We all knew it would start up again – the shootings on a massive scale, the unnatural silence in the evenings, the siege mentality – but for the moment, for today, Karachi was getting back on its feet, as it had always been able to do, and that didn’t just mean getting back to work, but getting back to play: friendship, chai, cricket on the street, conversation ... In the midst of everything that was happening, Karachi had decided to turn round and wink at me. And in that wink was serious intent: yes, the city said, I am a breeding ground for monsters, but don’t think that is the full measure of what I am.

(Kamila Shamsie)1

On the late afternoon of 29 April 2009 in Karachi I visited the local headquarters of the Jamaat Islami party and spent a couple of hours talking with the head of their social welfare organization; then went on to Zeinab Market in the old downtown area to buy some presents, and spent another hour or so haggling over tablecloths and shawls; then to another shop to buy a new suitcase, and back to my hotel for a shower and a meal, and to call my family.

That done, I turned on the television to see if anything important had happened during the day, and discovered that yes, it had – thirty-four people had been killed in gun battles and targeted shootings over the previous few hours in outlying parts of Karachi; and no one whom I’d met in the centre of town had thought it worth mentioning, or had changed their behaviour in any way as a result.

What was even more striking was that this experience echoed one of almost twenty years before, when I was visiting Karachi as a journalist in August 1989. Then, too, a gun battle erupted in another part of town, of which I and everyone I met were unaware until I was tipped off by a local journalist. On that occasion, if I remember rightly, there were only six dead.

The fighting then was between fighters from the Mohajir majority in Karachi and others from the Sindhi minority in the city (but majority in the province as a whole). In 2009, the fighting was between Mohajirs and Pathans. Otherwise, at first sight, plus ça change . . . Nothing about the Rangers (a paramilitary corps under the army, acting as a reserve force of order in the city) trying to separate the two sides had changed, nor the alert, tense, rather contemptuous glances they cast over the local population from behind the light machine-guns mounted on their jeeps. Nor had anything at all changed in the handful of mostly ill-equipped and dirty hospitals to which the wounded were ferried. There have been several more such battles in 2009 and 2010.

All this is a long way of saying that Karachi is a deeply divided city, but also a very big city, with a remarkable capacity to tolerate episodes of great violence. In 1989 the population was already 8 million, bigger than London’s. By 2009, it had swelled to a megalopolis of around 18 million – or at least that was the estimate Karachi’s mayor gave me and uses as a basis. Other opinions from officials ranged from 15 to 20 million. Obviously, a city which is not sure of the existence of several million people isn’t going to miss thirty-four very badly; and indeed, visiting the affected areas in the following days, it was not easy to spot the occasional burntout shop and minibus amid the thousands of shops and minibuses still plying their trade on the endless streets.

Nor is Karachi a particularly violent city by world standards. Even if political and ethnic violence are included, the murder rate in Karachi at the last count put it twenty-fifth among the great cities of the world. Remove these elements, and the rate goes down to well below that of several large cities in the US. Despite the killings of April 2009, Karachi is still – God willing – much more peaceful than it was when I knew it in the late 1980s. As of 2010, killings are chiefly targeted, aimed at the activists and ‘hard men’ on either side; the killings are part of the political game, of the ‘negotiated state’. Then, there were mass killings, with bomb attacks and pillion riders on motorbikes firing Kalashnikovs into crowds, leaving dozens dead at a time, and pointing towards outright ethnic civil war. This improvement in the country’s greatest city has to be set against the growing violence of the Pathan areas of northern Pakistan. As usual, Pakistan is stumbling along, worse in some ways, better in others.

For that matter, even in its worst years Karachi was very far from the anarchy of West Africa, let alone Somalia or the Congo. Indeed, anyone who has done no more than visit Karachi airport can tell the difference. Since 2000, under two generally honest, efficient and dynamic city governments, the city’s infrastructure has considerably improved. All the same, there have been moments in Karachi when I was tempted to kiss the Rangers (a temptation strongly to be resisted).

Finally, it is worth noting that none of the major outbreaks of conflict in Karachi over the past generation has involved the Taleban, or Islamist extremism in general. There have been isolated terrorist attacks by Sunni Islamist extremists in the city, including serious terrorism against local Shia, the murder of Daniel Pearl and the bomb attack on the US consulate; and Jamaat Islami students have been involved in armed clashes with other student groups in the university, but Karachi’s tensions are overwhelmingly ethnic, not sectarian.

In fact, the Taleban stand about as much chance of taking over Karachi as I do, given the make-up and culture of most of its inhabitants. Rather, the dangers to Karachi from the Taleban are twofold. The first is that Taleban terrorist attacks attributed to members of the Pathan minority in the city may exacerbate ethnic tensions to the point where they are beyond the power of the army and Rangers to contain, and the economic life of the city – and of Pakistan – is severely damaged.

The second, more remote possibility is that developments elsewhere will split the army and weaken the state to the point where their control over Sindh and Karachi will collapse altogether, and this region will be delivered over to its own inner demons. On the basis of my own researches, I can state with melancholy confidence that the ability of Sindh’s populations to regulate their differences peacefully in the absence of the Pakistani state would be low to non-existent.

Looming behind the short- to medium-term threat of ethnic violence is an even greater long-term danger – that of water: not enough of one kind, and too much of another. For the past 5,000 years and more, human civilization in this region has been a gift only of the River Indus, which flows through what would otherwise be desert and semi-desert. After the British conquered Sindh in the 1830s, their first census recorded a population of barely 1.3 million people. One hundred and seventy years later, the population has soared to around 50 million people – and 50 million people cannot live in a desert.

This growth was thanks above all to massive British irrigation projects, which turned large areas of semi-desert into some of the most fertile land on earth. But almost all the water that flows down these canals still comes from the same old source: the Indus, that ‘capricious and incalculable river’; and through a mixture of over-use and appalling wastefulness, in the decade leading up to 2010 the Indus no longer flowed into its delta for much of the year, and the sea crept in to replace it.

The great floods of 2010 have replenished the delta and promised Sindh’s farmers a bumper crop in 2011, but this is likely to be a purely temporary effect – unless, on the one hand, Sindh can develop an infrastructure to conserve and use its water properly; or, on the other hand, such floods become a frequent occurrence, in which case much of Sindhi agriculture will be reduced to a subsistence level. By driving hundreds of thousands of Sindhi and Pathan peasants from their swamped lands and wrecked villages into Mohajir-dominated Karachi, the 2010 floods have also threatened Sindh’s precarious ethnic peace – atendency that can only get much worse if ecological disasters become a regular pattern.

As to the consequences of a really serious rise in sea levels as a result of climate change, you only have to stand on the low sea wall at Karachi and look at the city with its millions of inhabitants stretching back across miles of low-lying land (Karachi’s average height above sea level is 26 feet) to imagine what would happen.

Caught between the hungry sea and the thirsty land, and with both pressures in danger of drastically intensifying as a result of climate change, Sindh needs nothing less than a revolution in its system of land use and water management over the next decades if human civilization in this region is not to be seriously threatened. Given the centrality of landownership to Sindhi political society, and the centrality of water to usable land, such a revolution would probably need to be not only technological and economic but also social and political; and whether one of the most stagnant societies in Asia is capable of such change seems highly doubtful.


The Indus (in Sanskrit, Sindhu) gives its name to Sindh, to India and also to the oldest civilization in Sindh, and one of the oldest on earth: the Indus Valley civilization, which existed in various forms between around 3300 and 1300 BCE. That civilization was destroyed, presumably by Aryan invaders from Central Asia, around 3,000 years ago, and no visible link exists between it and the Sindh of today.

However, it is rather depressing, when visiting the excavated ruins of the city of Mohenjo Daro in upper Sindh, to note that its clay bricks were better made and better laid than those of most Sindhi towns and villages of the present, though both are made from the same mud. Samina Altaf remarks that Mohenjo Daro’s water supply also seems to have been better than those of many Pakistani cities today.2

Equally depressing is the fact that waterlogging because of rice cultivation in the surrounding fields and neglect by the Pakistani government means that by far the greater part of Mohenjo Daro, and all its earliest levels, are now lost for ever, melted back into the mud from which they came. In fact, Mohenjo Daro is apt to arouse bitter musings on cycles of historical decline in anyone with a reverence for the past and its exploration.

A traveller of 1842 described the homes of ordinary rural Sindhis:

All the houses here are built of clay; they are scarcely twenty feet high, have flat roofs, from which a kind of ventilator sometimes rises, and air holes supply the place of windows. Long continued rain would destroy these huts and sweep away whole villages.3

Just as nothing much about the dwellings of ordinary people had changed in the thousands of years of human habitation in Sindh prior to this description, so nothing much seems to have changed in the 168 years since. This is one reason why the floods of 2010 were not as destructive as appeared at first sight. To put it bluntly: mud huts are easy to rebuild.

