As the criminal elements in different political parties clash with each other in a bloody war to dominate Karachi, the issue of ethnicity has resurfaced again. More and more people are associating themselves with a certain race, language and area inhabited by either Urdu speakers, Sindhis, Pakhtuns or Baloch.

The recent paramilitary operation to nab people involved in violence has somehow started to fan the ethnic divide on the streets as well.  

Young men in jeans, sipping tea at a roadside restaurant in Gulshan perceive that the Rangers are raiding mostly the Urdu-speaking parts of city. The Pakhtuns say they are singled out frequently. Sindhi people complain they are being targeted for establishing homes in Karachi and the Baloch in Lyari protest about being discriminated in social life and now labelled as gangsters.

The menace of ethnic politics has not spared the mainstream political parties either. Slowly but gradually, they seem to be siding with the part of society that associates itself with a majority of their leaders.

Talking on the relation between ethnicity and politics, Mutahir Ahmed, professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi, said that the two have been interlinked since the creation of the country.

“It is not a new trend that political parties are ethnic-based. Since the beginning, political parties have been supporting ethnicity. And that took place because people of various communities have been living here for the last 5,000 to 8,000 years. But the government wanted them to forgo their ethnicities and consider themselves of a national identity which is not possible.”

He adds, “Every political party has an ethnic base, and there is no harm in that as the party is reaching out to its people at the lowest level and then going out to the masses at the federal level.”

Meanwhile, talking on Karachi’s recent situation, where a war of words is going on between politicians and their particular ethnic groups, he said it was the responsibility of the government to restore law and order in the city, and not let the ethnic divide reach heights.

Political analyst Hasan Askari says that ethnicity in political parties has increased in the country, especially in Karachi, which he calls a divided city.

But, he believes that parties which are ethnic-based cannot be excluded from the democratic process, as people cannot be told to shun their ethnicity.

“Identity politics was promoted during the 1980s when the military dictator General Zia was in power. The era of military dictatorship promotes such politics which is ethnic or linguistic based as dictatorship is opposed to nationwide political parties and movements. In times when a national party is weakened, localised party becomes strong in their area.”

Askari believes that parties such as the PPP continue to be broad-based to this day as their vote bank and support lies in all the provinces and not just Sindh. Meanwhile, the analyst states that parties such as the MQM, despite their claims, have remained ethnic-base as their politics has not reached other parts of the country.

While speaking on future elections, and how the current situation will have an effect on the voter, Askari says that the ethnic and sectarian background of the party is taken into consideration, and is part of the electoral behaviour.


Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)

In the face of allegations hurled against the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) of exacerbating the ethnic divide by supporting one particular ethnic community, former deputy major and senior party leader Nasreen Jalil rejects these claims, and blames other political parties for the rise in ethnic tensions.

Critics of the MQM, among the largest political parties in the country, point to its reverting over the years from the Muttahida to the Mohajir Qaumi Movement as an example of its slide back towards ethnicity. Speaking on why MQM chief Altaf Hussain and other party leaders only raised their voice against the injustices towards the Urdu-speaking people in the recent wave of Karachi violence, when people from other ethnic groups were also targeted, Jalil says: “We spoke of the atrocities being committed against the Urdu-speaking people as a majority of our vote bank is from this community. During the recent violence, the people from this community were brutally killed. They were pulled out from buses by criminals and later their headless bodies were found. But it’s not true that we only speak for the rights of this community. We were the first ones to raise a voice when other communities were being targeted as well.”

Jalil places the blame on other political parties for heating up the issue of ethnicity, and says that when some political parties come to power, they play the ‘Sindh card’, while others politicians, such as Nawaz Sharif, raise slogans like ‘Jag Punjabi Jag’, which further widens the ethnic divide.

“All along, other mainstream parties have been openly supporting their particular ethnic groups, and now people are associating their ethnicity with political parties.”

The senior party leader believes that there are some ‘elements’ who want her party to become an ethnic-based party again, and want the MQM to limit its support and activities to one group, instead of reaching out to the masses.

“We started out as an ethnic party, and were formed to speak for the Mohajirs back in 1984. But in 1997, we transformed into the Muttahida, believing in the representation of all groups.” She backs her claims by stating that in the party’s Rabita Committee, there are Sindhis, Punjabis, Baloch and Pakhtuns involved in the policy and decision-making of the party. “Also, from Sindh we have parliamentarians such as Heer Soho and Nisar Panhwar, who are not Urdu-speaking but are representing the party in parliament.”

Jalil says that the party’s ideology to promote the lower-middle class and to take them to parliament is being seen as a threat by the feudal lords. She asks: “If we were spreading ethnicity, why would people from other communities be coming to Karachi and working here?

