higher scale conflicts, if authorities in the twin cities of Islamabad-Rawalpindi do not address it appropriately in time.

Miniature of migrations

The migrations from divided India to Pakistan in 1947, and followed by the mass migrations from Bangladesh due to the partition of Pakistan in 1971 is a widely discussed background of the ethnic conflict in Sindh. The province is peopled by the human flows after 1947 from the Indian provinces which are today called Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra; later on in 1971 and thereafter from Dhaka, Rajishri, Rangpur, Khulna and Chittagong divisions of Bangladesh; and finally after 1980s from Afghanistan, Burma and rest of the Pakistani provinces.

If analyzed, there are two indigenous ethno-linguistic groups in Sindh -- Sindhis forming majority by being 65 percent of the province, Baloch of Makrani and Jadgali (Sindhi) origin mostly settled in Karachi, and the third one is semi-indigenous Sindhi ethnic groups of Memons and Kutchis who migrated from Kutch and Bhoj - the Sindhi areas of Indian Gujarat.

The post-1947 mass migrations have three categories: Indian partition refugees, whose second and third generation is inhibiting Sindh; 1971 war refugees whose first and second generation is inhibiting the province, and finally post-1980 refugees, who either illegally migrated to Sindh or sought refuge due to Afghan war and Burmese crises.

Who is who of ethnicities in Sindh?

The strings of politics in Sindh, especially in its capital Karachi can only be understood through ethno-linguistic point of view. Nine ethno-linguistic groups are residing Sindh particularly in Karachi. It would be wise to understand their characteristics.

- Indigenous Sindhis: Indigenous population of Samat and Baloch origin that speak, read, and write in Sindhi language and claim Sindhi identity.

- Indigenous Baloch: People of Makrani coastal Baloch background who speak Balochi and claim Balochi identity; however can understand and talk Sindhi language due to being indigenous inhabitants of Karachi.

- Indigenous Sindhi of Gujarati and Lasi origin: There are two groups in this category. Speakers of Memoni and Kutchi dialects of Sindhi language migrated to Karachi from Sindhi areas of Kutch and Bhuj of Gujarat, India and settled in Karachi before and after 1947. Whereas Lasi are ethno-linguistically Sindhi who hailed from Lasbela princely state of Sindhi population, administratively annexed to Balochistan during 1960s.  

- Rajasthanis: Mostly consisting three Muslim clans of Qaimkhani Rajputs, Silawats, Gazdars and Shaikhs. Majority of them speak various dialects of Rajasthani language; however can understand and speak Sindhi. Silawats migrated to Sindh during 1930s on the invitation by Pir Pagara. Gazdar came even earlier. Later both are also considered as an indigenous population; meanwhile earlier two clans are culturally and linguistically similar to Sindhis.

- Malyali Maplas: Migrated from Kerala province of India to Sindh in 1935 after Maplapuram movement in Kerala during British Raj. They identify themselves as Mapla or Malbari. 

- Urdu speakers/ Muhajirs: Speak Lukhnavi and Khariboli dialects of Urdu language and migrated after 1947 mostly from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh provinces of today’s India. They identify themselves as Urdu speakers or Muhajir.

- Bihari: Bhojpuri lingual community migrated from Bangladesh after 1971 that identifies itself as Bihari. 

- Punjabi: Migrated from Pakistani Punjab province before and after 1947 in search of employment; after commissioning of barrages in Sindh especially when hundreds of Punjabi landless peasants were given thousands of acres land in Sindh between 1950 – 1971; and after installation of many cantonments in the various cities of Sindh.

- Pashtun: Migrated after military rule of Pakhtukhuwa generals Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan. A large number of them migrated from Afghanistan after the Afghan Jihad against Soviet Union in post 1980s. 

- Bengalis who did not either go to Bangladesh after 1971 or migrated to Sindh from there illegally after 1990s.

- The rest are a small number of mix population of Maharashtrans, Burmese, Goans, Siraikis, Hindkos and Kashmiris.  