The ruins of Mohenjo Daro are topped by the much later stupa of a Buddhist monastery, representing the religion which for 1,000 years or so partially displaced the Hindu system created by the Aryans. Muslim rule began in the region with the conquests of Mohammed bin Qasim, an Arab general, after 710 CE, though it was not until some 500 years later that the bulk of the Hindu population was converted to Islam. Though the original conquest was extremely violent, the subsequent conversion was largely peaceful, and was above all the work of the ‘Sufi’ saints described in Chapter 4, whose worship still predominates in interior Sindh. Around 20 per cent remained Hindu until the partition of India in 1947, and Sindh still contains by far the largest number of Hindus in Pakistan.

Sindh was the original gateway of Islam into the Indian subcontinent, spreading by sea from Arabia. In subsequent centuries, however, the importance of the sea links to Arabia faded, and the main Muslim route of invasion, migration and trade came to be from Iran and Central Asia through Afghanistan to Punjab and on to the plains of the Ganges. Cut off by the deserts of Balochistan to the west and the Thar to the east, and by the swamps of the Rann of Kutch to the south-east, Sindh developed in partial isolation from the main currents of Muslim life in the subcontinent. This isolation has strongly marked Sindhi culture down to the present.

From the early sixteenth century to the early eighteenth, Sindh was incorporated in the Mughal empire, though actual control by the central government was very loose. With the decline of the Mughals in the early eighteenth century, power was progressively seized by their local governors, the Kalhoras. In the later eighteenth century, the Kalhoras transferred their allegiance first to Nadir Shah of Iran, then to the Durrani dynasty of Afghanistan. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Kalhoras were themselves displaced by a new dynasty, that of the Talpurs, who ruled until the British conquest of 1843. The glory of the Talpurs is still recalled by the magnificent tiled and painted palaces of their secondary capital of Kot Diji, a place that cries out for conservation and tourism development but which, like Mohenjo Daro, has been quite shamefully neglected by the government.

The Kalhoras and Talpurs represented traditions which remain of central importance in much of Sindh today. The Kalhoras represented the hereditary descendants of the saints and of the Prophet (highly improbably in this as in most cases, since they are generally thought to have been descended from converted Hindus). The Talpurs represented the tribes of Baloch origin, which had always been present in Sindh but which increased their numbers greatly in the disorders which followed the end of Mughal rule.

These two groups provide many of the great landowner-politicians who continue to dominate the politics of ‘interior Sindh’. Both the Kalhoras and the Talpurs also illustrate the vagueness of religious distinctions among the Sindhis, since the Kalhora saints were worshipped by both Sunnis and Shia, while the Talpurs include both Shia and Sunni branches. The shrines of the saints, large and small, extend across the Sindhi countryside. As Sarah Ansari writes: ‘By the end of the eighteenth century, it had become virtually impossible to travel more than a few miles in Sindh without coming across the shrine of one saint or another.’4

Like the Seraiki belt of southern Punjab described in the last chapter, Sindh is the area of Muslim South Asia most dominated by the worship of pirs. As to the Baloch tribes, their migration from the deserts and semi-deserts to the west has contributed to the extreme conservatism of Sindhi rural society, its violent obsession with honour, and its tendency to cattle-lifting, banditry and tribal feuds.

In previous centuries, these Baloch tribes of Sindh, like the Mazaris, could field hundreds or even thousands of armed men each. The fortlike appearance of Sindhi villages, with their thorn fences and blank exterior walls with holes that do duty both for ventilation and as loopholes, attest to the traditional insecurity of Sindhi rural life, and the long lineage of Sindhi dacoity (banditry). In previous centuries, all the settled populations and traders were at risk from tribal raiders, but especially at risk were the Hindu merchants, bankers and moneylenders who dominated Sindh’s commercial economy.

Under British rule, the Sindhi Hindu commercial classes profited greatly from increased law and order, an end to tribal raids, the development of a modern civil code governing commercial transactions, and the overcoming of Sindh’s traditional isolation through the construction of railways and the great port of Karachi – which, when the British arrived, had been a small town of 14,000 people, dependent chiefly on fishing. Especially in Karachi, the Hindus were joined by Muslim immigrants from Gujarat and elsewhere in India, chiefly from ethnic and religious groups with strong commercial traditions such as the Memons, Khojas and Bohras, as well as Parsis.

By the later British period, these came to make up the bulk of the middle classes in Sindh. This movement was facilitated by the fact that until 1936 Sindh was not a separate province, but was part of the Bombay Presidency, ruled from the great commercial metropolis of that name. The father of Pakistani independence, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, came from a Khoja family of Gujarat, which settled in Karachi, and which contained Ismaili and orthodox (‘Twelver’) Shia branches.

As a result of this influx, Karachi emerged as a city which even before independence had a very different culture and ethnic character from that of the rest of Sindh, of which it (and not the Talpurs’ Hyderabad) became the capital. In 1947, a majority of Karachi’s inhabitants were Hindu. Karachi grew partly as a result of the enormously increased agricultural exports first of Punjab (from the 1890s) and then Sindh (from the 1930s) as a result of British irrigation projects.

Its greatest single boost under the Raj, however, came from the First World War, when it became one of the greatest points of transit for troops and supplies from British India to the British campaigns against the Ottoman empire in the Middle East. By independence Karachi had a population of some 350,000. By the census of 1961 this had risen to more than 2 million, by 1981 to 5 million, and today to some 18 million.


The moment that conclusively wrenched Karachi into a separate path of development from ‘interior Sindh’ came with independence and partition. The very phrase ‘interior Sindh’ is suggestive, especially in the mouths of Urdu-speaking Karachiites, when it takes on some of the overtones of mid-Victorian references to the interior of Africa. Millions of Urdu-speaking Muslim ‘Mohajirs’ (a Muslim term meaning refugees for the sake of religious belief, after those who followed the Prophet from Mecca to Medina) left India for Pakistan, and by far the greater number settled in Karachi, and to a lesser extent in Sindh’s second city of Hyderabad, both of which they came to dominate.

The resulting growth in Karachi’s population was explosive even by the standards of the developing world – and it often seems a miracle that this growth did not overwhelm it completely, and that it manages to function better than most cities in Africa and many in Asia and South America. As of 2010, Karachi generates around a quarter of Pakistan’s state revenues and GDP, and contains more than half of Pakistan’s banking assets and almost a third of Pakistan’s industry.

This economic dynamism was above all a result of the influx of non-Sindhis. As a result of this migration, in 1998, according to the census, Urdu-speakers made up 21 per cent of the population of Sindh, compared to 59 per cent Sindhi-speakers. In Karachi, they were 48 per cent, with around another 8 per cent made up of Gujarati, who also left India after 1947 and so come under the same heading of Mohajir.

The balance was made up mainly of other migrants to Karachi: almost 14 per cent Punjabis (including a number whose ancestors were settled in the countryside under British rule) and 11 per cent Pashtospeakers in Karachi in 1998 (certainly higher today). Only 7.22 per cent of the population of Karachi in 1998 was Sindhi-speaking. The balance was largely made up of Muslim emigrants from Gujarat in India, who speak their own languages but as Mohajirs tend to identify with the Urdu-speakers and the MQM. In Sindh as a whole, although so many Sindhis are of Baloch origin, most speak the Sindhi language, meaning that Balochi-speakers account for only 2 per cent of the population.

The Sindhis helped the process by which Urdu-speakers came to dominate the main cities by their attacks on the Hindu minority, which, though not nearly as savage as in Punjab, nevertheless led to the flight of most of them by 1950, and of all their wealthy and influential elements. Sindhi Hindu refugees went to swell the commercial prosperity of Gujarat and Bombay, but also to increase anti-Muslim chauvinism in India. The leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Lal Krishna Advani, was born in Karachi in 1927.

Like Punjab, Muslim Sindh came round to supporting the partition of India very late, and might indeed easily have wrecked the entire idea. The strongest support for the Muslim League in Sindh before independence came from ethnic non-Sindhis: the urban middle classes and dynamic Punjabi farmers who had settled in Sindh to exploit the new lands made fertile by British irrigation projects. Opposition to the League came from the Sindh United Party, which, like the Unionist Party in Punjab, tried to bridge the gap between Muslims and Hindus and preserve a united India with increased provincial autonomy. The United Party’s Muslim membership was dominated by big ‘feudal’ landowners including Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, father of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and grandfather of Benazir Bhutto.

The Muslim League encouraged and exploited a wave of anti-Hindu feeling in the 1940s to defeat the United Party, but then itself split into two factions. The former President of the League in Sindh, G. M. Syed, clashed bitterly with Jinnah over Syed’s demands for Sindh to be fully autonomous within a loose Pakistani confederation. He left the party to found a Sindhi nationalist party, which still exists under the leadership of his son.

