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Mohajir Musings of a Promised Land

Mohajir Musings of a Promised Land hoping for a secure future. Treated and accepted as refugees at the outset, they earned a variety of brand names

torn and broken in body and soul but still

Mohajir Musings of a Promised Land

hoping for a secure future. Treated and a ccepted as refugees at the outset, they earned a variety of brand names – panah-Deepak K Singh gir, mohajir, tilyar, makkar, Hindustani –

o issue in modern south Asian history can rival the attention that has been paid to the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Canonised as an “epic tragedy” in the existing historiography both at the level of popular discourse and serious social science research,1 stories of Partition continue to be recounted in ever newer ways and forms (Tan and Kudaisya 2000: 8). Little wonder then, the sheer volume of work produced till now can easily fill in a decent size library. And yet, the current historiography of Partition is far from comprehensive, leaving enough room for telling and retelling stories, which have wittingly or unwittingly evaded the allpenetrating “gaze” of the academic world.

The book under review goes towards filling some of these gaps by chronicling the social history of marginalisation of the Mohajir, Bengali and Bihari Muslims first in undivided Pakistan and subsequently in Bangladesh as well. The comparative thrust of the book helps delineate the trajectory of human predicament in the everyday lived experiences of these communities in the vastly different ethnocultural milieu of Pakistan. Following the framework of “emic” or what is called “insider’s” perspective in ethnographic studies, A R Siddiqi, a former Pakistani journalist and retired brigadier, provides a moving first-hand account of the numerous contradictions emanating from the fault lines of the two-nation theory. The advantage of hindsight allows the octogenarian author to combine the autobiographical tone of the book with a more serious dense and descriptive style of non-fiction, seamlessly navigating between the personal and the political. What adds further substance to the book is its narrative style with a liberal sprinkling of Urdu couplets and poetry.

Built-in Contradictions

The major strength of the book lies in d emolishing the myth of a homogeneous Pakistani state naïvely predicated on the

Economic & Political Weekly

june 20, 2009

each carrying a different shade of com
book review miseration or pity or scorn if only by way
of a joke.” However, the term “Mohajir”
Partition and the Making of the Mohajir gained wide currency after the break-up
Mindset: A Narrative by A R Siddiqi (Karachi: Oxford of Pakistan, and continues to be widely
University Press), 2008; pp ix-xxxi + 172, Rs 395. used with condescending derogatory over
tones for the members of the community
notion that a common religion in itself who have become a “permanent minority”
could help people from diverse cultural in today’s Pakistan.
backgrounds to flock together as a nation. The story of Mohajir’s marginalisation
It shows how religion on its own had clearly is attributed as much to the peculiar ethnic
failed to work as a unifying force, as other and geopolitical landscape of Pakistan as
contradictions based on language, culture, to their own exaggerated self-perception
ethnicity and civilisation came to the fore of cultural superiority and claim to be the
in the immediate aftermath of the emer only “true” Pakistanis, dismissing the
gence of Pakistan. As Siddiqi notes, “I find n atives as rustics. Their refusal to merge
a Sindhi, Pathan, Punjabi, or Baloch as with the local community and insistence
much an alien as an Urdu-speaking Mohajir. on retaining their identity as a distinct
The Islamic bond simply melts away with ethnocultural group – a perplexing pre
out shared ethno-lingual attachment and disposition to maintain their pre-Partition
the resulting fellow-feeling.” The most status as standard-bearers of the language
i llustrative manifestation of such built-in and culture of Muslim India – is retrospec
contradictions was the dismemberment of tively viewed by the author as unwise and
Pakistan’s eastern wing in 1971. impractical. It is this mindset, Siddiqi
A Mohajir himself – an Urdu-speaking a rgues, which is squarely responsible for
Muslim from the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh belt deepening the distrust level between the
– Siddiqi narrates the saga of despair and Sindhis and Mohajirs. While the Mohajirs
hopelessness of the Mohajirs whose dream have never treated the Sindhis as their
of a “promised land” soon turned into a cultural equals, the Sindhis too have never
nightmare once Pakistan actually got im hesitated in returning the compliment by
agined into existence. Mesmerised by calling them “interlopers” and “intruders”
M ohammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan in their home province. It is here that one
as a focal point of the Islamic ummah (col wishes the author had delved a little deep
lective notion of Islamic states), the author er into the dilemmas of the Sindhis who,
shows how he along with several others as he rightly observes, have been “driven
had seriously started envisioning Pakistan into a state of refugeehood in their own
as an “article of faith” – “an absolute jan homeland”. Siddiqi does mention in the
nat (heaven) that no one had ever seen passing, however, as to how “their beloved
but everybody could imagine”. However, city of Karachi, the jewel in the Sindhi
such euphoric imaginings quickly melted crown” was swamped by Pathans,
into thin air once they found themselves P unjabis, and Mohajirs, relegating to the
face to face with the physical reality of background their rich “cultural symbols
P akistan. Amidst the bewildering “multi and icons, their language, their ecstatic
ethnic mélange” of Pakistan in which the Sufi lore and poetry”.
Punjabi-Pathan clique was visibly domi- Ironically, however, even though the
nant, the Mohajirs were shell-shocked to Sindhis were nowhere in the forefront of
discover soon enough that they were less the movement for the creation of Pakistan,
than welcome. As the author recalls poign they have nonetheless been pushed and
antly, “They came to the promised land battered around both within and outside
vol xliv no 25 33

