Critical Reflections of a Mohajir

Sayeed Hasan Khan


 was born in the united province of British India (now called Utter Pradesh) which was the center of Muslim civilization in South Asia. Muslims comprised 14% of  the population but their influence was greater than numbers imply. The province contained a core of Muslim landowners, a strong Muslim middle class and among its Muslim-oriented educational institutions were both religious and secular universities, ranging from the secular English language-oriented Aligarh Muslim University to the Darul Ulum of the orthodox Deoband sect. One finds little in the local political scene at the time that was straightforward or obvious. Although the Deoband Ulamas belonged to the religious right, they were also a strongly anti-imperialist bunch and thus their not-so-obvious home during the struggle for independence was the Congress Party. Cities attracted far more Muslims than did villages, and so they exerted a potent cultural and political influence on urban life. Muslim landowners, who were, by dint of raw power plus ‘tradition,’ community leaders, usually opposed the Congress Party inasmuch as it stood for the abolition of big land holdings. Another complication is that the Muslim middle class disproportionately occupied profession and high-end service jobs, and so felt threatened that after independence their hold on these desirable positions would be drastically reduced. As these fretful complexities played on, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, after growing exasperated equally with the insensitivity of Congress leaders and the bickering among Muslim leaders in the early 1930s, retreated to London for a few years.

In 1935 the Muslim leadership, drawn mainly from UP, prevailed on Jinnah to return and take the reins of their fractious community, and to plead their grievances inside the uneasy coalition making up the Congress Party. Jinnah was a proud self-made man and a brilliant barrister who won many cases, representing mainly princely ruling states of the era. He was charismatic, which appealed to the Muslim middle class no less than to the masses. He also had a long impressive service in the Congress Party and a staunch record of fighting British rule which made him popular in the eyes of secular as well as practicing Muslims.

When the Congress finally formed a government in UP in 1937, Muslim experiences and perceptions of its Hindu-leaning rule quickly became negative, arousing widespread anxieties about fairness in a future independent India.  The Congress leadership failed to sooth or satisfy them. Congress leaders in the province made and quickly broke a promise to include two Muslim league leaders who earlier had declined to sign a Congress pledge to immerse their Muslim identities and concerns in the alleged ‘melting pot,’ as Americans might put it, of the Congress Party which saw itself, mistakenly, as satisfactorily incorporating all interests. This high-handed (or high-minded) attitude did not encourage Muslim Leaguers as to the prospects of establishing equitable and reliable cooperation with the (naturally) Hindu-dominated Congress. 

During this fraught period I grew up in a middle-rank landowning family. As a teenager I along with many school and college friends were deeply attracted to the rising Pakistan movement whose aims and implications, however, no proponent bothered to explain clearly to us and which nobody bothered to suss out carefully until well after the violent partition.   

After failing in the 1930s to arrive at a palatable confederation arrangement with the Indian National Congress to assure the rights and security of Muslims in an independent India, Muslim League leader Jinnah opted with some evident reluctance for the separation of Muslim majority provinces and to join them into one state called Pakistan. It remains debatable as to what stage it was that Jinnah decided for autonomy instead of employing the demand as a bargaining chip. As this stern man who came to be called the Quaid-i-izam (‘great leader”) declared in a Lahore speech on 27 March 1940: ‘These are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are in fact different and distinct social orders, and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever [become] a common nationality.” Yet Jinnah, leery of religious strictures, had not  given up on an all-India confederation. The so-called Cripps mission in 1942 and the cabinet mission in 1946 temporarily seemed to present a patchy solution but fell apart. Nehru’s impolitic statements at the time helped put paid to that. Plenty of fault can be spread all around.  

Indeed, once Mountbatten arrived to oversee the breakneck-paced British “quitting” of India, the two major provinces (Punjab and Bengal) envisioned in Jinnah’s original scheme of a secular Muslim state were partitioned into Hindu and Muslim majority zones, with Muslim majority areas joining the new Pakistan. While the leadership of Bengal successfully strived to save the province from serious communal riots and migration, the Punjab with its 30 million populations of intermingled Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims underwent a horrifying large-scale massacre and mass migration. There was a complete transfer of Muslims Westward from the Indian Punjab while all Hindus and Sikhs rapidly fled most of the areas comprising the new Pakistan. These migrants from either side of Punjab were absorbed in the respective provinces of India and Pakistan.  