The nationalism of Syed and his followers was greatly increased by the influx of Mohajirs to Karachi and Hyderabad after 1947, taking over homes and property abandoned by the Hindus. The Sindhis dubbed the Mohajirs makhar – after the locusts which still sometimes devastate parts of the Sindhi countryside. The Mohajirs hit back with paindu (‘villager’, with a connotation of ‘country bumpkin’) or even choupaya (domestic animal, beast of burden).

The Mohajirs were and remain far better educated than the mainly rural Sindhis, and came mostly from middle-class urban backgrounds in India. According to the 1951 census, only 15 per cent of Mohajirs were unskilled labourers, with almost 40 per cent classified as clerical or sales workers, and 21 per cent as skilled workers. More than 5 per cent were from professional and managerial backgrounds. Karachi in consequence has the highest literacy rate of any city in Pakistan – which at 65 per cent is admittedly not saying very much. These origins continue to mark the Mohajirs out not merely from Sindhis but from the vast majority of Pakistanis, and the self-identification as a modern urban middle class is at the heart of Mohajir cultural and – later – political identity:

The middle-class faction of Mohajirs has defined the core characteristics of Mohajir cultural identity: education, Urdu, resistance, urbanism. These characteristics are the privileges and qualities that were taken for granted for decades but were threatened in the 1960s and 1970s. These privileges and qualities are of central importance in the reading of history and have become part of Mohajir culture. Therefore, all Mohajirs are considered middle class – even the slum-dwellers in Usmania Mohajir Colony and the men who take their lunch in five-star hotels.5

The Mohajirs spoke Pakistan’s new national language, Urdu, at home. This gave them a colossal advantage in competition for government jobs, which was increased still further by their residence in Karachi, which until 1958 was Pakistan’s capital and a separate federally administered district. Mohajirs naturally also dominated the Urdu- and English-language educational establishments in Karachi, relegating Sindhis to a severely underfunded Sindhi university in Hyderabad. Sindh itself was dissolved as a province from 1955 to 1970, and incorporated in the ‘one unit’ of West Pakistan, intended to create a balance against the other unit of East Pakistan, with its somewhat larger population. Under ‘one unit’, Mohajirs and to a lesser extent Punjabis dominated the bureaucracy and police in Sindh at the expense of Sindhis.


By the early 1970s, however, the advantage had swung back heavily in favour of the Sindhis. The shift of the national capital to Islamabad in the 1960s had reincorporated Karachi in the province of Sindh and reduced the Mohajirs’ access to government positions; and the rise of the Sindhi Z. A. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for the first time gave the Sindhis a grip both on a national political party and (from 1971 to 1977) on national government. Bhutto established quotas in education and government service for people from the rural areas of Sindh – in other words, ethnic Sindhis – that drastically reduced Mohajir opportunities in these fields.

Bhutto’s anti-capitalist rhetoric was particularly directed at the non-Sindhi commercial elites of Karachi, and his establishment of Sindhi as the official provincial language hurt Mohajir prospects in Sindh. In the words of Feroz Ahmed, this confronted the Mohajirs with ‘a sudden need to face the reality of Sindh’.

For 23 years the Mohajirs of Karachi had never even thought of being in Sindh; a majority of them had never seen a Sindhi nor heard their language being spoken. Their youth had grown up thinking that Karachi was a Mohajir enclave or a world unto itself. In everyday speech, as in the press, the expression ‘Karachi and Sindh’ was in vogue [it still is – AL] ... For many Mohajirs, the return of Karachi to Sindh was nothing less than surrendering a homeland for the second time.6

This reinforced a sense among Mohajirs that they were losing the country – Pakistan – that ‘they had founded’, as the Punjabi elites had increasingly taken over from Mohajirs in the central bureaucracy – a shift symbolized and reinforced by the move of the capital to the new Punjabi city of Islamabad. By the 1980s, the Mohajirs also found their ethnic dominance of Karachi under pressure from growing numbers of Punjabi and especially Pathan migrants.

This decline has continued since. In 1981, Mohajirs made up 24.1 per cent of the population of Sindh compared to 55.7 Sindhis, 10.6 per cent Punjabis and 3.6 per cent Pathans. By 1998, the Mohajir proportion had fallen to 21 per cent and the Sindhi proportion had risen to 59 per cent. The next census is going to be an explosive issue, because it will almost certainly show that the Mohajir proportion has dropped still further. In addition, there is a well-founded suspicion that a desire to evade registration for taxes means that a large part of the Pathan population of Karachi does not even appear in the census.

The Mohajirs lack the inward migration of the Pathans, and their higher level of education has also meant a lower birth-rate than that of both the Pathans and the Sindhis. Part of the explanation of the ruthlessness of the MQM can be explained by the perceived need to compensate for inexorable demographic decline by rigid political control, and by the fact that, in the words of one MQM activist, ‘We cannot afford to give an inch, because we have our backs to the sea. The Sindhis have Sindh, and the Pathans can go back to their mountains; but we have nowhere but Karachi.’ The new influx of Sindhis and Pathans displaced by the 2010 floods has increased this Mohajir fear still further.

The break-off of East Pakistan in 1971 seemed to destroy the premise of Muslim nationalism on which Pakistan had been founded, in which most Mohajirs had passionately believed, and for the sake of which they had sacrificed so much. Most had genuinely thought that the different ethnicities of Pakistan would merge themselves in one Urdu-speaking Muslim nation – though one in which those who had ‘left their homes for Pakistan’ would have an especially distinguished place.

The symbolic moment when Mohajirs began to think of themselves as a separate nationality within Pakistan, rather than simply as the best Pakistanis, came in August 1979, when a young student activist, Altaf Hussain, burned a Pakistani flag at Jinnah’s tomb in Karachi, after making a speech on Mohajir rights – for which he was imprisoned and flogged by Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime. He went on to found the Mohajir Qaumi Mahaz (Mohajir People’s Movement), the political party that still dominates Karachi.

The result was a growth in ethnic violence between Sindhis and Mohajirs in Karachi and Hyderabad, language riots that split Karachi University, and the beginning of Mohajir organization along ethnic lines. Previously, the dominant party among the middle- and lower-middle-class Mohajirs had been the Jamaat Islami, with its mixture of Islamist politics, anti-feudalism and Pakistani nationalism. The Jamaat remains to this day strongly marked by its Mohajir middle-class and urban origins.

Strong Mohajir support for the protest movement against Bhutto’s government, and for the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq that followed, contributed further to Sindhi – Mohajir tension. Sindhi loyalty to the PPP, and dislike of the Punjabi-dominated army, made Sindh the centre of opposition to Zia’s rule. Extensive protests in interior Sindh in the early 1980s led to a military crackdown in which some 1,500 people were killed. This is still described by Sindhi nationalist intellectuals (with gross exaggeration) as ‘a genocide of the Sindhi people’. The movement was crushed, but left an enduring legacy of violent crime in interior Sindh, as fugitives from military law fled into the jungles to swell the bandit gangs of the region. Meanwhile, thousands of Sindhi PPP supporters were purged by Zia from the bureaucracy, and from the staffs of the state companies as these were reprivatized.

Meanwhile Mohajir radical groups came together in the MQM – allegedly with covert support from Zia’s regime and the ISI, which wished to strengthen opposition to the Sindhi PPP in the province. The first major ethnic violence in Karachi under Zia, however, was not Mohajir against Sindhi, but Mohajir against Pathan, the start of a history of intermittent violence between these two communities which surfaced again during my stay in Karachi in April 2009.

As today, Mohajir resentment and fear of the Pathans was fuelled by cultural differences, by the Pathans’ grip on passenger and freight transport in the city – an ethnic monopoly often enforced by violence – and, above all, by a growth in Pathan numbers and claims on public land. As today, this was due to a mixture of economic factors and war. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the struggle against it sent some 3 million mainly Pathan refugees into Pakistan, a proportion of whom made their way to join the Pathan community of Karachi. With them came a great increase in the heroin trade, and in the number of automatic weapons in the city. In the 1970s, ethnic clashes in Karachi had been fought with knives, clubs and the occasional pistol. By the late 1980s the combatants were equipped with Kalashnikovs and, sometimes, rocket-propelled grenades and light machine-guns. The effect on the casualty figures can be imagined.

The first major outbreak of violence came in April 1985, when a Mohajir schoolgirl, Bushra Zaidi, was killed by a speeding Pathandriven minibus. This sparked murderous attacks by Mohajirs and Punjabis on Pathans, leaving at least fifty-three dead in all. Much of the violence was orchestrated by young activists of the student wing of the Jamaat Islami, the Islami Jamaat-e-Taleba – though apparently without the approval of the party leadership.

In the succeeding years, many of these activists – including the MQM’s founder, Altaf Hussain himself – left the Jamaati student groups to join the MQM. That party’s origins lay among students of lower-middle-class origin. In this, it resembles the Jamaat but is radically different from all the other major Pakistani parties, which were formed by rural or urban magnates. Altaf Hussain founded the MQM in 1984, and in August 1986 the party held its first mass rally, in Nishtar Park, at which he declared the Mohajirs a separate nation within Pakistan. Already, the party’s influence had spread so far that the rally was attended by hundreds of thousands of Mohajirs. Pictures of Altaf Hussain addressing this crowd are central parts of MQM iconography.

