Karachi as an ethnic challenge

Even if Karachi is made a province, its ordeals will not be reduced unless those in power ensure good governance


Dr Moonis Ahmar August 28, 2020

On August 20, the Sindh cabinet announced that Kemari will be carved out from District West of Karachi and declared it as the city’s seventh district. The decision to declare Kemari as another district without seeking consensus from major stakeholders like the City government, Sindh Assembly and political parties having sizeable electoral strength in Karachi led to a severe backlash as the MQM, the MQM-P, the PTI and the PSP, along with Jamaat-i-Islami, termed the decision arbitrary and reflecting ethnic bias of rural dominated PPP.

Karachi is the most ethnically diverse city of Pakistan but surprisingly, unlike other provincial capitals like Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta where Punjabis, Pakhtuns and Baloch people are in a majority or have sizeable population, Karachi as the capital of Sindh has a Sindhi-speaking population of only 10%. While representing rural Sindh, the PPP has never been able to get an electoral majority in Karachi but continues ruling from there. The Urdu-speaking population, which used to have a majority in Karachi 30 years ago, is now roughly 45% of the city’s demography, whereas the second major ethnic group is Pakhtun (25%), Punjabis (10%) and Sindhis (10%). The rest 10% are composed of Baloch, Kashmiris, settlers from northern areas of Pakistan and migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar and other countries.  

In a population of around 25 million, the PPP — representing the Sindhi-speaking ethnic group — controls the water and sewerage board, appointments in districts, police and revenue collection, while 90% of the population of Karachi which is not Sindhi-speaking and henceforth not aligned with the PPP feels marginalised, discriminated and exploited. The debate over the creation of the Kemari District by the PPP government reflects a sharp ethnic polarisation as the MQM and the PSP, representing the Urdu-speaking community, blame the PPP of implementing its ethnic agenda on Karachi. Post-1971 Pakistan witnessed the first ethnic riots in Sindh in July 1972 when the Sindh Assembly unilaterally passed the language bill declaring Sindhi as the provincial language.

The Sindhi-Mohajir conflict over the quota system and the imposition of Sindhi language along with attempts by the PPP to expand its influence in Karachi by amending the Local Government Act of 2013 alarmed the non-Sindhi population. Since 1990, when the last ethnic riots took place in Sindh between native Sindhis and Mohajirs, a fragile ethnic peace between the two communities has prevailed.

While the MQM as the self-claimed upholder of the rights of the Urdu-speaking community of Sindh has been accused of causing enormous damage to Sindh’s urban areas, including Karachi, by promoting corruption, violence, fear, terrorism, killings and extortions, other stakeholders like the PPP and the PTI are also blamed for neglecting and letting down the people of Karachi. Because of two main reasons, Karachi can be called the ‘ethnic time bomb’ of Pakistan which, if not managed peacefully and justly, can destabilise the whole country.

First is the overt demand of the MQM-P that Karachi be detached from Sindh and declared a separate province. Lingual and ethnic discord and contradictions in Karachi has deepened because of bad governance, unemployment as well as crises related to water, electricity, sewage and public transport. MQM-P convener Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, while addressing a gathering in Karachi on August 21, made it clear that the domination of “Sindhi-speaking, rural PPP” will not be acceptable anymore and the only way to prevent the “total destruction of Karachi” is by declaring it as a separate province. According to Siddiqui, Karachi contributes 90% of Sindh and 65% of federal revenue, but is in bad shape despite the pledges made by the PTI which has the maximum electoral representation from Karachi. It means neither the PPP nor the PTI-led federal government owns Karachi. The threat of ethnic violence and bloodbath in Sindh may not be a myth but will transform into a reality because Sindhi nationalists whether in the PPP, the Sindh-based Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) or the Awami Tehreek have made it clear that the division of Sindh will be over their dead bodies; that they will not tolerate and allow the separation of Karachi from Sindh. In a situation when the local government’s term is over and an administrator will be appointed in Karachi, issues like placing Karachi under federal control, imposition of governor rule and the MQM-P’s demand that Karachi be carved out of Sindh and declared a separate province can trigger a serious crisis and outbreak of violence.

Second, there is a history of Sindhi-Mohajir polarisation and the accusations made by Sindhi nationalists that the Urdu-speaking community living in Sindh for the last several decades has not been able to assimilate with the local culture. There is some merit to their argument as majority of the community in Karachi has not been able to integrate into the Sindhi culture unlike the Mohajirs in Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta who have largely adjusted and absorbed in local cultures. As a result, the Urdu-speaking community in Karachi and in other urban areas of Sindh has been able to maintain its identity which is resented by Sindhi nationalists. A sense of insecurity looms large both in Sindhi and Urdu-speaking communities for a variety of reasons. The Urdu-speaking community feels insecure because of the PPP’s domination of Karachi and the Sindhi-speaking people resent the demand for a separate province for Karachi.

Although the justification of Karachi as a province is debatable, if a survey is conducted, majority of the residents of this metropolis may support the idea. Another way to judge the support for or opposition to Karachi as a separate province is to hold a referendum in the city to determine to what extent such a demand has a popular backing. The same criteria should be followed in those parts of Pakistan with movements for a separate province like the Hazara division of K-P, and Bahawalpur and the Seraiki belt in southern Punjab.

Those supporting the demand to declare Karachi a separate province argue that the city has always been different. In pre-Partition days, it was part of the Bombay Presidency and when Karachi was declared as a federal capital of the new state of Pakistan, it maintained its identity. It was only after the abrogation of One-Unit by the then military regime of General Yahya Khan that Karachi became the capital of Sindh.

Proponents of a Karachi province want to fix provincial boundaries as far as Hub and Hyderabad so as to give the new province strategic depth and to meet the water needs of the new province from the Hub Dam and Keenjhar Lake. In that scenario one can expect serious ethnic polarisation and violence in Sindh. Yet, even if Karachi is made a province, its ordeals will not be reduced unless those in power ensure good governance, rule of law, improvement in infrastructure and quality of life of people.

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