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Conflicted Karachi

Conflicted Karachi

Conflict and violence in Karachi has always had its own distinct dynamics, requiring the state and the government of the time to chalk out contingency strategies and security arrangements that are largely customised to suite these exclusive dynamics.

Though considered to be one of the most crime-infested cities of South Asia, Karachi has baffled a number of political pundits by remaining comparatively stable in the last decade or so – especially in the context of the rise in the number of gruesome terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in the Punjab and the Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa.

In this regard at least, so far Karachi (and rest of the Sindh province) has somehow managed to escape the ubiquitous madness of both extremist terrorism.

Karachi also remains to be Pakistan’s most overtly secular city.

But why does a city with a startling sectarian, religious and ethnic diversity is able to ward off violence associated with religious extremism but collapse’s when it comes to ethnic tensions?


Karachi has evolved into becoming the country’s largest metropolis and economic hub. Ever since the 1960s, it has also retained its proud reputation of being a ‘mini Pakistan.’ This is so because it always had the most ethnically and religiously diverse population in the country.

Currently it provides sustenance to more than 18 million of its residents through industry, trade, commerce, services and charity.

It is also a violent city. In 2001, the murder rate in Karachi was 4.04 per 100,000 people compared with 1.67 in Mumbai and 3.79 in Delhi.

The capacity for violent disruption that lurks just beneath the surface manifests itself through instances when the city is brought to a grinding halt by one of its several claimants. Otherwise it is business as usual, with traffic jams, busy and congested markets, late night shopping, packed restaurants, ‘licensed’ wine shops doing roaring business,  long drives, walks and ‘dating’ by the sea front, and in the newly-setup parks.

Yet it takes only a rumour for the shutters to go down. There have been days when pitched battles have raged between armed groups – divided along political, ethnic or gang lines – throwing up temporary fronts. Those days are not common, but everyone seems to know that they could come at short notice.

A number of political parties operating in the city maintain armed cadres. There are underlying tensions between political groups that are blamed for ‘targeted killings’ of rival members. But it needs to be noted that their activities are not directly linked to jihadi forms of religious extremism.

A look at the main political and religious groupings and ethnicities operating in Karachi should further clear the above observation.



Mohajirs are Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated from India during and after the dramatic division of the subcontinent in 1947. They constitute about 48 per cent of Karachi’s population.

Though they arrived from various parts of India, they have more or less always identified themselves as an amalgamated ‘ethnic’ group, especially ever since the 1980s. They are thus the majority ethnic group in Karachi.

Religiously, a majority of mohajirs follow the more moderate Sunni ‘Barelvi’ school of thought, while the bulk of the well-to-do mohajir middle-classes admire the pragmatic and modernist Islam advocated by the likes of nineteenth century Indian Muslim scholars such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

The mohajirs have always been liberal in outlook. Historically they have been tolerant of various activities that are considered to be undesirable by the clergy and conservative Muslims, such as love marriages, working women, female education, contraception, non-segregated public outings, music, films, etc.

Interestingly, it is perhaps due to the mohajirs’ moderate bent and social liberalism that over the years has seen the city’s Christian, Hindu and Shiah Muslim minorities increasingly identify themselves with the mohajir community.

Mohajirs are mostly employed in Karachi’s service industries (advertising, television, press, catering, banking, education), and also have a presence in the city’s widespread manufacturing, import and export businesses.

Politically, till about the early 1980s, the mohajirs exhibited a curious inclination towards political conservatism. Though on the surface this contradicted their social liberalism, but the reason for this was rather simple.  It was a case of reactive politics on the part of Karachi’s mohajirs who were not historically linked to the land they lived on (in Pakistan) and thus had to define their ‘Pakistaniat’ by supporting the country’s non-ethnic ‘Islamic roots’ of creation championed by political-religious parties like the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP).

Till the early 1980s, the majority of lower-middle-class mohajirs largely voted for the Berelvi-dominated JUP, while the mohajir middle-classes supported elitist religious parties like JI.

After 1985, a large chunk of mohajir support shifted towards the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party that has grown into becoming a highly organised entity, that is largely secular in make-up but also controversial for retaining an active militant wing.