In the following years, hundreds more people were killed on all sides in ethnic violence. In 1987, the MQM defeated the Jamaat – in what you could call a kind of matricide, given the Jamaati origins of the MQM leadership – and swept to victory in local elections in both Karachi and Hyderabad, reigniting Sindhi fears of the Mohajirs. By 1988, this Sindhi – Mohajir violence was also occurring on a large scale, with Sindhi extremist groups allegedly receiving covert help from RAW, the Research and Analysis Wing of the Indian intelligence service. Hyderabad was even worse affected than Karachi, and its neighbourhoods became completely distinct ethnically as a result of what almost amounted to ethnic cleansing. Mohajirs fled from the rest of the towns of Sindh, deepening the ethnic divide in the province still further.

The MQM built up a powerful armed wing, which targeted not only Sindhi and Pathan militants but journalists and others who dared to criticize the MQM in public. Torture chambers were established for the interrogation of captured enemies. Every morning would see its harvest dumped by the roadside: murdered activists from the various sides, or unlucky passers-by.

By 1992, violence had grown so severe and was having such a bad effect on the economy of Pakistan’s greatest city that (whatever its previous links to the MQM may have been) the army decided that basic order must be restored. First under Nawaz Sharif and then under the second administration of Benazir Bhutto, a tough crackdown was carried out. The operation proceeded in typical Pakistani fashion, through a mixture of ruthless force and diplomacy. On the one hand, the military, police, Rangers and intelligence agencies made widespread use of torture and ‘encounter’ killings against the militants.

On the other hand, great effort was devoted to splitting the MQM. Radical elements, which thought the leadership was making too many compromises with other parties and ethnicities, were covertly encouraged to split off into the ‘Real MQM’, which then launched ferocious attacks against its former comrades. The military (or rather the paramilitary Rangers, which are under the command of the army) were then able to crush the extremists, while eventually making peace with the chastened MQM leadership, which was released from prison in return for promises to keep their men under control.

Murders have continued, but at a greatly reduced rate – though the MQM – Pathan strife of 2009 – 2010 has led to fears that Karachi may return to the dark days of the early 1990s. The latest round of fighting began in May 2007, when the MQM, who had become close allies of President Musharraf, used their armed men to attack a rally to welcome Musharraf’s arch nemesis Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, triggering violence in which dozens were killed.

Altaf Hussain had left Pakistan after an assassination attempt at the end of 1991, and ever since has lived in London. Like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif during their periods of exile – but much more effectively – he maintains control over his party from a distance. Altaf Hussain is officially wanted by the Pakistani courts on charges including conspiracy to murder; but he is also regularly visited by Pakistani politicians and officials, including in April 2009 by President Asif Ali Zardari.

Despite its partial suppression by the state in the mid-1990s, the MQM has re-established an overwhelming grip on the government and politics of Karachi. However, its ability to use its dominance to develop the city is restricted by the very limited powers accorded to municipal government in Pakistan. Given that Karachi’s demographic and economic structures are so different from those of the rest of Sindh, it would in fact make much more sense for Karachi to be a province of Pakistan, as in effect it was from 1947 to 1958, when it was Pakistan’s capital and a separate federal district.

This would, however, lead to extremely violent protests by Sindhis, which would worsen still further Pakistan’s security problems and probably make civilian rule impossible: These protests would be both by the nationalists, who would see this as theft of Sindhi land, and by the landowner-politicians and their followers, who would stand to lose a very large proportion of their powers of patronage – since Karachi accounts for less than half Sindh’s population but around two-thirds of Sindh’s GDP.

Sindh and Karachi are therefore trapped in an unhappy but relatively stable marriage, held in place by a mixture of patronage and fear. The MQM dominates Karachi electorally and therefore usually has to be included in any coalition government of the province of Sindh, while Sindhi landowners and tribal chieftains dominate the rest of the province and milk Karachi’s economy for their own benefit. These landowners are mostly PPP, but include a very large number of opportunists who switch sides depending on who is in power in Islamabad – which is why the military administrations of both Zia and Musharraf were able to attract enough Sindhi support to form coalition governments in Sindh.


The MQM’s headquarters is known, with a kind of urban hipness, as Nine-Zero, after the last two digits of the telephone number of Altaf Hussain’s house where the party had its beginnings, and which is now preserved as a kind of shrine. It is in Azizabad, a typical middle-class Mohajir neighbourhood, and by both nature and design it breathes the particular MQM spirit.

Like most of Karachi, the neighbourhood itself is urban, in a way that most other Pakistani cities are not. In most cities, outside the downtown areas, the houses of ordinary people are one-storey buildings of mudbrick or concrete, not essentially different from those of villages, and often built around gated compounds, while the houses of the rich are villas set in gardens. The general impression is of the country come to town – which given that most of the families moved from the countryside fairly recently, and keep close contacts with their relatives in the country, is literally true. Azizabad by contrast features taller, narrower but much more solid individual houses set next to each other, and small apartment blocks of four or five storeys. Elsewhere in the city, though there are few tower blocks and no skyscrapers, big blocks of flats line the main roads.

Four blocks around the HQ are sealed off by security barriers, but, thanks to some PR person, the barrier through which I entered is brightly painted with fruit and flowers and a sign proclaiming ‘Street of Love and Peace’. This was thanks to a ‘Concept by Husaini Electrics’. Beside it, a large poster proclaimed that ‘On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the MQM, the people of this area salute the Great Leader Altaf Hussain.’ Beyond it was a second security barrier, with electronically operated bollards embedded in the roadway. Getting in required a telephone call and an escort – all very far from the disastrously sloppy Pakistani norm.

Opposite is a small, well-kept park, the Bagh-e-Afza, with a children’s playground decorated with statues of giraffes and horses. The houses around were fairly shabby two- and three-storey buildings, but in reasonably good shape, and there was very little rubbish on the streets. ‘The MQM tries to keep its neighbourhoods clean – that is very sacred for them,’ my assistant told me. White, green and red MQM flags were everywhere, interspersed with the black flags of the Shia, because a large Shia prayer hall is just down the road.

The Youth Minister of Sindh, Faisal Sabzwari, took me to see Altaf Hussain’s two-rooms-up, two-down house, with its tiny sitting-room, ‘where Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and any of the other leaders came to meet him and sat on this sofa’. Behind is a small courtyard, with no garden – a million miles from the mansions of PPP, PML(N) and ANP leaders, but also, it must be said, from those of some contemporary MQM leaders I visited.

The house now forms part of a headquarters complex including a media centre where young volunteers monitored a bank of thirty television screens and manned a telephone switchboard. Mr Sabzwari told me that they have a twenty-four-terabyte computer storage facility – ‘which we are going to double soon’ – an e-mail server with 50,000 addresses, and a desktop TV editing machine for making films. ‘From here, we try to monitor whatever is published or broadcast in Karachi and the world about us.’ Once again, the contrast with the amateurish and sometimes comical efforts of the other parties in this regard could hardly be more striking.

In a nearby building, I interviewed the mayor of Karachi, Syed Mustafa Kamal – only thirty-eight years old in 2009 (but still older than the MQM’s first mayor, Abdul Sattar, who was only twenty-four when he took office) and dressed for his age, in blue jeans and a checked shirt, with a closely cropped beard around his mouth and chin – in fact, he could have been a software manager in London. He sat with Mr Sabzwari in a small plain office with peeling blue walls and the inevitable pictures of Altaf Hussain: rather remarkably modest for the mayor of the seventh largest city on earth. In fact, the only unprofessional thing about the mayor is that he talks so fast it is difficult to take everything in. Together with his deep melodious voice, and pounding delivery, the impression is rather of being addressed by a bass drum.

He denounced the ‘feudal’ leadership and character of the other parties, and spoke of the MQM as a progressive middle-class alternative for all Pakistanis:

For the past sixty years, forty families have ruled Pakistan. They have been re-elected seven times in one form or another, but in all that time they have never done anything for the people even on their own estates. They send their children to school in London, but they have never built a single school in their own villages ... The MQM is the hope for the people of Pakistan, in which ordinary people will rule, and not these forty families.7

Concerning Karachi, his main refrains were his administration’s commitment to building infrastructure, the hopelessness of the other parties in this regard, and the dysfunctionality of Pakistan’s federal system, which left responsibility for the city’s development and services in many different institutional hands, only some of them his:

All our efforts are being undermined by the law and order situation, but I have no control over the police – not even the traffic police. So we build roads, and then we film the police holding up traffic and taking bribes along them.

Much of this is true, by the way, even if not the whole truth. He continued:

Karachi generates 68 per cent of all the revenues of Pakistan, yet until we came to power, the city never had a master plan, even as its population grew to 18 million. So you can imagine the job facing me. Forty-five per cent of neighbourhoods never even had a service plan. Four out of five industrial zones had no water or sewage provision ...