– RA


Jamaat-i-Islami (JI)

Representing a political party which is active in Karachi, Mairaj ul Huda Siddiqui of the Jamaat-i-Islami forecasts a volatile society in the future if the ethnic tension instigated by political parties continues to rise. “Politics on the basis of ethnicity leads to destruction of a society, where people are insecure and unprotected, and are harmed because of their community. Take the example of the recent bloodshed in which people who had no affiliation with any political party, such as a poor mason or a fruit seller were killed only because of their ethnicity.”

The leader of the religious party is highly critical of the political parties which are in power, and states that these parties are just working for their own personal motives and for their own communities, and are not interested in solving the issues of the others.

“There are several ethnic communities which have been residing in Karachi, say for the past 50-60 years. But today, the political parties at the helm of affairs are supporting their own respective ethnic community instead of focusing on the prosperity and progress of all the communities.”

Without naming any political party, Siddiqui says that the claim that parties support specific ethnic groups is evident from the party’s agenda and action. “While all parties claim that they are pluralistic, I believe that they are far from being pluralistic. They are based on individualism, and cater to their individual needs.”

Speaking on the sectarian divide instead of the ethnic divides which is mostly seen in religious party, Siddiqui admits that while there are religious parties which strive for their own sect. However, he claims that this party is free from any ethnic and sectarian division, and people from all linguistic background are members of Jamaat-i-Islami.

The leader warns that if the current situation prevails, then the metropolis can turn into a battlefield, with killings, violence and injustice on the rise. Also, communities which for years have been living in peace with one another will turn against one another. “The ethnic divide is not good for any stable country, and political parties which are harbouring it should rethink their strategy before the society moves toward destruction. Irrespective of their language and ethnicity, the parties should work for the betterment of all the communities.”

– RA


Awami National Party (ANP)

Awami National Party (ANP) Sindh President Shahi Syed says that all large political parties are heading back to nationalist politics as a consequence of international interference in the affairs of the country.  “Today, we stand divided like never before in our history. It seems all the dictation is coming from the United States and other foreign powers. Naturally, this is leading us back to the politics of ethnicity.”

The ANP, he said, tried a long back to cease to be only a Pakhtun political group. “But now look at the Pakistan Muslim League (PML)-Nawaz, which is focusing in Punjab, PPP that is actively mobilising people in Sindh and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is doing the same in Karachi.”

Before the 1980s, the focus of most of the political parities was on provincial sovereignty, he said. “It was always a war between the smaller and the largest province of Punjab.”

Syed blamed the MQM for sowing the seeds of ethnic discontent in Karachi. “Since the MQM became active in 1985, we have seen so many breakaway factions, which are all engaged in a turf war.”

Militant Urdu speaking elements in the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) joined the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organization (APMSO), he said. “Then in 1992, Afaq Ahmed broke away and formed his own party. Similarly, the Sunni Tehreek was formed. These are all majority Urdu-speaking parties.”

The discontent among the public on the basis of language is increasing because of the victimization of Pakhtuns in Karachi. “When a roadside vendor, a shopkeeper and labourer will be killed just because of his nationality, then definitely it will create issues.”

He denied that the ANP had only Pushto speaking people as central leaders. “Our General Secretary is from Punjab. But yes we do trace our roots back to Khyber Pukhtunkhawa because the tide has shifted and everyone is playing the politics of ethnicity.”

– SH


Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)

Sharmeela Farooqi, a leader of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), belongs to the Urdu- speaking community but remains a staunch loyalist of the Bhuttos and President Asif Ali Zardari.  

“The PPP has always tried to keep itself above ethnic politics. But I have seen in the interior of Sindh that it is appreciated if you speak in Sindhi. Even a lot of members of the Sindh cabinet prefer talking in Sindhi rather than Urdu,” she says.

People normally come together as Pakistanis only when the country plays a cricket match or protest against the highhandedness of the United States, she says. “Over the years, this particular trend has crept into all the provinces.”

She says that politicians are increasingly talking about their own parties and leadership rather than Pakistan. “This attitude suggests that we are taking sides. Obviously, the general public starts to view us as supporting a particular nationality.”

The PPP, which has remained the most popular national party for the last four decades, is truly national, having roots everywhere in the country. Yet, in Karachi, it is increasingly seen as predominantly Sindhi.

“In past the three years, I have noticed that a lot of restaurants have started to offer Sindhi Biryani. I wonder why is it I don’t get to read anything about a Pashtun or Punjabi Biryani. Of course there is nothing wrong in this, but this is how people behave,” says Farooqi.

The perception is that whenever the PPP comes into government, the city sees landlords from the interior cruising with their bodyguards in Pajeros. But this perception misses a point.

During the last few years, the farm income, not just in Sindh but in Punjab too, has grown substantially on the back of the rise in the price of agricultural products. This has caused a flow of money from the urban centres to rural parts. People with cash have no better place to invest than Karachi.

Farooqi says that statements of former Home Minister Zulfiqar Mirza have driven the wedge deeper between the different people of Karachi.

“Politicians from everywhere need to realise that this trend is dangerous for peace and stability. We must tackle this now before it’s too late.”

– SH




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