Lord Mountbatten was in an unholy hurry to get back to Britain to become the naval chief, a post  which his Germanic father had missed out on earlier. Before the First World War sentiments in England were anti-German so that the father had no chance, in spite being a son-in -law of the queen. Mountbatten hastily went through a fixing of boundaries of the two countries with outdated maps, which aggravated the Kashmir dispute as well. A million people died not only because he was in a hurry but because he also tried to interfere with the boundary commission’s decisions. A more systematic and slowly paced withdrawal of British forces and their administration would have spared many lives. Moulana Azad, the leading Indian nationalist and President of the Indian national Congress from 1940-to 1946, had warned of these consequences but went unheeded. Mountbatten blithely believed communitarian violence of any scale would not happen. Azad was perhaps the only front rank politician who opposed the partition of the country and advised the Muslims not to migrate, predicting that they would face rough deal from the locals among whom they intended to settle. (Hundreds of thousands mohajirs in Bangladesh now belatedly agree with him.) Given the cynical manner in which Pakistan was moved by opportunistic politicians towards theocracy in subsequent years, many mohajir intellectuals started having doubts whether Pakistan was such a good idea. I myself believe that Jinnah did not really want Pakistan as such; rather he was fighting for the rights of Muslims in an Indian federation. He used the slogan as a bargaining counter but mishaps of history forced him to accept the Pakistan in a severely truncated, split-apart shape. Indeed ,on 11 August 1947 Jinnah said at he first meeting of the constituent assembly: ‘You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.’[1] 

As it happens, many friends migrated to this promising new nation to look for jobs and careers. My elder brother in the government service was first to opt for Pakistan upon the news of Lord Mountbatten’s hasty partition. I also decided to uproot in 1947. I left from Bareilly with an armed train of soldiers allotted to Pakistan, who had been posted in Bareilly and now were detailed to a special transport.  My train, for obvious reasons, was not attacked. Along the journey I saw dead bodies lying along the train lines. When we passed through the cities we saw carloads of refugees. We finally crossed the new frontier close to Wagah. Arriving in Lahore safely I enrolled to study politics and economics in Government College Lahore, which supplied the future civil service of Pakistan, their ecole polytechnique. The initial and memorable experience on arrival was of a very warm welcome, extended to many others. These émigré Muslims, and thousand of others, like me, came to this dreamed-about country still call themselves Mohajirs During the early period of Islam when the prophet Mohammad found life perilous in Mecca he migrated to Medina along with his followers, who were called Mohajirs. Most Muslims even today situate themselves in that holy tradition of the prophet. Recently, even former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who is living in luxurious exile in London and Dubai, had the temerity to describe herself as a mohajir. This free use of the term ‘mohajir’ is now used in whatever forms one likes. It functions as a slogan in the absence of any meaningful political program. Even at the time when I came to study at Lahore I was not inclined to call myself a mohajir though general sentiments among mohajirs were different.

My parents, who were comfortable enough and not at all sympathetic to Pakistan movement, decided to stay back. With a home in India as well, I resorted to various high-level connections to allow me to commute frequently between India and Pakistan and observe how political forces were developing in the two new emerging and rivalrous states. Soon after the death in 1948 of Jinnah, a strictly secular leader of a secular Muslim state, I found, disturbingly, that Pakistan began to edge perceptibly towards a more religiously defined state. This trend was unwelcome, if perhaps predictable from a political view.  In my youth I freely had attended Hindu festivals and they ours. Still, Gandhi’s shocking assassination by a Hindu fanatic, as a unbidden happy byproduct, had set back fundamentalism in South Asia for decades, until it would raise its ugly sectarian face in the eighties in the slightly more civil but formidable form of the BJP. In the meantime, however, Nehru was able to impart a strong social democratic direction to the Indian independence movement, which still runs deep in its psyche. I myself joined the nascent left movement of the National Awami Party in Pakistan which marginalized me regarding everyday power politics in Pakistan.

Those Muslims, who opted to serve in the government of Pakistan, migrated primarily to Karachi, which became the capitol of the new state after its separation from Sindh.  Immigrant industrialists established or expanded industries which attracted thousands of job-seeking Muslims from the rest of India. Within a decade Karachi became a dynamic, bustling and predominantly mohajir-run town. It kept expanding well after the capitol shifted to Islamabad. The surrounding province of Sind absorbed the considerable overflow of migrants from Karachi. That created acute tensions with the local population in the interior of the Sind province who feared that they may be reduced to a weak minority. The Pakistan portion of Bengal received the bulk of its refugees from Bihar and other bordering states of India. Bengal and the Sind were the two provinces where ninety percent of refugees from India- excluding the refugees from East Punjab- settled. These immigrants were to play a great role both in the development of these provinces and also in generating political instability.

Soon after independence, movements for political autonomy rose in Sindh and Bengal, which helped turn Pakistan into an administrative state rather than a political one. This was all the more the case because the federal government, run by Punjabis and mohajirs, firmly resisted the genuine demands of these provinces.  The majority of top Pakistan bureaucrats came from the Punjab and the migration. Bengal, the largest province of Pakistan, and Sindh possessed hardly any share in the top hierarchy, which in true colonial style took the reigns of government.  West Pakistan ran East Pakistan like a nuisance satrapy. The mohajirs tended not to feel any special loyalty to the provinces they settled. Their stock answer, when asked, was that they came to Pakistan and not to any particular province.

