Karachi’s great middle class Pashtun hope

Sartaj Khan on how parties are scrambling ahead of the 2018 election

Karachi’s great middle class Pashtun hope
Something has to be done in Karachi before the 2018 elections. And the key to it, many political parties are realising, is one particular group: the Pashtun. The only problem is that this vote bank has been ignored by most major parties and the Awami National Party that did claim to represent them at one point was beaten down by terrorists.

Much ground has to be covered for the Pashtun are remarkably absent from the ranks of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Jamaat-e-Islami not to mention the tiers of government.

A speaker in 1998 at the death anniversary of Bacha Khan, the founder of the Khudai Khidmatgar Tehreek at Bacha Khan Chowk, Banaras, Karachi

PPP strategy

The ruling PPP, alarmed by the 2013 election loss of two of its traditional National Assembly seats (NA-239 and NA-258) from Karachi’s 20, is now eyeing the Pashtun voter. Its strategy is to consolidate its position in Karachi by outgrowing its traditional Sindhi and Baloch pockets to move into others. Two Pashtun leaders, Shah Jahan Khan and Akhtar Jadoon, were, for example, appointed by the PPP as advisors to former CM Qaim Ali Shah on the so-called ‘Pashtun quota’ to attract the ethnic vote.

The PPP wooed Pashtun bigwig Irfanullah Khan Marwat—but the late Benazir Bhutto’s daughters, Aseefa and Bakhtawar, vocally opposed him joining the party, expressing their ire on Twitter in no uncertain terms. “The PPP in the city needs Pashtun votes and Marwat has the ability to galvanize Pashtun and rally around him,” said a senior party leader. “The Mohajir and Sindhi lobby within the PPP attempted to bar the most influential Pashtun leader in the city from joining the party.” Eventually, the PPP awarded the ticket to Marwat’s stronghold, PS-114, to Saeed Ghani, a Khaskheli.

It will take time to induct more Pashtun. Insiders say there is lobbying against appointing them to key positions even in areas where they are in a majority. Recently, the PPP announced office bearers for six districts of Karachi. Among the 18 members for three positions—president, secretary general and secretary information—only two are Pashtun. At the Karachi division level, the PPP has reserved two top positions (president and secretary general) for Mohajirs and Baloch/Sindhi/Kutchi people and the position of senior vice president for people from ‘other than native’ communities, including Pashtun. However, this time only Amanullah Mehsud was included in Karachi division as junior vice president.
As a consequence of the political marginalization of lower middle class Mohajirs due to a paramilitary operation in the city, the Pashtun middle class is muscling in to carve space for themselves in electoral politics. This is why they are placing great emphasis on more participation in the ongoing census headcount

“Though Mohajir leaders have no say in the community, they occupied the top slots in the party,” a PPP jiyala told TFT. He pointed out that despite having community backing, Pashtun leaders are being ignored as the Mohajir-Baloch lobby gets the lion’s share of non-elected quotas of advisors and jobs in Karachi.

This is, however, one interpretation of such selection. A former coordinator to the Sindh chief minister, Shah Jahan Khan, argued that the problem was that the Pashtun voted for religious parties. He felt that now it is in the larger interest of the Pashtun to vote for the PPP to dispel the impression that they are in favour of separatists and religious parties.

A Pashtun girl carries water containers in a neighborhood near the US Consulate in Karachi. Slums where Pashtun live have been neglected by the city government. Courtesy Athar Hussain

This is a general impression borne out by the fact that Pashtun do actually occupy top positions in religious Deobandi parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazlur Rehman and Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat. This haunts secular Pashtun leadership. They know that the Pashtun voted en masse for the religious Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition in 2002. However, since 2002, voting patterns in Karachi show that the Pashtun are starting to prefer those who are able to mobilize community in the politics of agitation and protest; They voted for the ANP and PPP coalition in 2008 and the PTI in 2013.

What happened to the ANP?