If first three categories of indigenous population were combined, the indigenous majority population would roughly count beyond 68 percent. If the Indian partition Muhajirs/ Urdu speakers and Bangladeshi refugees of Bangali and Bihari origin are combined, they will roughly form bellow 20 percent of the province. In Karachi, if the indigenous population is combined, they will form roughly beyond 40 percent. If exclusively Urdu speaking and Bihari / Bhaujpuri speaking are combined, they will count bellow 25 percent of the city. If Sindhi speaking of Samat and Baloch origin are counted (excluding Makrani Balochs and Guajarati Memons) they will cross 30 percent in the city. If map of Karachi is analyzed they absolute Urdu and Bihari speaking majority districts will form bellow 10 percent of city’s geography.

An undisclosed demography

Sindh has 23 administrative districts out of which five form Karachi city. If these are ethnically analyzed on the principles of absolute majority, simple majority, and mix population based on the 1998 census and last 15 years migration trend, an entirely new scenario will come out.

In the category of absolute majority, Sindhis dominate 17 districts including district Malir of Karachi, whereas Muhajirs/ Urdu speakers dominate one district of Karachi Central. Sindhis are in simple majority in Karachi East as well as Hyderabad district. If culturally similar ethnic groups are clubbed, Sindhis and Baloch are absolute majority in district South Karachi followed by Punjabis as well as Burmese and Bengalis illegal immigrants. Muhajirs / Urdu speakers and Biharis, if combined, are majority in District West Karachi followed by Balochis, Pashtuns and Sindhis.

Sindhis and Balochis dwell in strategically lesser important areas, mostly out of extremely central orbit of the city, and a large number is rural population of the Karachi, which is divided in several electoral constituencies. This gives an edge to MQM, with a highly organized mechanism and use of violence, to hold the city even representing a minority ethnic group.

One in the same thing: Urban and Rural Feudalism

The fundamental meaning of term ‘feudal lord’ is the one who hold power of war making and feud management in certain rural geography. Mode of production has been their source of keeping private armies, which in classical terms remains agriculture and pastoral.

The power in Sindh lies in two hands: feudal of rural Sindh, which is mostly Sindhi and urban-feudal of Karachi city, which is mostly Urdu speaker; however, in Hyderabad both are the Urban feudal. Rural feudal in Sindh are feudal in material terms having Sindhi variant of mercenaries and exploiting peasantry, whereas urban feudal have characteristic of classical feudal lords, which means keeping urban mercenaries for the feuds and violence to exploit urban poor take hold of majority ethnic groups of the city.

Both behave almost similarly except that the earlier behave in rural and unorganized manner and later behave in urban and well-organized way. There are paradoxical behaviors in both. One can oppose and contest a rural feudal in Sindh and not necessarily be killed due to this action; however in Karachi such action necessarily invite a murder attempt by the urban lords. Rural feudal are secular unlike their urban counterparts. Urban feudal meanwhile behave positively regarding the matters like infrastructure development, in which their rural counterparts are parasites.

PPP, MQM, and Sindhi Nationalists

A large number of Sindhi feudal lords and a small number of Urdu speaking and Sindhi middle class normally control Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Sindh. Ethno-linguist Urdu speaking Muhajir people usually control MQM. Mostly Sindhi nationalists and PPP – Murteza Bhutto group, a splinter group of PPP, oppose PPP in Sindh. Two groups oppose MQM openly -- MQM splinter group led by Afaq Ahmed, and the Bihari population of Karachi. Ethnic Biharis in Karachi, after the murder of second most popular leader of MQM Imran Farooq in London, formed Bihari Qomi Movement (BQM) in Karachi. Sindhi politicians are also divided into ideological groups: secessionists, advocates of provincial autonomy, and federalists.