The mohajirs of Karachi have exhibited various shades of militancy. They were vigorously involved in the radical leftist student and labour movements against the Ayub Khan dictatorship in the late 1960s, and then turned ideologically rightwards by taking an active part in the JI-led movement against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977.

A large number of young mohajirs were further radicalized after the rise of the MQM and during the violent clashes that took place between mohajir and the city’s Pushtun communities in the 1980s.

The bone of contention in this context (at least for MQM and the mohajirs) was the rapid influx of Pushtun-speaking Afghan refugees that poured into the city in the wake of the CIA and ISI sponsored ‘anti-Soviet Afghan jihad’ in Afghanistan. Many of the refugees bought with them lethal weapons and drugs like heroin.

Karachi’s economy and resources suddenly came under tremendous stress. By 1986, not only did the crime rate in the city rise ten-fold, heroin addiction among Karachiites too rose by almost 500 per cent compared to the rate of addiction in the city in 1979.

The radicalisation and militancy among mohajir youth too rose, culminating with the MQM facing multiple operations by the police and paramilitary forces across the 1990s – a decade that remains to be the most violent in the city’s history.

In contrast to this, the first decade of the new millennium has been relatively peaceful, with the mohajirs now widely recognised as a bonafide ethnic group and the MQM establishing itself as a powerful playmaker in the politics of Sindh.

However, sporadic waves of targeted killings involving MQM and the Pushtun-based ANP continue to spring up.


The Pushtun constitute the second largest ethnic community in the city (about 15 per cent of the population). Most of them belong to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and started to migrate to Karachi in the early 1960s during the Ayub Khan dictatorship.

A large number of Pushtuns were employed as labourers in the city’s widespread construction business, and by the 1970s many had become small entrepreneurs. They also became major operators within the city’s public transport and real estate businesses.

Religiously, a large number of the city’s Pushtuns belong to the conservative Sunni ‘Deobandi’ school of thought. However, many are moderate and largely secular in outlook – these are the ones who supported left-wing parties like National Awami Party in the 1960s and 1970s, and ever since 1986 mostly vote for the secular Awami National Party (ANP) in the city’s Pushtun dominated areas.

Like the MQM, ANP too, has an armed group of cadres.

There are also a significant number of Karachi’s Pushtuns (mostly of Afghan origin) who identify with the more puritanical and militant strains of Islam and have been known to support ultra-conservative fringe groups.

Socially the Pushtuns of the city remain conservative, barring Pushtuns who migrated from Swat, who, comparatively, seem to demonstrate more social flexibility.

Punjabi /Hindko/Siraiki

Though the three are now understood as distinct ethnic groups, in Karachi people migrating to the city from Hindko-speaking areas in the North and South Punjab’s Saraiki belt are usually slotted with the city’s Punjabi community.

As a whole this community constitutes about 14 per cent of the city’s population.

Religiously, the Punjabis and the Siraiki-speakers belong to the moderate Barelvi school of thought, whereas the Hindko-speakers have increasingly moved towards the more conservative Deobandi thought.

Socially, the city’s Punjabi population is largely outgoing and flexible and actively involved in all kinds of manufacturing, entrepreneurial and service-related economic activity of the city. A majority of personnel working in the city’s police force are Punjabis.

Politically most Punjabis in Karachi have been seen to vote for moderate conservative parties such as the PML-N and the Punjabi-Pukhtun-Itihad (PPI).


Six to eight percent of those residing in Karachi are Sindhis.

Religiously a majority of the city’s Sindhis belong to the moderate Sunni Bareilvi school of thought and are socially liberal. Many of them are working in state institutions as bureaucrats; some are small entrepreneurs, while the elite among them have feudal backgrounds.

Politically they’ve been robust supporters of the PPP, but some Sindhis (especially in suburban areas of Karachi) have also tended to support radical Sindhi nationalist parties.


About 4 per cent of Karachi’s population is made up of the Baloch. Some migrated from Balochistan but most are from Karachi’s indigenous Baloch-speaking Sheedi (Pakistanis of African descent) community. A majority of them make a living as labourers and belong to the most flexible strains of the moderate Bareilvi school of thought.

They are socially liberal (except maybe the tiny Baloch elite that have tribal roots in Balochistan).  This community, especially the Sheedis, have been the most passionate supporters of the secular PPP in Karachi. The armed cadres of the PPP in the city are also largely Sheedis.