So when the Bengalis of East Pakistan rose in 1971 against the injustices of the army, which also was mainly Punjabi, local mohajirs sided with the army rather with the masses of Bengal. The mohajirs were Urdu-speaking versus Bengali-speakers, and the mohajir industrialists  were an integral part of a Punjabi investor elite. A familiar yet weird corporate identity also extended beyond class boundaries there. I learned of Mohajir rickshaw pullers in Dacca who identified with mohajir factory owners whose firms they heard that  the revolutionary Bengali peasant leader Maulana Bhashani wanted to wreck; this meant ‘they’ wanted to ‘burn our factories”).  After many horrors and India’s intervention Bangla desh soon become a state and the refugees, mohajir or otherwise, were rendered stateless. Thirty-four years have passed and many are still rotting in the fetid camps of Dacca and are not allowed to settle in the Pakistan to which they are so emotionally attached. One feels sympathy towards their plight but it is difficult to support a cause which placed them on the repugnant side of the army that happened to betrayed them as well. Anyone on the Left found it impossible to side with them. They supported Pakistani rulers who turned Bengal into a colonial hell hole, and mohajirs ended up as their stooges. Though the mohajir community in West Pakistan likewise supported army action they were not a hostage to fortune.

This infamous episode is not widely dwelt upon. Pakistan’s military rulers ignored the unstinting support they got from the mohajirs during the civil war. In just one incident the army, with the aid of local mohajirs, killed 140 Bengali intellectuals at Dacca University. Resident mohajirs actually guided soldiers to arrest Bengali rebels.. When the army left the Mohajirs high and dry in the new Bangladesh, one was reminded that British deserted Anglo-Indians who supported the empire in much the same blithering way. These loyal subjects were definitely not welcome in Mother England, so some of them found refuges instead in Canada and Australia. Their emotional home remained England in the same way the Urdu speaking mohajirs of Bangla desh are psychologically and emotionally are linked to the metropolitan part of Pakistan (which most of them had not even seen). The Algerian French were absorbed in France but the mohajirs of East Pakistan, for their unseemly services, were denied space in their dreamland.  Now their third generation is rotting in the camps.  Successive governments of Pakistan promised to repatriate them but did not keep it. Sindhis oppose new settlements in Sindh because it will upset the demographical balance. This leaves refugees in a limbo. At the moment these few hundred thousand people are neither Bangladeshis nor Pakistanis. Most of the present generation does not even speak the Urdu to which their parents were devoted.

As time passed, however, the influence and share of mohajir bureaucracy in Sindh would diminish. When Zulfiqar Bhutto took power after the separation of East Pakistan, his rhetoric, if not so much his actions, only antagonized Urdu-speaking mohajirs. They felt that their language was threatened -- an exaggerated fear since Urdu is the national language of Pakistan as well as that of Punjabis who remain a dominant force. But the perception spread that they were being discriminated against in jobs and admissions to the professional colleges.

In the 1970s Bhutto’s nationalization of industries and its mismanagement severely hampered the economy. This stoked unemployment, and as the mohajirs had scant political influence in his regime they suffered more than others.  At least this was true of their lower middle class, which gave birth to mohajir student organization, which later evolved into a mohajir national movement. The refusal of the Bhutto’s government to allow Urdu speaking mohajirs, called Biharis, from Bangla desh to enter also angered compatriot here. This was to influence strongly their attitude towards politics. Many mohajras from UP and Bihar and other parts of  India soon formed a base for the two religious organizations, Jammat-I-Islami, and JUP. MQM soon dislodged and absorbed these parties in Karachi and Hyderabad  Though not a part of this movement I found myself a supporter of many of its policies: reservations in colleges, jobs for lower middle class people, and more representation in government. (The mohajir element within the government of Sindh today is from such lower middle class origins.)

Because of the indiscriminate nationalization of every sort of industry, and the class and market reactions to it, the growth of social forces stopped. During the decade of industrial development trade unions were coming up who suffered setbacks and since then never revived. Bhutto was also responsible using Islamic slogans. He appointed a minister of religious affairs and, astonishingly, used his majority in the parliament to declare a sect of Muslims, Qadianis or Ahamadis, as non Muslim. Thus he laid the foul foundations which were to mature during Zia’s period 

Before the formation of MQM mohajirs ideologically were wedded to the Pakistan movement which originally inspired them.  In plain terms this reactionary Romantic attitude always put them on the side of authoritarian regimes whenever conflict arose with regional ethnic communities such those as in Bengal or Sindh. This stance  inadvisedly, and even crazily, set them in automatic opposition to the legitimate aspirations of the larger communities among whom they lived.  Before independence urban Sindh had been populated mostly by Hindus who also controlled the provincial economy. Soon after the Hindus involuntarily left for India, mohajirs moved into the vacuum of jobs, property and status left they behind.