Pakistan. Those who chose to stay back in Bombay and the ones who shifted later to the city due to Partition have recently been subjected to the wrath of the Hindu fundamentalists. In the wake of the 26 November 2008 attack on Mumbai, they were asked by Raj Thackeray and company to either drop the name Sindhi and/or Karachi from their shops within 24 hours or else go back to Sindh. They chose to oblige by changing the names of their shops.

Existential Dilemma

In the absence of any territorial base in P akistan, however, the Mohajirs’ existential dilemma is aptly highlighted as a people “caught in a state of suspended animation”. Their predicament lay in the fact that they were “neither here [Pakistan] nor there [India]”. Siddiqi argues that those who went to Pakistan were made to feel unwelcome, while they came under suspicion in India. This led to a peculiar situation whereby in Pakistan they were looked upon as “Hindustanis”, and those who stayed back in India were seen as potential “Pakistanis” or enemies. The assassination of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan (also a Mohajir) in 1951, the author argues, further marginalised them. The final straw, however, came when the capital was shifted from Karachi to Islamabad in 1959 under Ayub Khan’s martial law r egime. This was accompanied by largescale sacking of Mohajirs from the b ureaucracy and marked the beginning of the end of their self-assumed cultural s upremacy and domination.

The rise of Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) as a formidable force in Pakistani politics is dealt with in detail. Siddiqi discusses how some of the dramatic gains made by MQM in terms of consolidation of its vote-bank and assertion of its collective identity as non-Sindhi Urdu-speakers in the late 1980s were rather cheaply frittered away by the leadership. The ensuing in-fighting within the MQM not only r esulted in a vertical split of the party, but also diluted the ideological basis of M ohajirism – the belief that Mohajirs constituted a distinct nationality and thus had a legitimate claim to a separate province within Pakistan. Far from establishing the claim of Mohajirs as the fifth nationality of Pakistan, Siddiqi shows how the

o ngoing internecine ethnic conflict between the Altaf and Haqiqi factions has not only marginalised them further, but has also resulted in “Mohajirs shedding Mohajir blood”.

The irony of the situation from the perspective of the Mohajirs lies in the fact that even though they are not refugees in the technical sense of the term, they find themselves trapped in an inescapable paradox of being perpetual refugees. The perpetuity of their refugeehood can be sensed from Siddiqi’s honest confession, “With a life spanning over eight decades, I find myself involved with each and yet a part of none – hence my perennial state of refugeehood”.

The nature of interpersonal relationship between the Mohajirs and Bengalis and the accompanying mutual dilemma faced by them in West Pakistan as minorities form another major concern of the book. Treated as “outsiders” in Pakistan, Siddiqi shows how in the absence of anybody to fall back upon, they ended up sharing a love and hate relationship with each other. Even though the Bengali Muslims formed the single largest ethnic block in united Pakistan with a population of 56%, their plight as a minority in mainland West Pakistan was no less agonising and painful than those of the Mohajirs. The only significant difference being that the Bengalis could still go back to their ethnic and territorial roots which the M ohajirs could not.

