The ethnic vote

Published: September 12, 2014
The writer is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in the US and a former financial journalist. He tweets @FarooqTirmizi

The writer is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in the US and a former financial journalist. He tweets @FarooqTirmizi

My earliest political memory is of the 1997 election. Sitting in my paternal grandparents home in Nazimabad, as Muhajir a neighbourhood as any in Karachi, my dadi announced that she would be voting for the MQM. Everyone sitting in that living room murmured their assent and said that they would do the same. The party that year had changed its name from the Muhajir Qaumi Movement to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement to appeal to a broader swathe of the electorate, but in my very Muhajir family, the reason for voting for the party remained the same: they were seen as the guarantors of Muhajir rights.

There is a myth that almost every Muhajir child in Pakistan grows up with: that we are somehow a violently persecuted and hated group. Even some of the most urbane and sophisticated of Muhajirs will argue that “we need an exclusive political group for protection”.

I call it a half-truth because there is at least some basis in reality for this persecution complex. During much of the 1970s and 1980s, many Muhajirs faced considerable discrimination when applying for government jobs. Questions about “where are you grandparents from” or the “Urban Sindh” quota were seen as tools used to limit Muhajir access to the most rewarding careers in the public sector.

But while the discrimination was pervasive and real in those two decades, it is not remotely close to being the full story. There are two parts of the story that are often left out. The first: “why were Muhajirs so badly discriminated against?” And the second: “are we still discriminated against?”

The answer to the first question is one that Muhajir families love to gloss over. At the time of independence and in the two decades that followed, Muhajirs dominated the powerful Civil Service of Pakistan in its heyday, in numbers that far exceeded their proportion of the population. The standard reason given for why this was so, and why it was appropriate, reeks of a lack of self-awareness: “it is because Muhajirs were the most qualified for those jobs.”

This answer is wrong on multiple levels. Firstly, it ignores the substantial educated middle class that existed in other ethnic groups that constitute Pakistan. But perhaps more importantly, even if one were to grant that this false premise is somehow true, why did none of these supposedly brilliantly well-educated Muhajirs think to close the education gap between them and other ethnic groups? Why did none of them think to invest state resources in education in the early years of our republic? Where were those supposedly superior “Muhajir values” that my relatives are so fond of talking about? Or did our values include consolidating our power through an unelected bureaucracy while sharing no decision making authority with other ethnic groups?

The harsh truth is that, while the discrimination against Muhajirs was real and reprehensible, it was not unprovoked. Other ethnic groups had legitimate grievances against Muhajir dominance and not telling our children that part of the story only makes them resentful and supportive of exclusionary and hateful ideologies.

As for the second question of how things fare in the present, there is considerable room for optimism on this front. Discrimination against Muhajirs has become largely irrelevant, thanks to the rise of the private sector. Corporate Pakistan’s most lucrative jobs are located in Karachi and so there is little fear among young Muhajir men and women that they will be discriminated against for the most coveted employment opportunities. Simply put, Muhajirs are no longer a threatened ethnic group, if we ever were one.

So will these old political constructs go away? The results of the 2013 election would suggest that we may be headed in that direction. In virtually every constituency where the Karachi-focused MQM won, the more nationally focused PTI secured the second-highest vote tally. Perhaps, the middle class in Pakistan is finally coming out of this mindset and voting not as members of any ethnic group, but as part of the broader national whole.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • Ali S
    Sep 12, 2014 - 12:31AM

    Well-written. Muhajirs/Urdu speakers should be proud of their distinct identity and heritage, but those born and raised in Karachi are as much sons of the soils as any Sindhi or other ethnicity, and being one myself I think that at least in Karachi this concept of ‘Muhajirs are discriminated against’ is totally baseless and irrelevant today. We need to embrace our diversity instead of suppressing it to form some naively idealistic homogeneous idea of ‘Pakistaniat’.

    There’s a major political party – whose leader has never been to Pakistan since the early 1990s (when anti-Muhajir bias might be a legitimate issue) and as a result his mindset is stuck in a time warp – who keep trying to isolate Muhajirs to retain their vote bank.


  • DaShizz
    Sep 12, 2014 - 1:10AM

    I think you meant to say that we’re already there and that Karachi voted PTI – overwhelmingly might I add. We all know the elections were rigged, especially in Karachi where peoples votes were forced.


  • Sep 12, 2014 - 1:55AM

    Well I don’t think that discrimination with Mohajirs is irrelevant because we can see that it is still practised against them may be not as much as in jobs scenario, but rest of the things are still as bad as they could be. For example you can see the media people Who are commenting biased and their selection of words seems like venom only for Mohajirs. As you mentioned elections 2013 so everyone remembers delimitation only in Karachi without concensus.
    Here we must say conditions which were in 70’s are not today and thats all thanks to Mr Altaf Hussain who spent his entire life in the struggle to get rights for Mohajir people.


  • Bilal Haque
    Sep 12, 2014 - 3:24AM

    very well written,,,,,, thanks


  • peoplia
    Sep 12, 2014 - 3:37AM

    Is that why Karachi is the only metropolitan city in the world without a city govt and a mayor?


