Pakistan’s seemingly endless sectarian and ethnic conflicts took an unusual new twist on Friday when Altaf Hussain, the boss of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party, threatened to break-away part of the Sindh province for people who speak the Urdu language. Dawn, an English language Pakistani daily, reported that Altaf made the demand during a speech to party workers in Hyderabad ahead of local elections where he criticized MQM’s former coalition partners, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which rules Sindh province, for seeking to manipulate the polls that would lead to the PPP defeating MQM in every Sindhi constituency.
“Torch bearers of democracy had never been able to hold local government elections,” Hussain said, referring to the PPP, and alleging that the party is guilty of discriminating against the province’s Urdu-speaking population. "If you do not like Sindhi Urdu speakers then make a separate province for them," Altaf told PPP, according to SAMAA TV. A demand for a separate province, Altaf suggested, could eventually lead to demands for a separate independent state. “We are also children of Sindh, if we have lived side by side in Sindh for so long, we can live in separate provinces as well.” Altaf added, according to Dunya News.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairman of PPP (and son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former President Asif Ali Zardari), responded to Altaf’s threat on Twitter with a dramatic flourish of his own: “We will die but won't give Sindh [away to others].” The Information Minister of Sindh, PPP member Sharjeel Memon, characterized Altaf’s demands as ”a ploy to divert attention from the Karachi [police] operation, which is targeting terrorists, extortionists and those responsible for all the dead bodies found packed in gunny sacks.” (Karachi is one of the most violent cities on earth, with scores of murders reported monthly).
Memon added: “I don’t think that this singular statement by one person [Altaf] from one group [MQM] reflects the sentiments of the masses. Everyone in Sindh is living like brothers and will continue to do so. We won’t let anyone split Sindh… It is not appropriate to create ethnic division through public meetings, everybody knows who is behind hooliganism.”
The Nation, another Pakistani publication, noted that Altaf has made such demands before. Altaf and his MQM represent the so-called “Muhajirs,” that is, the Muslims who fled Hindu-dominated British India during Partition to settle in the new country of Pakistan in 1947. The Mujahirs are largely Urdu-speaking and over the past six-plus decades have failed to integrate with the native Sindhi-speaking population in Sindh. In Sindh, the Urdu-speaking Mujahirs tend to concentrate in urban centers like Karachi and Hyderabad, while Sindh speakers generally reside in the rural regions.
During his address to party faithful, Altaf made an ominous reference to the violence of 1947 Partition, declaring that the Urdu-speaking community knows “how to cross rivers of blood [which was] well experienced by our ancestors and we are their children and we know how to take what’s ours.” The MQM chief added: “We didn’t come to Pakistan to become slaves, neither are we here to become masters, we merely want to become equal citizens.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Sindhis and Urdus cannot even agree on which side has a numerical advantage in Sindh province – Altaf claims Urdu speakers outnumber Sindhi speakers, while Sindhis believe otherwise.
Altaf has also challenged the provincial government to immediately found an Urdu-speaking university in Hyderabad, while throwing down the gauntlet to the national government in Islamabad. “I am addressing the establishment; you want to sideline half of the population of Sindh,” he stated, according to The Nation. “When will you interfere? When migrants will shout for [an] independent state, then will you intervene? What do you want? Don’t call me [a] traitor… I am merely asking philosophically. What do you want? I am not [a] constitutional expert, I am merely talking philosophically.”
Altaf’s renewed demands for a separate state coincide with his support for former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, a fellow Mujahir, who is currently facing murder charges in connection with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. The MQM chief directly referred to Musharraf in his tirade against the government, suggesting the former President is being singled out for persecution. “What are you doing to Musharraf? Just because he is [a] Muhajir?” he thundered. “I am a student of [the] Constitution. Punish Musharraf if you want but also imprison those who [also] acted on the [martial] law orders on [the] ground. Why are others being excused?”
Nonetheless, The Express Tribune reported that Altaf implored the provincial government to come to the negotiating tables in order to equalize the political power and representation of urban Urdu-speakers with rural Sindhi-speakers in Sindh province. “Today, I ask PPP and Sindhi nationalist parties that if they consider the urban masses — the Urdu-speaking Sindhis — not Sindhi enough, then create a separate province for this particular Sindhi population,” he said.
MQM and its leader Altaf have a long and controversial history. Altaf, now 60 years old, founded the predecessor of MQM, the All Pakistan Muhajir Student Organization (APMSO), in 1978. The party dominates affairs in the teeming coastal city of Karachi – but under a dark cloud of accusations that MQM engages in gun-running, drug-dealing, extortion and targeted killings.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.