Our aim has been not to develop Karachi so as to compete with the rest of Pakistan, but to make it internationally competitive – a far harder job. To achieve this, the first thing we need is world-class infrastructure. We have done more in four years than the other parties in fifty, but I know very well that it is only a beginning. We have to struggle and struggle just to keep pace with the growing population.

The MQM administration does indeed have a good reputation among independent observers and journalists in the city, and its achievements are visible: above all in the construction of new roads and flyovers to alleviate the previously dreadful traffic jams, in improvements to sewage and drainage which have reduced the flooding which used to follow the heavy rains, and in the creation of parks – the mayor’s particular pride. Some of these projects were started under the Jamaat administration that ruled after the MQM boycotted the first elections under Musharraf – but then, the Jamaat in Karachi is also very much a Mohajir middle-class organization. Desperately needed metro-rail systems are planned, but their scale is beyond the constitutional competence of the municipal government and, as in Lahore, they are therefore held up in endless political infighting, battles over patronage, and bureaucratic lethargy at the levels of the Sindh and national governments.

After the meeting with the mayor, I drove along one of his new motorways, a 13-kilometre-long ‘signal-free corridor’ with underpasses for pedestrians and cross-traffic, and a belt of trees and greenery down the middle; once again, not a remarkable road by Western or East Asian standards, but a very remarkable road for Pakistan, and a vast improvement on what was there before.

This road also led me back from the mayor’s optimistic vision to the other side of Karachi, and of the MQM: the ethnic violence which constantly threatens to tear the city apart. An MQM party worker, Nasir Jamal, took me to see some of the scenes of the violence between Mohajirs and Pathans which had cost several dozen lives in previous days – and which the MQM was accused of having orchestrated. The tragic element to this is that the MQM and the leading Pathan party, the ANP, were coalition partners at the time in both the national and the Sindh governments, and were also ideological allies against the Taleban.

In the 2008 elections, the ANP for the first time won two provincial assembly seats in Karachi. This is not many out of 130 seats in the assembly (and they won no National Assembly seats at all) but it seems to have severely rattled the MQM, which had got used to a monopoly of the Karachi seats. It was after this that MQM denunciations of the supposed Taleban infiltration of the Pathan community in Karachi really took off.

The MQM also genuinely disapproved of ANP-sponsored peace deals with the Taleban, and in the preceding months had warned with increasing vehemence of the alleged growth of Taleban influence among the Pathans of Karachi – something which ANP leaders denounced as a mere ‘plot to seize Pathan property and businesses’, as the ANP leader in Karachi, Syed Shahi, told me.

While Taleban terrorism could certainly make the ethnic situation in Karachi worse, the tension between Pathans and Mohajirs in the city has other roots, which Nasir Jamal sketched for me as we drove through the northern suburbs. On either side, great greyish-white apartment buildings rose like castles – and, like castles, they were topped with fluttering banners: red, green and white for the MQM, red for the ANP, green, red and black for the PPP, and the sinister red flag of the Jiye Sindh nationalist party, with in the centre a black hand holding a black axe: party flags which are also the badges of ethnic allegiance, and which marked most of the apartment blocks as now inhabited by a single ethnicity.

In between the apartment blocks were patches of wasteland with the occasional fine tree left over from the days when it was countryside, some of it covered in roughly built shanty towns, vehicle parks or impoverished-looking markets. This, Jamal said, was evidence of the way in which the Pathans were ‘encroaching’ on municipal and state land in the city. His words were a litany of standard MQM and Mohajir complaints about the Pathans:

Those ANP flags on that kachi abadi [shanty town] are to show that Pathans have seized the land and will never let it go. The ANP seek to support every Pathan, even Taleban, demand in order to claim a share in the government of the city ... You see those trucks and buses over there, half blocking the road? When our government tried to get them to move to a proper vehicle park that we had built, they refused, because then they would be registered and would have to pay taxes ... As it is, they use drugs gangs and other criminals to take over more and more property by force, then use the ANP to demand that the municipal government give them services for their new colonies, but pay no taxes. We are not against Pathans, but we have to be against these illegal occupations because they are a threat to everybody ... You see those fine new housing complexes over there? They were built for Urdu-speakers but now they are empty because our people were threatened by the Pathans and had to leave ... And there are more and more Pathans all the time. Pathans are barely educated, and none of their women can read or write at all. So their birth-rate is very high compared to our educated women.8

I suggested that since the MQM and ANP were coalition partners and allies against the Taleban, and since after all the Pathans were a large reality in Karachi which could not be removed, a compromise really should be possible: a deal whereby the MQM would agree to allocate the ANP certain municipal lands and apartment buildings for the Pathans, and a guaranteed share of political influence, through a certain number of seats in the provincial and national assemblies. Jamal replied in words that had become depressingly familiar to me from interviews with much more senior MQM figures over the previous weeks:

No, that is completely unacceptable. It would mean Mohajirs paying taxes to build houses for them, who pay no taxes at all. Not because they can’t but because they won’t. We are ready for compromise, but it has to be on the basis of accepted principles, not just giving them shares – they would only demand a share in every project in the city ... As to parliamentary seats, we have free and fair elections here, and they can stand for them and win them if they can.

At this, I had to cover a smile, given what I had heard about election rigging by MQM activists – and heard from journalists and analysts who in other ways admired the MQM as a party. The real reason for the MQM’s intransigence seems to be that they feel that time and demographics are against them, and that if they give even an inch to the steadily growing Pathan population they will end up losing control of Karachi altogether.

Jamal took me to Zarina Colony, a Mohajir settlement in the shadow of the low hills that fringe northern Karachi, which had seen several deaths in the latest fighting. Mohajir and Pathan fighters have repeatedly battled to control these insignificant hills, like a slow-motion, low-level urban gang version of the battle of Ypres; and as the sky darkened, the MQM guards became visibly uneasy.

As we entered the colony, we moved from Karachi to rural South Asia. Decrepit one-storey mud houses haphazardly lined the roads, and the street was dotted with heaps of rubbish. Looking up at the summit of the closest hill, I could see ANP flags against the sunset, the hill having been occupied by the Rangers, however, when they stepped in to end the fighting. The crowd that met us seemed to have been carefully put together to blame the ANP and present the MQM case over the latest fighting and, as far as I could judge, some of their stories were highly exaggerated. To Jamal’s embarrassment, however, they departed from script by admitting that their colony was illegal. ‘We will be registering it very soon,’ he cut in. Many of them, like Jamal himself, were Urdu-speakers who had fled Bangladesh in the 1970s – twenty-five years after most of the Mohajirs, which helps explain why they were still unhoused.

They grew silent and looked uneasily at each other and at Jamal when I asked if they were satisfied with the city government. ‘Well, the local nazim has done something,’ Bilquis, a fat, formidable-looking local woman replied. ‘At least we have a sewage line now [which according to my nose was not sufficient] and we have been promised a water pipe.’ In one way, however, Zarina Colony was still Karachi, and not the rest of Sindh – in the way that the women like Bilquis pushed forward past their men to shout their complaints at me.

In previous days, I had visited Pathan areas to get their side of the story. Before the latest fighting, I saw Syed Shahi, the ANP president, at his home. Shahi is a self-made businessman who made a fortune in various enterprises after coming to Karachi in the 1970s, and had become a community leader. His luxurious home is decorated in eye-wateringly bad taste even by Pakistani standards, with a huge illuminated photograph of a Canadian lake dominating the glaringly lit, quasi-rococo drawing-room. Next to the drawing-room is a large hujra, or traditional Pathan male gathering place, set out in traditional style with cushions along the walls, a sign that, whether from culture or astuteness, Mr Shahi remained close to his community roots. Indeed, he looks that way, with a small moustache set in an enormous face, craggy and extremely tough-looking. His English is poor, and his son – who is studying in England to be a doctor and says he probably will stay there – had to translate for him.

Syed Shahi said that his aim is to ‘defend Karachi as place where all different peoples can live’. He claimed that of these people, 4 million are Pathan – which most people say is a gross exaggeration, though none of them can agree on what the real figure is. He complained bitterly that ‘the MQM says that other peoples can come here, but in fact they try to stop them from getting jobs, businesses, or an education.’ He said the ANP is against the Taleban, but that the MQM’s warnings of Taleban penetration of Karachi are just an excuse to seize Pathan land and business.

Asked about ANP mobilization of the community, Mr Shahi said that two weeks earlier his party had set up a Ladies’ Wing. ‘They will go to homes and register females to vote. We have never done this before because Pashtun women don’t want to leave their homes or are not allowed to by their husbands.’ Asked about social work and urban renewal, he didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about:

We can only do something like this once we are in power here. Only then can we set up NGOs. At the moment we are focused on getting access to education and government jobs for our people. In any case, most of our people are workers. They have no money, so can’t do anything like this for themselves.9

The contrast with the MQM leadership could hardly have been more marked.