  • Hasan
    Sep 12, 2014 - 5:00AM

    With due credit and respect to author I will widely disagree with the context of this op-ed. Two important points being mentioned in this piece are education and job on the basis of ethnicity and its relevancy within the current quota system. No doubt the situation is far greater than it was in the 80’s & 90’s its all due to work done by a particular political party. But has it completed by eradicated? The answer is NOPE. The quota system still exists for job & educational institutions both; why can’t all the educational institutions & govt. workplace appoint on merit? Whether it be all urban or all rural; Only the best get in. Why does Hyderabad (Sindh’s 2nd largest city without a public university? All this is on the basis of ethnicity)
    Although the author extensively the educational & job sectors put has chosen to widely ignore the political aspect? Urban Sindh’s population has doubled in last 15 years, but rural Sindh has kept the political mandate. Why hasn’t there been census since 97? If PTI second most votes from Khi, how many times have they speaken out for Karachi ZERO.
    The irony is that discrimination still exists till this date, we see it happen in front of our but easily ignore. 14 died in Lahore in Model Town Massacre entire nation came to stand still; mean while 6-10 die daily in Karachi and no one seems to care.


  • Hasan
    Sep 12, 2014 - 5:05AM

    The irony is that discrimination still exists till this date, we see it happen in front of our but easily ignore. 14 died in Lahore’s Model Town Massacre entire nation came to stand still; mean while 6-10 die daily in Karachi and no one seems to care. Urban Sindh is under represented in Politcal Geo-Structure; yet the government has no interest in conducting the census when Karachi alone has seen a 50% + increase in its Population. No Public Uni in Hyderabad & many more.

    Please see a blog published by Express Tribune Explaining the Political Under Representations and Dynamics of Karachi:
    The worth of being a Karachiite = Actually worthless!


  • Pakistani
    Sep 12, 2014 - 1:47PM

    I am really sick and tired of these ethnic parties.

    Because of their lack of vision they use the ethinic card to gain popularity.

    I have never been any thing other than Pakistani and will always be a Pakistrani.

    I dont care where you come from, what you look like or what your religion is. If you are Pakistani thats good enough for me.

    We need to put this mullah / ethnic period (last 4 decades) behind us now once and for all and move on.


  • Aqib Ali Shah
    Sep 12, 2014 - 2:25PM

    Finally. someone who speaks with rational argument, You sir have my respect, and we need more people like you here in Sindh, Specially in Karachi, so that this divide between the two major ethnic group could be minimized,which will ensure the prosperity of all Sindhis, the absence of unification between the 2 major groups of Sindh has laid other ethnic groups to take advantage of the prevailing situation rigorously !
    United we Stand, United we Progres.


  • Talha Khan
    Sep 12, 2014 - 3:52PM

    I totally disagree with the author’s PoV. Karachi had faced the worst state torture during 90s, most of them were mohajirs or Urdu-speaking. Discrimination against Mohajirs not finished yet, Karachi is still receiving 7-8 bodies of mohajirs daily. Can you please tell me how many mohajir SHOs are in metropolitan’s police stations?

    FYI, MQM don’t believe in ethics politics. 50% representatives of MQM are not Mohajirs. Comparing PTI with MQM is totally absurd, MQM secured 24 seats in NA and 57 in PA, while PTI only got 1 seat in NA from Karachi and 2 in PA out of which they have lost 1 seat on rigging charges. MQM leader was saying since 2004 that Taliban have entered in Karachi and PTI openly & proudly urged govt for Taliban offices. Where were PTI leaders when Karachi was burning?


  • Sep 12, 2014 - 4:26PM

    When we are talking about the Ethnic Votes, we should realize that due to continues discrimination with the people who laid their lives for the making of Pakistan may cause dangerous impact on the progress of a underdeveloped county. Here I totally disagree with the statement that People of Karachi are giving votes on ethnic basis or MQM is an ethnic party or calling Mohajir is a ethnic stance.

    We should revisit the history to know get the facts and figures about the Mohajirs. Its a fact that, at the time of partition, Mohajirs dominated Pakistan economically, politically and culturally. Along with their higher education and industrious nature, their initial domination of government greatly helped Mohajir elites economically. They are probably still Pakistan’s most cultured group. Nevertheless Mohajirs are not a cohesive ethnic group, unlike other Pakistani groups, but an identity group consisting of several highly distinct ethnic groups, once again thanks to Mr Altaf Husain and MQM who eliminated ethnic distribution among the people. Mohajirs have the right to maintain their separate identity within the rubric of their Pakistani citizenship.

    Today most of the Mohajirs feels that they were betrayed at the perceived lack of gratitude shown by others for what they see as their role as Pakistan’s architects. They feel discriminated everywhere in every field.

    Calling them ethnic group or getting ethnic vote to the people who rendered their thankless efforts in creation of Pakistan and its development is sorry to say totally unjustified, when everyone knows they created sectarian harmony among the people.


    Muhammad Suhail


  • Sep 12, 2014 - 6:19PM

    I have always found articles by Farooq Tirmizi analytic and factual. I would like to understand one thing as to why this word ‘MUHAJIR’ is so active in Pakistan even today and the muhajirs have not been accepted completely by the society. In India the word ‘sharnarthi’ is long forgotten and gone. It is only the grand parents who at times fondly speak about the ancestral places otherwise they are just like all of us.


  • mrs ahmed
    Sep 12, 2014 - 7:10PM

    u are so right


  • Sharma
    Sep 12, 2014 - 10:27PM

    No Vinod, we can never forget our homes in Pakistan that we left in 1947. Neither us, or our children or grandchildren. We will return to our homes one day.


  • Talha
    Sep 12, 2014 - 10:51PM

    Well written,indeed the ethnic card of our political parties should be degraded.we all are proud Pakistanis and MuslimsRecommend

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