PPP and MQM have a few basic common interests therefore they tend to ally. Both want to keep their vote bank and hegemony intact in their area of support (rather control). Both mostly do not challenge each other in the election contest except a few constituencies in Karachi and Hyderabad; therefore, they consider themselves natural allies. MQM’s street control of Karachi is also important factor. It has a history that whenever a government, no matter they are part of it or opposition, denies or delays their demands, Karachi observe violence. It is the fear of violence in the economic capital of Karachi that they are becoming coalition partners in various governments since last 15 years.

Basis of contemporary conflict

The basis of ongoing contest and conflict in Sindh are a few but highly important:

- Contest on the distribution of resources combined by development not on the urban-rural bases alone, but on the ethnic bases as well. This includes urban-rural and district-district disparities at Karachi city level, urban-urban at provincial level, which means between the cities where either ethnicity is in the significant number and between urban- rural in general across the province.

- Growing urbanization has started changing the demographic characteristic and population size of the cities across the Pakistan especially in Sindh province. In Sindh, this ultimately means the change in the ethnic composition of the cities, which are ethnically diverse. An overwhelming majority of non-Punjabi refugees who migrated from India after partition of sub-continent and settled in the cities of Sindh. Therefore, urbanization in Sindh today means urbanization of Sindhis. MQM, which has been containing electoral rule in Karachi and Hyderabad even having typically Urdu speaking minority in both of the cities, has fear of losing hold of cities in terms of electoral and street power.

-MQM want a political edge of ethnic aspects in provincial and local government system. The admissions of Sindhi students are already banned in Karachi educational institutions; and now the one who have not been born in Karachi cannot get a government job there. MQM wants some important departments under the local government’s control that include police, revenue, land utilization, colonization and settlements, education and fisheries along with others. This ultimately gives feeling to Sindhi population of virtual separation of Karachi from Sindh and hindering their right to urbanization and development in their historical land.

Sindhi nationalists have apprehensions regarding MQM politics that have grown since the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf. The general altered the constituencies of Karachi and Hyderabad city in a manner that Sindhi voters may not influence majority of the seats, meanwhile MQM may win from the areas where it has not majority ethnic support. Besides, indigenous Sindhi think that an organized minority, which is virtually ruling the province since 1947, keep aspirations of carving out a separate province out of Sindh. This of their feeling was further strengthened when MQM presented a bill in the national assembly in 2011 for creating new provinces in Pakistan, which mentioned in its preamble that provinces are not sacred and can be divided.

The nature of recently promulgated Sindh People Local Governance Ordinance (SPLGO) has infuriated Sindhi nationalists enough that they gave a call of strike on September 13, which was successful without the use of violence. In Karachi two districts – East and Malir - out of five were on complete strike, meanwhile district South observed partial strike; however, majority areas of district Central and West remained open.

Local governance system

SPLGO gives a feeling that Sindh has become an independent country and it transfers some of its authorities to the autonomous district/ city governments. It is virtual attempt to divide Sindh into five autonomous divisions; more authorized then practices within the federations around the globe in terms of political systems. According to a Karachi based analyst, it transfers various state authorities of the provincial tier to the Municipals and Districts led by a Mayors and Chairpersons. The authorities include land use and utilization, revenue, housing and settlement authorities and even recruitment of provincial departments in the districts.

Sovereignty of provincial government is compromised in a manner that a degree of autonomy is given to the districts beyond the provincial supremacy. According to the ordinance, as analyzed by a Karachi based journalist, if a scheme or plan proposed by a district / divisional government to the provincial government is not accepted or ratified by the later within sixty days, it would legally become approved.

Besides preparation of master plans, local governments are also transferred the authority to approve zoning, classification, and reclassification of land, environment control, urban design, urban renewal, and ecological balances. Their approval authorities are vested in the Municipal / District Councils. It also transfer the authorities to review implementation of rules and bye-laws governing land use, housing, markets, zoning, environment, roads, traffic, tax, infrastructure and public utilities. Besides, the ‘properties’ and all concerned matters are handed over to the district and municipal tiers.