The longer-established middle-class Pathans of Karachi do however have a rather different face. After the fighting, I visited the ANP president for eastern Karachi, Yunus Buner, who owns a smallish construction business and whose family has been in Karachi for three generations. His home is an apartment in a small block, with a hujra furnished with armchairs rather than cushions, and decorated with artificial flowers. A small, clean-shaven man with glasses and an urbane manner, he introduced with great pride his two English-speaking teenage sons. About the MQM however he was not polite.

We would have won several more seats from Karachi, but in mixed areas like this one the MQM seized the polling stations with heavily armed gunmen. When I went to cast my own vote, the polling staff said that my vote had already been cast. That happened to thousands of our people, and there was nothing we could do about it – we would have been killed. We don’t have enough weapons to fight with them. Whatever the MQM says, we are not armed the way Pashtuns are on the Frontier, and the MQM have the whole administration, police, army and intelligence agencies to back them up. The police refuse even to register FIRs [First Information Reports – see Chapter 3] against their men, while eleven of our men have been arrested ...

I am on the peace committee with MQM, ANP and PPP members to try to keep the peace, but in fact there is no point talking to the MQM politicians here about this, because they just deny everything and anyway don’t control the killers. The MQM’s armed wing is controlled by Altaf Hussain in London ...

As a businessman here, I want to keep the peace. I don’t want a war that would destroy this city, but we won’t accept this for ever. If our businesses go on being burned, we will have nothing to lose, and then there could be an Afghan situation here.10

He bitterly denounced the Taleban, saying that his own relatives in Buner District of the NWFP had been targeted by them, and he was helping refugees from there in Karachi; but that there were very few Taleban sympathizers in Karachi. ‘Just because you are Pashtun and have a beard does not mean you are Taleban. The MQM are just using this to attack the ANP and Pashtuns in general.’

Mr Buner took me to the ANP office for east Karachi, a rather astonishing building. It stands entirely alone on the furthest eastern edge of Karachi, in a desolate suburb which is just beginning to be developed, and is painted inside and out in the ANP colour, bright red. The whole scene reminded me of something, and then I realized that it was scenes of Hollywood gangster films set in the 1920s or ’30s, with dreary roadhouses and brothels standing alone in similarly half-empty suburbs. The recollection was so clear that I half expected Al Pacino and Robert de Niro to turn up.

Which in a way they had. Above the door was a neat line of bullet holes from two days earlier. I was told that this was the third time the building had been shot up by MQM gunmen, though nobody had been wounded. Elsewhere, however, thirteen ANP party workers had been killed in east Karachi in the first four months of 2009. ‘They want to kill us all,’ one of the ANP men said.

The bullet holes, however, seemed to me to tell a different story, of a warning not a murder attempt. If the MQM gunmen are as competent as the rest of their party, they are probably pretty good shots; and anyway, given the resources at their disposal, they could have destroyed the building and everyone in it – the more so as the ANP men did not appear to be armed. Neither Mr Shahi nor Mr Buner had heavily protected residences, and the MQM headquarters in east Karachi was not especially well defended.

If these leaders really expected to be attacked, such negligence would be suicidal. It seemed to me, therefore, that rather than a war to the death, what was happening in Karachi in the first half of 2009 was a war of maneouvre, part of the Pakistani ‘negotiated state’ in which violence is part of the negotiations: always in the background, and sometimes in the foreground, but in which usually it is only a few pawns who get killed. The greatest risk of Taleban terrorism in Karachi is that it will provoke the MQM into counter-attacks which will then trigger an all-out struggle, in which the Taleban will replace the ANP as leaders of the local Pathans, and the MQM will use this Talebanization as an excuse to reduce the Pathans to a completely subordinate status. However, as an official of the Pakistani Intelligence Bureau (IB) told me,

The mood among the Pathans in Karachi is very different from the mid-1980s when all this started and there were huge riots with dozens or hundreds dead. Then, they believed all the old Pathan stuff about how they are the bravest and the toughest and Mohajir city-dwellers are cowards who won’t fight. But the MQM taught them different, and gave them a very bloody nose. Today, Pathan gunmen may clash with MQM gunmen, and pick off local MQM activists, but our analysis is that they’ll be very careful about joining the Taleban and starting a full-scale war with the Mohajirs, because they think they’d lose. And if they don’t start a war, then the MQM will also basically tolerate them – just push them back from certain places, teach them a lesson now and then. The MQM also don’t want all-out war that would wreck their city.

For a great strength of the MQM is that like the Jamaat, but unlike any other Pakistani party including the ANP, they do have a dream that goes beyond patronage for themselves and their supporters. Their weakness is that this dream is almost certainly unattainable.

The dream is of Karachi as a Muslim Singapore on the Arabian Sea: modern, clean, orderly and economically dynamic, ruled by a form of relatively mild and benevolent totalitarianism. And if Karachi were an independent island, the MQM and the people they represent would probably be both ruthless and able enough to achieve this dream. But of course Karachi is not an independent island. It is part of mainland Pakistan, and inextricably linked to the problems, and the peoples, of the rest of Pakistan. The danger is that the effort to maintain the MQM’s vision and rule in Karachi in the face of the Pathans and Sindhis will feed the ruthless and chauvinist sides of the organization until its positive sides are drowned in the resulting bloodshed.


The extent to which Karachi differs from its immediate hinterland in Sindh is absolutely staggering, even in a region of stark social and ethnic contrasts like South Asia – just as, beyond the city limits, the mayor’s great motorway becomes the misnamed ‘superhighway’ between Karachi and Hyderabad, which is mostly a potholed two-lane country road. The bridge between these two worlds is the Sindhi wadero landowning class, tied to Karachi by its urban upper-class lifestyle and by the parliament and government of Sindh which waderos dominate, and which are situated in Karachi. I asked a Sindhi journalist to explain the difference between a wadero and a non-wadero landowner. The answer came down yet again to kinship and hereditary prestige:

A wadero has to have a lot of land, but he has to have other things as well. He has to be the leader of a tribe, or from a pir family, and here in Sindh the family has to be an old one if he wants real respect. He has to have gunmen and dacoits working for him, and to play a role in politics. Otherwise, no matter how much land he has, he’s just a big farmer.

I have met a considerable number of waderos during various travels in Sindh. The Unar Khans, tribal chiefs and politicians from northern Sindh, are not part of my acquaintance (though as the testimonies below indicate, I am sure they are perfectly splendid people). I did however meet a variety of their dependants during my travels in Sindh, and these meetings provided a frame for the world that the Unar Khans represent.

Of these encounters, the last was in some ways the most striking, because a statement of loyalty and respect that could have taken place 500 years ago was in fact delivered in the modern surroundings of Karachi airport, and by a man in a quintessentially modern service. The other places in the airport café being full, I asked if I could share the table of a middle-aged, balding man in the uniform of an official of Pakistan International Airlines. With typical hospitality, he offered me a share of his pudding, and asked about my travels in Pakistan. When I mentioned the Unars, his eyes lit up:

The Unars are good people. They are a small tribe, but more powerful than all the other tribes put together because they are the bravest and help each other. If one of them is in trouble, all the others come together to help, with guns, people, money, whatever is necessary. Everyone knows that they are very generous, very loyal to their friends. They have done so much for my own family.

My PIA interlocutor grinned slightly, but made no comment, when I mentioned my previous indirect encounter with the Unars, a few days earlier. I had gone to a police station in Clifton, Karachi, to meet an officer known as an ‘encounter specialist’ – in other words a policeman tasked with the extra-judicial execution of prisoners. A youngish man was sitting on the floor with his hands together to one side, closer examination revealing that they were in fact chained to the barred window frame. His face was lean and gloomy, but also composed and even dignified despite his position, and what must have been some well-based fears as to what was going to happen to him.

The policemen told me that he was a member of a notorious dacoit gang from Larkana, picked up in Karachi on a tip-off, in return for a reward of Rs100,000. According to the police, he had been a bodyguard of the Unar Khans. The police, and journalists whom I asked about the Unars, also spoke of their ‘courage’ – though they often added other words as well. Visiting Sindh twenty years earlier, I had been told in admiring tones how Ghulam Ishaq Khan Unar, elected in 1988 for the PPP, had had three men from a rival family killed in revenge after his brother was shot down in a family feud in Larkana bazaar in 1986. A senior policeman in Sukkur told me on that occasion:

Half the people here are protecting dacoits. So what do you do? You try to round them up, and if they are killed, fine, and if you can keep them behind bars, also fine. And if a minister or politician turns up and tells you to release them, well, relax and enjoy, what else is there to do? This isn’t England. You have to accept these things.

