Altaf Hussain’s Karachi Cleanup Campaign of 1989

MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement – United People’s Movement) is a Pakistani Political Party which draws its support almost entirely from the Muhajir community of Karachi and Hyderabad.  (Muhajir: migrants and descendants of migrants from present-day India, mostly living in Karachi/Hyderabad, with substantially higher literacy and GDP per capita rate compared to the other Pakistan ethnic groups).

In September 1989, MQM Leader Altaf Hussain launched a week-long Karachi Cleanup Campaign.  More than 50,000 people heeded his call and worked tirelessly day and night to leave the city sparkling.  Rubbish accumulated over decades was cleared, and thousands of walls painted.  In a ceremony to mark the completion of a spectacular initiative involving the whole city, Altaf showered MQM workers with rose petals.

This video, which I produced using some old footage, is a brief documentary about the 1989 Cleanup Campaign, and provides an excellent insight into the history of MQM, its firm grass-roots foundation, and explains its enduring appeal to its voter base.

The unprecedented success of the Cleanup Campaign demonstrated a deep underlying popular desire amongst the Muhajir people to work together and build a prosperous society.  The Muhajir people worked together with a sense of unity for a common purpose, in a manner unprecedented in the history of Pakistan.

The end of the video has further background information on the MQM, its current situation in Sindh vis-a-vis the PPP (Bhutto) party.  There is also an excerpt from a speech by Altaf Hussain in February 2014, calling for the Taliban to be destroyed.

MQM is a secular liberal democratic party without compare in Pakistan.  Other major parties such as the PPP and “PML (Nawaz)” parties are effectively family property, and Imran Khan’s party is notoriously protective of the Taliban, aiming to “mainstream” them in the political process. By contrast, MQM is the only party to have consistently opposed any deals with the Taliban.  MQM is Pakistan’s 4th biggest party with 19 seats.

MQM is the dominant party in Karachi, where it won 17 out of 20 seats.  Yet Karachi is governed as part of larger Sindh: rural, backward and firm PPP (Bhutto) supporters.  94% of Sindh’s taxes are raised in Karachi, and less than 15% is returned to Karachi.  The rest disappears into Sindhi corruption.  Of the 15% that is spent in Karachi, much of that goes towards Karachi Police, which is largely made up of rural Sindhis, many from villages hundreds of miles away from Karachi.

Karachi’s taxation and unrepresentative PPP Sindh Government is a burden on the economic and social prosperity of the Muhajir people.  Coupled with sharia laws imposed by Islamabad, the rise of the Taliban, and the reluctance of (Punjabi) Nawaz Sharif’s reluctance to deal with the Taliban, the Muhajirs are suffering from a range of factors which are entirely beyond our control.

The AIML (All-India Muslim League) founded Pakistan, and it emerged out of a yearning for independence amongst Muslims in present-day India (ie Muhajirs) in the late 19th century.  In the 1937 India elections, the AIML was rejected in Sindh (0 out of 60 seats), and trounced in Punjab (3 out of 175 seats).  AIML was not made simply of the Nawabs and educated Indian Muslims, it was a mass movement which was by far the largest Indian Muslim party in the 1937 India elections (excluding present-day Pakistan).

Without these masses of ordinary Indian Muslims in UP, Bombay, Hyderabad (India), Bengal, Madras, and many other areas, the AIML would not have had the electoral sustenance required to continue towards its goal.  The movement to Pakistan (almost entirely to Karachi/Hyderabad) by these committed Indian Muslims vindicated the AIML campaign to make Pakistan a reality.  The Muhajirs immediately set about industrializing Pakistan, with the majority of Pakistan’s heavy manufacturing, industrial, pharmaceutical, banking and shipping sectors based in Karachi.  Muhajirs (with near 100% literacy) typically sought higher value jobs.  Many of the Karachi jobs requiring no education (e.g. nightwatchmen/chowkidaars, labourers, etc) were filled by Pathans, most of whom were illiterate.

The Muhajirs created Pakistan out of a desire to live as a free people, without domination by a Hindu majority.  However, since migrating to a mostly Punjabi/Sindhi/Pathan territory, the Muhajirs have been subject to business nationalisation (effectively expelling the Muhajir business class), discriminatory quota systems, being forced to learn Aboriginal languages which possess virtually no pre-existing literature, and seeing Karachi suffering from waves of criminal activity matching the influx of Pathans from the tribal areas.

Despite all of these pressures, the Muhajirs remain united and disciplined.  The Karachi Cleanup Campaign of 1989 reveals the underlying spirit of the Muhajir people.  The Muhajir masses from working-class Karachi districts proved their team-work as well as their selflessness.  There was no pay for their hard labour, beyond the rose petals of Altaf Hussain, the self satisfaction of a job well done, and a firmer hope for the future.

The Muhajir wealthier classes have often been immune from these struggles, protected from any suffering by their wealth.  A substantial number of the wealthier Muhajirs have emigrated, mostly to the USA, and some to the UK.  After independence, the wealthier Muhajirs immersed themselves in the idea of Pakistan. They did not specifically seek to lead the Muhajirs as a separate political group. Eventually, Bhutto’s widespread nationalisation policy wrecked Muhajir business assets, and his quota system effectively excluded Muhajirs from senior civil service positions, where they had once been disproportionately represented.

In a democratic formation, the political engine for the Muhajir people emerged out of the middle-class Muhajirs, the bulk of the intelligentsia which agitated for a separate state in the first place.  A handful of examples apart, the Muhajirs mostly live apart from the Sindhis, Punjabis and Pathans .  This is most stark in Hyderabad – the 2 MQM constituencies (NA-219 and NA-220) have majorities with 10x the nearest rival.  In the 3 (predominantly Sindhi) Hyderabad non-MQM constituencies (NA-221, NA-222 and NA-223), the MQM candidate had 22%, 2% and 9% of the vote respectively. Karachi was always by far the most diverse city in Pakistan, and many Muhajirs grew up alongside Sindhis and Punjabis. Sadly these individual friendships were unable to stem several years of state oppression during Operation Cleanup.

Until MQM was founded in 1978, Muhajirs were the only communal group in Pakistan not to have ethno-centric or communal parties.  Whilst done with good intentions, this was a historic mistake.  By distancing themselves from their own fellow Muhajirs, the wealthier Muhajirs lost the political vitality which had enabled them as a class to struggle for Pakistan. 

With 85% of the Karachi seats, many with enormous majorities, MQM has the overwhelming support of the Muhajir people, and will continue its struggle for a fairer democratic and fiscal arrangement. The historic 1989 Cleanup Campaign gives a glimpse of what the Muhajir people would be capable of with more self government.


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