It used to be the case that the ANP said it represented the Pashtun in Karachi. Indeed, in 2007, under Shahi Syed, the party emerged as strong power broker in Sindh, especially in Karachi. The party opposed the demolition of slums, stood for labour causes and supported the lawyers’ movement. Joining hands with General Musharraf and the PPP did bring some electoral support in 2008 and a wholly forgettable minister was appointed from the ANP in the Sindh government.

But then violence, extortion and target killings by terrorists and the Taliban was also wreaking havoc with the life, property and business of the Pashtun middle classes over the last two decades. Multiple attacks on their businesses, especially transport, reminded transporters how helpless they are. Pashtun were forced to close up tea shops and roadside restaurants or ‘hotels’ and abandon their market shops. Their timber businesses were also targeted. The biggest challenge came from within. The Taliban from Swat and FATA targeted nationalists and extorted money from the middle classes.

On the eve of the election in 2013, Pashtun nationalists were hit so badly that they could not organize public meetings any more. At least 43 ANP leaders were killed in Karachi in 2011. As a preventive measure, many men left the party or switched to others such as the JUI-F and PTI to avoid attracting the ire of the militants. In the face of MQM and Taliban resistance, however, the party was eventually marginalized by 2013. Attacks also generated an unprecedented level of suspicion and concern about what Pashtun nationalists often dub a ‘mullah-military alliance’ to prevent secular leadership from contesting the elections.

Today, however, there is an attempt to get back on its feet. ANP Sindh president Senator Shahi Syed is rebranding himself as a protector of the community in the province. He recently announced that he was likely to contest from NA-241. The ANP is thus mainly focused on Pashtun-dominant neighbourhoods around Karachi (PS-89, PS-93, PS-94, PS-96, PS-108, PS-114, PS-125, PS-126, PS-128, PS-129 and PS-130) and some national assembly constituencies. Once again, the ANP is hopeful of an electoral alliance with the ruling PPP.
Pashtun occupy top positions in religious Deobandi parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazlur Rehman and Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat. This haunts secular Pashtun leadership

A history

In order to understand today’s Pashtun voter in Karachi it is important to take a detour on how they came here to begin with.

Pashtun came to rural Sindh as construction labour or kharkar to develop one of the biggest canal systems in the world and to Karachi as industrial workers. In Karachi, they mainly occupied land surrounding the port, railway stations (City, Cantt, Drigh Road and Landhi) and industrial zones SITE and Landhi.

Since the mid-1980s the Pashtun were periodically persecuted before some Pashtun land grabbers, drug pushers and other mafias encouraged militant youth to safeguard the interest of the community against the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-led onslaught. Some ANP office-bearers including Bashir Jan, the former general secretary of the Sindh chapter, were allegedly involved in setting up such groups. The rhetoric of repeatedly evoking ethnic pride and pitting the Pashtun against the rest, however, rattled intellectuals who considered this starkly incompatible with the fundamentals of Bacha Khan’s ideology of nonviolence. They saw in this the covert hand of the ‘establishment’.

The MQM dominated the centre of the city, including its financial and administrative hub, while the Pashtun clustered around the city, especially at the three entrances (Hub from Balochistan, Landhi from the National Highway and Sohrab Goth from the Super Highway) and the biggest industrial sites.

Shahi Syed of the ANP

In the pre-1980s Pashtun lived in katchi abadis, sprawling around the industrial areas, had second-class status, but were largely free from persecution and came to thrive in certain trades and businesses. In time some progressed to become middle class. While an authentic sense of Pashtun identity did develop over time, it came with a pronounced sense of insecurity and a rise in the popularity of Pashtun nationalist ideology.

Paradoxically the Pashtun nationalism in Sindh that called for them to unite to safeguard the larger Pashtun interest found a receptive audience but eventually evaporated in the 1990s. The second and third generation Pashtun were the descendant of the labour classes. Therefore, more was at stake: they wanted representation and a share in the management of the city. In place of Pashtun nationalism emerged a sense which called for unity with neighbouring Mohajirs (Urdu-speaking people) and other ethno-linguistic groups to share the problems they faced as citizens of the same city.