A week or so before my meeting with the dacoit in Karachi, I had been outside the front gate of one of the Unar Khans’ residences, in the village of Bakrani on the road between Larkana and Mohenjo Daro. The area was festooned with flags of the PML(Q) Party, which the Unar Khan family was currently supporting, and a large concrete arch at the entrance to the estate commemorated the late patriarch of that family, a PML(Q) member of parliament who had died recently. His son, Altaf Hussain Khan Unar, had succeeded to his father’s land and his political role.

The PML(Q) was the ‘King’s Party’ set up by General Musharraf to bolster his administration, on the basis of defectors from Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League. It had no popular or traditional roots in Sindh at all – but, like other past ‘parties’ of the same kind, did not initially need them, because it could always attract to its ranks by a variety of promises landowner-politicians like the Unar Khans.

Of eighteen people I spoke to in the village, all but four said that they had voted and would vote for the PML(Q), for a reason about which they were entirely candid: ‘This is the village of Unar Sahib. His house is just over there. We vote how our wadero says, because we are his people. He gives us everything, so we follow him,’ as Nizar Shaikh, a carpenter, told me. As I sat in the café in the gleaming surroundings of Karachi airport I thought back to this scene, in a dusty village of mud houses which seemed little changed from those of Mohenjo Daro – two worlds apparently so utterly different, but linked by invisible but immensely strong links of kinship and patronage.


The purpose of the first days of my journey to interior Sindh was not supposed to be politics – but then, in the world of Pakistani landowners, as in that of their English equivalents in the past, everything is in fact politics, including deaths, births and above all marriages; and hunting parties, which was what this particular trip was about. Sardar Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, uncle of Benazir Bhutto and hereditary chief of the Bhutto tribe, had invited me to a hunt for wild boar, organized in a patch of jungle on the banks of the Indus by a landowning family called Khoshk, waderos of a village of that name. Mumtaz Ali Bhutto was providing most of the dogs, for the breeding of which he is famous, and the huntsmen.

The Sardar’s love of animals can take some curious forms. As our vehicle passed an emaciated, exhausted-looking horse pulling an overloaded cart, he told me how unhappy such sights make him: ‘Sometimes, if I see a man beating his horse and donkey, I will stop the car, get out and give him a beating instead.’ Since kindness to animals is not much of a South Asian tradition, this must be one of the more interesting combinations of British attitudes to animals and Sindhi ‘feudal’ attitudes to people.

Like fox-hunting in Britain, wild-boar hunting in Pakistan is a matter of pure sport, since in a Muslim country the animals cannot be eaten by the hunters. The carcasses are thrown to the dogs or given to one of the remaining groups of low-caste, formerly tribal Hindus who live along the Indus. I was offered one myself, but declined; because driving around interior Sindh like a motorized Obelix, with an enormous putrefying pig tied to the roof of my car, while it would undoubtedly have attracted attention, would probably not have contributed to my prestige.

As was the case for millennia in Europe, hunting is an important means of maintaining connections and forging new bonds among the landowner-politicians in Sindh. Hunting in Sindh twice played a part in the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: once in 1955 when President Iskandar Mirza brought General Ayub Khan to Larkana to hunt and introduced Bhutto to him; once in January 1971 when a joint duck-shooting trip with President Yahya Khan helped bring them together in the moves which led to the horrible events surrounding Bangladeshi independence.

I had wanted to go on a boar hunt ever since I had had to turn down an invitation in southern Punjab in 1989, despite the incentive added by my host that two local landowning families were covertly at odds and might use the occasion to shoot each other rather than the boar. No such possibility was present on this latter occasion, if only because it turned out that the boar were to be hunted not with guns, but with spears.

At this news, my joy at being invited to this absolutely quintessential ‘feudal’ event was rapidly overtaken by the comical mental image of myself holding a spear, and the less comical one of my doing so while facing a large and understandably irritated boar. However, I needn’t have worried. Only one huntsman carried a spear, to deliver the coup de grâce after the boar had been brought down by the hounds. The rest of us were spectators, with a very slight chance of becoming participants if the boar charged us directly.

As perhaps in hunting for sport everywhere, the quarry on this occasion seemed in part an excuse for getting up early in the morning to see the countryside at its best – and the countryside of Sindh in early summer is definitely at its best at dawn and not at midday. The sun popped up through the mist as a pale disk, looking much more like the moon, and for a while it was blissfully impossible to imagine the dreadful heat of a few hours later.

The dogs, so I was told, were a variety of lurcher: a cross between greyhounds and bull terriers, with ugly, formidable heads but graceful bodies. Each couple of hounds was held in leash by a huntsman, all three of the group looking with raised heads and fixed attention into the jungle, the huntsmen seeming to quiver with eagerness along with the dogs. The huntsmen, mostly young, looked intensely proud at being responsible for such splendid animals, and in the service of so splendid a lord as Sardar Mumtaz Ali Bhutto. They also looked markedly better fed than the ragged peasantry who provided the beaters. And indeed there was no pretence of egalitarianism about this hunt. As the guest of honour and provider of the dogs and huntsmen, Mumtaz Ali Bhutto sat directly facing the jungle. His younger son Ali and I sat some distance behind. Everyone else was firmly to one side.

However, in the subcontinent hierarchical organization is always only a step or so away from anarchy, whether cheerful or malignant, and it was certainly no proof against the mass excitement when the boar broke cover. This was especially so when one enterprising beast plunged into the Indus, pursued to the bank – and nearly over it – by a mob of yelling huntsmen and spectators, stirring the powdery dust into a maelstrom. Half-way over, a fishing boat tried to head it off, and a fisherman, whether overcome by excitement or in hope of a reward, actually dived into the river, grasped the boar round its neck, and guided it back to shore – a sight to remember. On reaching land, it shook him off indifferently along with the water and disappeared into the jungle. Four more boar succeeded in outrunning the dogs and knocking over or shaking off those that came close; so that in the end the entire bag for some five hours of hunting was one medium-sized female; which shows that the boar had a sporting chance.

The patches of jungle like the one in which we hunted are the remains of the great shikargahs (noble hunting reserves) of the past. They consist of low scrub and tall grasses, fertilized annually by the water and silt brought down by the melting of the Himalayan snows, and by the monsoon. This is the original natural cover of the Indus valley before human cultivation. In the past – and very likely in the future too – the ferocity of the floods and the frequently changing course of the river meant that the riverine areas themselves could not be cultivated, and so were never registered for ownership and taxation. Canals and dams have to a large extent reduced this threat, and landowners in recent decades have illegally encroached on the riverine areas, greatly increasing their wealth in the process – but still paying no tax.

However, some patches of jungle still remain, used as hunting reserves for boar and deer – and as the favourite hideouts of bandits; though whether with the knowledge and protection of the waderos, as is universally believed, I cannot say. One feature of the boar hunt, however (which I hardly noticed at the time, because it is so much a feature of the life of the rural nobility that you forget about it), was the bodyguards with their Kalashnikovs; not because most of the time there is any expectation that they will be needed, but as an insurance policy, and also of course as a source of prestige.

Not that Mumtaz Ali Bhutto apparently needed much to boost his prestige. The ancestral home in Mirpur Bhutto is one of the most magnificent that I have visited in rural Pakistan. More than 150 years old, it is also an example of how far local architecture has fallen since the days of the British, let alone the days of the Mughals. The old aristocratic architecture is not just beautiful, but efficient. The tall ceilings and ventilation windows make it habitable even during electricity cuts, when modern rooms become unendurable without fans or air-conditioning.

The drawing-room contains a throne-like silver chair on which the Sardar’s grandfather was inaugurated, and a family tree which shows only male members – thereby omitting Benazir Bhutto! Beside the front gate is the exquisite eighteenth-century mausoleum of a family saint. In front of the house, facing a garden with the inevitable lawn for political meetings, an open hall between columns provides a space where the Sardar holds court, with his two sons sitting on either side of him and his steward standing respectfully to one side. Before him, a variety of petitioners appear to touch his feet and wait with hands clasped, as if in prayer, to receive an order or a judgment. Having received it, most sit to one side for a longer or shorter period to show respect, and by their presence and numbers help boost their lord’s prestige.

The morning that I was a witness seemed fairly typical – and was almost identical to an audience by Mumtaz Ali Bhutto on the same spot when I had visited him twenty years before. Sharecroppers and local ‘incharges’ received orders for planting crops; participants in a land dispute were told to stop work on the land pending a decision; and two sheepish-looking peasants received a sharp response, tried to argue, and were sent packing by one of the gunmen. ‘They are sharecroppers of a neighbouring landowner,’ Amir Bhutto told me:

He took away their land for various reasons and they have come to us for help getting it back. But this man is our political rival and they have always voted for him. So my father said, ‘You never came to me in the past, you voted for my opponent. What can I do to help you? He is in another party and not in my influence.’11

When the circumstances are right, such discussions are often the prelude to a change of allegiance, or to new bargaining based on the threat of it. All over rural Sindh, and much of the rest of Pakistan as well, such scenes happen every day – the basic stuff of Pakistani politics, though rarely played out against such a magnificent background.