Primarily it hands over various departments of the provincial nature to the districts. It also authorizes the district government to change the quantity of officials and size of these departments; recruit employees directly and enhance ten percent budget for additional recruitments. Such authorities, according to a Karachi-based journalist, were also given in the Musharraf’s local government ordinance, which gave edge to MQM recruiting forty thousand new employees. Almost all of them did not only belong to single ethnicity of the city, but also were the cadres and activists of MQM. Political parties has been alleging since last many years that the violence is Karachi has been carried thereafter through these cadres by using city government machinery.

Union Councillor (neighbourhood representative), in the ordinance, are authorized to recruit the security guards directly. This ultimately has enhanced apprehensions that if a party having militant capacity wins local government elections, it can recruit its cadres as guards and keep on dominating people through the legitimized use of violence.

The ordinance also maintains supremacy of municipal/ district government over Tehsil / sub-district and union level. This will give an edge of ethnic dominancy in the districts of Karachi, which do not contain absolute majority of any single ethnicity. Two districts of Karachi – Central and West – have an overwhelming majority of ethnic Urdu speaking and Bihari people jointly, but there are at least two towns / sub-districts there, which are having Sindhi, Baloch and Pashtun majority population. In such cases, supremacy regarding recourses allocation at district level can discriminate them. The similar issues may occur in the district East, Malir and South as well, which are mostly Sindh-Baloch-Pashtun majority districts.

SPLGO gives a feeling that it is a district-states / city-states ordinance, which essentially contradicts the principles of the federation.

What is the way forward?

A set of comprehensive steps is required in the province to foster harmony and interdependency between various ethnic groups meanwhile maintaining ultimate rights of both.

- In presence of Sindh (legislative) Assembly, the ordinance enforced by the Governor is similar to the British rule practices. This ordinance should be taken back; instead, a bill for local government should be tabled in the house for the legislation after undergoing a vast consultation with political parties, representatives of the ethnic groups, civil society, and experts.

- No local government law should supersede the sovereign and autonomous authority of the provincial government, which means the departments, subjects, fields and matters that are of highly provincial nature must not be handed over to the district or municipal governments in an autonomous manner.

- Land use, utilization, revenue, recruitments, approval of schemes and plans and determining the size of departments are the issues that has been used for ethnic dominancy and discrimination. They have also been utilized for changing electoral and ethnic compositions of towns, constituencies, and districts. Therefore, they should be under the provincial authority.

- A plan for a weapon free Karachi should be devised. Until all violence-making forces are not made armless, the peace cannot be ensured in the city.

- Sindhi is legally official language of the province and a mandatory subject for non-Sindhi speaking population in the primary education; but the practice is otherwise. Ethnic harmony will be unachievable until this is not being done.

- Enforcing agenda of less than 20 percent population over Sindh and of lesser than 25 percent population of Karachi over the city will create an unending anarchy over the upcoming decades. The day people realized that federation is not willing to undone this process, they will popularly bid farewell to the federation.

- If there can be Afro and Asian Americans or Europeans, there can be Sindhi speaking Sindhis, Urdu-speaking Sindhis, Bihari-speaking Sindhis and Pashto-speaking Sindhis and Punjabi-speaking Sindhis. This requires their integration with ethnic Sindhi population and loyalty to the interests of the province.

- Pakistan is a federation of historical sovereign counties of pre-British occupation; therefore a necessary legislation should be made over the inter-provincial migrations, their right to vote in Sindh, contest elections, and holding of public offices. This is the time when indigenous populations’ right to rule in their historical homelands needs to be ensured in Pakistan.

- Both MQM and Sindhi nationalists should accept and adopt the term of ‘Urdu speaking Sindhis’ rather than Muhajirs, which gives no sense that which Muhajirs are being pointed out as in last 65 years there have been many waves of different ethno-linguist refugees and migrants towards Sindh.

- If the federation, which was joined by Sindh through legislative consent, is not able to protect sovereignty of Sindh and its majority indigenous population, and then Sindhi people will be justified to reclaim that sovereignty beyond the federation.

Zulfiqar Shah is a political analyst, researcher and rights activist