Pashtun live in some of the most neglected parts of the city, mostly slums lacking basic civic facilities. According to the PPP and ANP, this was the outcome of policies followed equally by the Mohajir-dominated Jamaat-e-Islami and the MQM. These two parties have held sway in the city government since 2001. In this era, Pashtun and Baloch localities were intentionally ignored. “The rest of the city thrives at the expense of Pashtun localities,” said one Pashtun leader. Money was simply funneled into certain Mohajir-dominated abadis.

Today Karachi is predominantly inhabited and influenced by Mohajir, Pashtun and Baloch people with only about 10 percent Sindhi. According to some estimates there are some six million Pashtun in Sindh, with more than four million in Karachi.
Despite having community backing, Pashtun leaders are being ignored as the Mohajir-Baloch lobby in the PPP gets the lion's share of non-elected quotas of advisors and jobs in Karachi

The challenge

Given the outlook of the Pashtun today in Karachi and this large middle class, for the ANP, and indeed any others who wish to get their vote, it will be a tricky balancing act. The ongoing paramilitary operation has brought some hope for the middle classes. The old politics will not fly any more; it is a different landscape. Just plugging an ethnic agenda as a solution to perceived threats to the Pashtun interest is self-defeating. The politics can no longer be framed in isolation.

To many young middle class Pashtun nationalists, upholding nationalism for the sake of nationalism doesn’t make sense as it used to. They might agree to a nationalistic ideology in name but they want to push for a new political agenda.

Now the ANP and nationalist activists have resurfaced and try to assert themselves. The challenge is to win over people who feel that the nationalists have not lived up to their own standards and values. Most leaders unanimously agree that to be relevant, they need to preserve their ethnic identity and mandate on one hand and promote integration on the other hand. This is not only desirable but essential for urban survival.

Thus it would appear that class has trumped ideology if the Pashtun middle classes are eschewing separatist ideology simply by going beyond Pashtun nationalism. This does not mean they still do not hold on to identity-based politics but what is also happening is that there is more of an argument for integration. This helps them bargain better with other ethnic groups in the PPP, PTI and PMLN. Thus, compared to the 1970s, it seems that this decade is transitioning to being imbued with ideological nationalist fervor to taking on a developmentalist agenda.

Examples abound. The Pashtun middle classes try to mobilize community to register in the city by adopting a single local address for their national identity cards but they specify Pashto as their mother tongue. They advocate inter-marriages with other communities and the biggest indicator is that they bury their dead here instead of sending them to their home towns up north. “Attempts to embed in the Opposition and other ethnic groups is a policy of self-destruction that we must be get rid of,” one Pashtun leader told TFT.

There has been the realization that the Establishment is more inclined to address anomalies shaped under the dominance of the MQM (especially in the previous one and a half decades). At present, under the PPP provincial government, Pashtun and Baloch politicians have been allowed to play an important role in mapping out the demarcations/delimitation of boundaries for district municipalities. Pashtun youth has made headway in recruitment in the NTS test for police and by some counts the Pashtun are rapidly occupying the police force and replacing Punjabi-speakers.

As a consequence of the political marginalization of lower middle class Mohajirs due to a paramilitary operation in the city, Pashtun middle classes are muscling in  to carve space for themselves in electoral politics. They are placing great emphasis on more participation in the ongoing census headcount.

For the middle class Pashtun leadership the future will be determined by their relationship with other communities for the greater cause of the province, while keeping their distinct identity intact. They pin great hope on the results of the ongoing census which will ultimately boost their bargaining position in urban centers like Karachi and within political parties.

Currently, no single party dominates the political landscape in Karachi as far as the Pashtun are concerned. The playing field is wide open and, as some would say, level.

The writer is an independent researcher and can be reached at sartaj2000@yahoo.com