Viewed as “Pakistan’s demographic monster”, East Pakistan and its Bengali Muslim inhabitants who had nothing in common other than religion with the dominant Punjabis were seen as the largest single threat to their own militarybureaucratic power in a federal Pakistan. Strangely enough, at the cultural level too, the Bengalis had no space in the otherwise rich ethnocultural mosaic of Pakistan, and were often derided for their markedly different physical attributes and lifestyles. As Siddiqi notes,

Most Bengali leaders at the centre were seen more as a cartoonist’s delight than a source of pride for the nation. They were ridiculed and mimicked for their peculiar Urdu-English accent, short stature, and chooridars draped tightly over spindly shins.

Languishing in a state of statelessness for nearly four decades now, the plight of about half-a-million Bihari Muslims in Bangladesh is far worse than those of the Mohajirs in Pakistan. Escaping from violence in a communally hit non-Muslim majority area of Bihar in 1946, they had migrated to the then East Bengal in the hope that they would feel at home amidst the majority Bengali Muslims of the region. Soon after East Bengal became part of Pakistan, they were indeed accorded a privileged position and were preferred over the Bengali Muslims in government jobs since they were Urdu speakers and also identified strongly with Pakistan. What followed in the aftermath of the emergence of Bangladesh, Siddiqi points out, was “a bizarre triangular circus”: Bangladesh did not offer its citizenship, Biharis wanted to become Pakistani citizens, while Pakistan was least interested in obliging. Stranded in the middle of nowhere thus, they continue to lead a ghettoised existence in Bangladesh without any prospect of redeeming their lost selves any time soon in the future.

Siddiqi goes even further in arguing that the plight of the Bihari Muslims is much worse than even the Palestinians in certain respects. Like the Palestinians, they continue to be haunted by the spectre of statelessness; unlike them, however, they have no constituency to even voice concern for them, let alone own them. Many of the uprooted Palestinians could at least find asylum in fraternal Arab countries, which has just not been the case with the Biharis who have been left to fend for themselves.

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june 20, 2009 vol xliv no 25

Economic & Political Weekly


However, a recent development in Bangladesh deserves attention. The May 2008 Bangladesh High Court pronouncement to grant citizenship to Bihari Muslims born in post-1971 period has come as a huge relief to the younger generation, who, unlike the older generation, has no desire to seek fortune in Pakistan, and feel integral to Bangladesh. They understandably turned out in large numbers to cast their vote in the December 2008 parliamentary elections. However, those who came prior to 1971 are least jubilant, and are much peeved at the prospect of their children staying back. Unmoved by this development, they continue to look towards Pakistan. As Shoukat Ali, general secretary of the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee (SPGRC) rued, “We have full respect for the court but we reject its ruling. Pakistan is our home and we want to exercise our citizen[ship] rights only after going there.”



The case of both Mohajirs and Biharis raises some important questions about the nature of identity formation in south Asia. Why have the two identities got completely marginalised even though they have traditionally looked upon themselves as culturally no less superior than the d ominant identities? Why is it that despite unambiguous and unconditional selfidentification with the Pakistani nation state, they continue to remain the “other”? The nature of their victimhood is thus not only unique, but remains an unresolved puzzle. Siddiqi is conspicuously silent on this but this merits a deeper enquiry.

Apart from this and a few editorial hiccups and grammatical hitches, the book makes for flawless reading and hugely contributes towards filling up some of the existing gaps in the current historiography of Partition. It is a different matter, however, that one is absolutely taken aback when Zia-ul Haq springs a surprise comeback in 1992 four years after his



death! (p 127). Apart from such easily avoidable sloppy editorial errors, the a uthor must be commended for making a solid and much needed contribution to the ever growing ever incomplete body of literature on Partition.

Email: deepakks_67@yahoo.co.in


1 At the end of it all, millions of people had become refugees and hundreds of thousands had got killed in brutally violent pogroms of unparalleled intensity and scale. Talbot’s (2006) recent study roughly puts the death toll in the range of 2,00,000 to 10,00,000 with a caveat that the exact number will never be known. He also asserts that “Partition’s migrations were accompanied by communal massacres that possessed the elements of genocidal violence”.


Talbot, Ian and Darshan Singh Tatla, eds. (2006): E picentre of Violence: Partition Voices and Memories from Amritsar (New Delhi: Permanent Black).

Tan Tai, Yong and Gyanesh Kudaisya (2000): The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia (London: Routledge).





Economic & Political Weekly

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