One very proud member of a wadero family – but a highly educated one with an MA from Cambridge – was scathing about his fellow ‘feudals’:

The Sardars in Sindh are changing, but not as fast as they should. Many are not interested in education. They don’t think it helps them to run their estates or manage politics. So even the children of the bigger landowners are often surprisingly uneducated; and that of course also means that they don’t understand new agricultural techniques and have no idea or interest in any kind of wider development or improvement, beyond traditional charity. And because they dominate politics and government, that means that Sindh society in general is also changing very slowly.

Local journalists in the nearby town of Larkana recounted for me a litany of recent actions by ‘feudals’ in their region. One, a local chieftain, had been using his gunmen and dacoits to seize packets of land from small farmers, ‘people without links to feudals and from weak tribes’. He was protected from police retaliation, I was told, because his brother was a provincial minister from the PPP. A much worse case involving local chieftains and PPP politicians will be recounted in the next chapter, on Balochistan. During the floods of 2010, landlordpoliticians in western Sindh were credibly accused of opening local barrages so that the flood waters would spare their lands and inundate those of rivals.

I asked the Larkana journalists how Sindhi society and economy had changed over the past twenty years. There was a very long pause. ‘Not much,’ one said. Another said that there was now more education. In the industrial sector, they mentioned a considerable growth of small rice-processing units, with 200 – 300 of these in Larkana District alone; but then their remarks quickly turned to complaints about monopolization and price-rigging by the rice processors in league with the central bureaucracy in Islamabad.

Of the state industrial plants set up by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to benefit his home district and since privatized, the textile mill has collapsed and been sold off for scrap – ‘because of corruption and bad management’. The sugar mill, I was told, operates seasonally, but it looked quite derelict when I passed it. Local people blame non-PPP governments for lack of support – but private management has also failed. In other words, yet another tale of ‘Third World’ state-led industrial development which failed to take root.

People in Larkana told me that the PPP-led government which took power in 2008 had started a few road-building projects in Larkana, but that their main help to the town and district had been to create thousands of new jobs in the local bureaucracy, police, health and education systems and distribute them to their supporters. This pleased most of the people I talked to, because ‘jobless people who were ignored by governments for the past twelve years have been given jobs. Some are from my village,’ as Ghulam Abbas, a farmer, told me.

However, when asked if the newly appointed people were qualified for these jobs he did not even to pretend that this was the case. When a new government comes to power, these useless jobs will either be abolished, or – more likely – redistributed to their own followers, leaving the area with absolutely nothing in terms of real development. For there is nothing unique to the PPP about this. G. M. Morai, who runs a Sindhi television channel in Hyderabad, told me:

Education is the only thing that can produce a bigger Sindhi middle class, but this is happening only very slowly. Sindhi education was put in the doldrums by Zia-ul-Haq, and since his time it has been the plaything of the waderos. Most of the teachers have been appointed by local waderopoliticians from among their relatives and followers. Most have no training at all. Our whole education system is terribly backward. In 1999, I still did not know how to use a computer because there was nowhere in Hyderabad to learn. That has changed, but much more slowly than it should have. This also means that most of our politicians have no real education and no administrative or technocratic skills. All they can do is make speeches. The PPP has always been the biggest party in Sindh, but they reward loyalty and courage, not ability. Of course, it’s admirable to have gone to gaol for five or ten years under Zia or Musharraf but it doesn’t make you a good minister.12

Certainly Larkana, which given the PPP’s periods in government should be one of the most developed towns in interior Sindh, is not visibly different from the others: a mass of higgledy-piggledy brick and mud houses with barely paved roads and heaps of uncollected rubbish. In the centre of one busy road was a frightful sight: what appeared to be a heap of rags was in fact a squatting beggar, inviting death and alms at the same time, with cars swerving to avoid him.


On the whole, most Sindhis seem not unhappy with the existing social order, and that also seems true of the middle classes, such as they are. Like my Pakistan Airlines acquaintance, if they condemn waderos in general, they are very often attached to one wadero family in particular, or to a pirfamily which plays the same role. Outside some of the small radical nationalist groups, demands for land reform are extremely rare.

The potentially disastrous element in all this, however, is that in two respects Sindh is not in fact static: the population is growing ever bigger, largely because of the lack of education for women; and the water is ever diminishing, largely because the people are too uneducated, apathetic, conservative, divided along tribal lines and distrustful of one another and of the authorities to improve their agriculture or build their own local water infrastructure. If this goes on, and is not reversed by increased monsoon rains due to climate change, there is a real chance that Sindh one day will cease to exist as an area of large-scale human habitation.

One should, however, think twice about advocating a revolution against the waderos. In the first place, it is by no means certain that a ruling class made up of the wealthier peasants would be any more progressive economically or culturally. Certainly those more enterprising waderos whom I met complained constantly about the blind conservatism of their tenants and workers, very much in the fashion of Russian nineteenth-century landowners – though there is doubtless a self-serving element in their complaints.

Secondly, the waderos are by far the most important barrier against a Sindhi nationalism which, if given free rein, would not only destroy Pakistan, but plunge Sindh itself into ethnic conflict that would tear the province apart and wreck any hope of progress. The waderos are not attached to Pakistan by affection, with the exception of the Bhuttos. Even wadero members of the PML(N) whom I met – in other words, members of a Punjabi-led party – spent much of their time complaining about Punjabi domination and exploitation. Rather, the waderos are attached to the Pakistani state by ties of patronage, circulated and recirculated through the ‘feudal’ landowning elite by changes of government in Islamabad. In turn, as my experiences with the Unar Khans demonstrate, the waderos then circulate this patronage and protection downwards through society; small shares, but enough to help them go on dominating that society.

This charge of national treason for the sake of patronage is precisely the charge made against the wadero class by nationalist parties like Jiye Sindh; but even Jiye Sindh’s former leader, G. M. Syed, was persuaded by General Zia’s administration to modify his hostility to Pakistan by the offer to his son of a pilot’s job with Pakistan Airlines. A movement against the waderos would have to be a middle-class one, and its ideology would inevitably be Sindhi nationalist.

My meetings with Sindhi intellectuals in Hyderabad were not encouraging as to the likely character of that nationalism. Like their East European equivalents in the past, their principal occupations appear to be folklore, nationalistically coloured religion (in this case, Sindhi Sufism), and what might be described as folkloric historiography – an approach now extended from the glorious past of the Indus Valley civilization and the Talpurs to the martyrs of the Bhutto dynasty. These have a huge gallery devoted to them in the Folklore Museum of Hyderabad University, where you pass from the exquisite traditional embroidery of Sindh to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s worshipfully preserved socks.

With rare exceptions, repeated attempts on my part to discuss social, economic and ecological issues with Sindhi intellectuals led to a few platitudinous statements of concern, followed by a rapid reversion to the eternal topics of Mohajir and Punjabi exploitation of Sindh. The eventual collapse of Pakistan was taken as a given by most of them, but very few had thought seriously as to what would come next, beyond a wonderful independent Sindhi national existence in ‘the most fertile part of Asia’, as Sindh was repeatedly described to me.

If all this was depressingly familiar from conversations in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union before their collapse, even more depressing was the light-hearted way in which a number of people on all sides talked of forthcoming ethnic war. The landowner brother of a PPP member of parliament described Sindh’s prospects to me as follows:

We are a peace-loving people, but if you look at our history, we are also the greatest fighting people in Pakistan, and we have the Pathans and Baloch on our side. I tell you that if there is war with the Mohajirs, Sindhis may receive the first blow, but then we will kill the Mohajirs like rats. They will be like the Jews in World War II, hiding in cellars and being hunted down. And in any case, Karachi could not live a week without Sindh’s food and water.

Hearing this, I remembered similarly vainglorious words the previous week from a Mohajir doctor in Karachi: ‘If Pakistan breaks up, the Mohajirs would conquer the whole of Sindh in a week and take their water. These waderos and their slaves will never fight.’ All this recalls an old German proverb, ‘He who speaks like this, also shoots.’

At the moment, however, all this remains just ugly talk. The leaderships of the various parties, the wadero class in the interior, and the businessmen of Karachi all know how much they have to lose from the disintegration of Pakistan. The tragedy of interior Sindh therefore does resemble that of some of the former Communist states – the revolution it so desperately needs would also spell its destruction.

Thus I remember Sindhi nationalists declaring back in 1989 how there would soon be a ‘war to the death’ against the Mohajirs. A debauched and repulsive younger member of the Soomro clan told me: ‘We have only one choice. Either we lose Sindh or we kick those bloody bastard Mohajirs into the sea.’ But twenty years on, no war to the death has occurred. And he was the least impressive nephew of a couple of pretty formidable brothers whom I met – both of them proud Sindhis but also completely pragmatic individuals who continue to draw patronage from the Pakistani state – which in Sindh, as elsewhere, has somehow managed to stumble on.

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