Local Muslims were not in a position to fill these gaps or exploit these opportunities  so long as the mohajir and Punjabi officials got there first. The political leadership was dominated by landowners and there was no appreciable Sindhi middle class. During this early time mohajirs thought that they are going to dominate the cities economy and politics. Karachi became the biggest mohajir town but also started attracting economic migrants from Punjab and the Pakhtoon areas of north. Transport and the building industry was controlled by pakhtoons who were hard working laborers. Punjabis and Pakhtoons soon became key groups in the lower ranks of police and other branches of civil administration. Since British days sizable colonies of Punjabis were in the canal-irrigated areas of Sindh. Lower middle class mohajirs felt discriminated against at their hands yet there was hardly any Sindhi element in the administration. 

MQM’s resentment against the Punjabi and Pathan lower bureaucracy and political elite grew. This situation was clumsily used by Nawaz Sharif  (with Army connivance) against the People’s Party. Benazir Bhutto played the same game against Sharif. In short, neither of the major parties was interested in accommodating the MQM program, but rather to utilize its constituency for their own purposes.  Gradually the influence of the army increased on the local administration and it cleverly directed the resentment of Mohajirs against the Sindhis. No doubt the policies of the Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto also helped in creating division between Sindhi and MQM.

 During eighties and nineties army and civil leadership tried to crush the movement but the repression only hardened their spirits and the MQM won its first major victory for the control of Karachi Municipal Corporation. Later this mohajir organization was to win all the urban seats for the provincial and the national parliament. By the time Ms Bhutto became the Prime Minister MQM was the third biggest political party in the country. It represented the poor mohajirs but shunned by the mohajir intellectual left who were fond of Bhutto. Ms Bhutto’s father had the support of the Sindhi and Punjabi poor and called himself socialist. The leadership of his people’s party was in practice feudal while MQM backed he lower middle class. Both these organizations have Peronistic tendencies.

Because of the different complexions of these major political forces in the province of Sindh there is unresolved conflict and the central government exploits it while the leadership of both sits quietly  in London. The Mohajir population, which reaches 40% (and majorities in Urban areas), wants a full share in the running of state and the province. They now have moved far from the sectarian slogan ”ideology of Pakistan” - an Islamic state backed by Sharia law and islamization of all institutions- - which they and the Punjabis coined themselves. Now they concentrate on economic and political rights. Since MQM started it has increased in militancy to achieve their goals.  Today a different type of Mohajir is in control of its politics. Most are confident enough to work with coalitions from lower and middle class and they talk of Sindhi rights and for the whole province. MQM is so confident of its followers that it has nominated Sindhi speaking candidates from their area of influence and got them elected. It looks like that their movement is at last coming of age.



Soon after the death of Jinnah, Pakistan as a political experiment declined. For a few years democracy was practiced in a haphazard way, controlled by the bureaucratic and military elites. But there was still hope that things would improve. The Army chief Ayub Khan took power in 1958 , an event which, on one hand, stopped the development of democracy but also halted the movement towards Islamization. There was needed development in the industrial sector but also cultural and political suppression due to bans on political and press freedom. Ayub lurched into the disastrous 1965 war with India which left East Pakistan undefended (and its people derided)  and thus sowed the seeds of separatism. In 1971 the same rash and arrogant policies resulted in the horrors of the east Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who escaped condemnation for his behind the scenes role, captured power after the richly deserved defeat of the army in 1971 and he and his hand-picked henchman and then nemesis  Zia turned Pakistan into a reluctant laboratory of the Sharia laws which were archaic and discriminatory.

The steady accumulation of these dismaying events were enough to influence me and others like me either to leave the country or spend as much time as possible outside it’s reach. I now hardly see and feel any resemblance to the Pakistan that I came to study and live in and that the tatty one which exist today. Today there are large settlements of educated mohajirs in USA, UK, Germany and other parts of Europe. The Diaspora of Indian Muslims who migrated to Pakistan is found all over after their remigration. Even highly placed officials, after retirement, are joining their children abroad who left earlier. During my travels I have come across Pakistani Canadians who have retrieved the ancestral property their parents have left in India. They prefer to spend their holidays in India rather than Pakistan which was their last country of abode. A well known crony of Jinnah, recently answered that if Jinnah came back to day he would not recognize the Pakistan he created:’ Who knows what happens next? Looking back on all these events  one would be a fool not to wonder whether it was worth it . The leadership lacked statesmanship and Mountbatten was in a hurry to get back to England. What one needs today is what was lost in the 1940s: the prospect that India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh should enter into a close relationship that may ultimately lead to a Federal state.

[1] Presidential Address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan at Karachi, August 11, 1947.