The Sheedi community has also been ravaged by years of gang-related violence, and drug and alcohol addiction.

Karachi has a significant Christian minority with a majority of them being Catholic. A large number of them are involved in the education sector and employed in the services industry. There is also a Protestant presence among the community. This community also comprise of Christians who migrated from towns in the central Punjab.

Till the early 1990s, a majority of the city’s Christians were PPP supporters, but in the last few years many of them have been exhibiting support for the MQM.

Before partition around 50 per cent of Karachi’s population was Hindu. Today they are a minority. Most of this minority is related to families who did not migrate to India in 1947, while others arrived from rest of Sindh that has a significant Hindu minority. Till the early 1990s, most Hindus were PPP supporters, but recently most of them have shifted their support towards the MQM.


Karachi has the largest concentration of Zoroastrians in Pakistan. Most of them are well-off and active in the city’s business sector.

Foreign migrants

In the last 30 years a number of foreigners have come and settled in Karachi.

The Afghans are the largest group who started arriving in the early 1980s from war-torn Afghanistan. Most of them are Pushtu-speaking and live in areas situated on the outskirts of the city.

The Bengalis comprise the second largest section. Many started to pour into Karachi from Bangladesh in the early 1980s, looking for work, mainly as cooks, house servants and small entrepreneurs.

There are at least three large shanty areas in the city populated by working class Bengalis, most of whom now have Pakistani citizenship.

During the last three general elections, most of these Bengalis were co-opted as supporters of the MQM.

Many such shanty towns also have Burmese migrants who over the years escaped from the persecution they faced by the military dictatorship in Myanmar.

Karachi also has an old Chinese community. The first batch arrived in Karachi after Mao Tse Tung’s revolution in 1949, and the second batch began arriving during the violent ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China in the late 1960s.

The city’s Chinese community has done well in the medical professions, is well educated and can speak both English and Urdu fluently.

There is also a small population of Sri Lankan and Filipino migrants in Karachi. The Lankans are mostly employed as school teachers, while the Filipina (the women) usually work as maids in many houses in the city’s posh localities.

Apart from these one also comes across migrants from Muslim Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan and Kirghizstan. There used to be a significant Iranian migrant population in the city as well (till the late 1980s), mostly made up of Iranians who had escaped Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in 1979.


Electoral Karachi

The top 6 political parties in Karachi (in terms of electoral performance in the city) between the 1970 general and provincial elections and the 2008 elections:

1: Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)
Main voters: Mohajirs
2: Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)
Main voters: Sindhis & Baloch (some Punjabis and mohajirs as well)
3: Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N)
Main voters: Punjabi
4: Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP- Noorani)
Main voters: Mohajir,  some Punjabis
5: Awami National Party (NAP/ANP)
Main voters: Pushtun
6: Jamat-i-Islami (JI)
Main voters: Mohajir, some Punjabi & Pushtun

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and

*Illustration by Eefa Khalid/

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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83 Responses to “Conflicted Karachi”

  1. Amir khan says:

    Very nice artical, but there is correction need to be done that ANP is third Largest Political force after PPPP not PML-N.

  2. Shahid says:

    There is only one solution to bring peace in our city. Pray five times a day and repent in front of Allah for our sins.

  3. wasim watio says:

    Karachi has been enduring frequent violence events for the last couple years. During this period the death toll has reached in hundreds. The city is home to about 18 million people and serves as business hub of the country. Political killings have recently been escalated. Members of the ruling alliance of three parties are being shot dead on regular basis. A few weeks ago, the mafia made their presence felt once again when they killed a political figure Raza Haider, senior leader of the city’s dominant political party, along with two guards. After this sad incident , government claimed to bring the cold-blooded culprits to law. This incident triggered the chaos and violence deteriorating the law and order situation throughout the city. Outbreak of violence following the deadly attack resulted in deaths of several innocent people.
    After tragedies the terror prevails and the businesses remain closed for many days. The closure of businesses and shops means a substantial loss to the economy of the country. In a situation like this daily wagers, belonging to the lower class, will not have money to buy food to feed their families. These incidents mount heavy deficit to the budget targets. The economy can not grow or even function normal when there is an entire day without business in the financial hub.

  4. wasim watio says:

    World famous cricket legend Imran khan is becoming popular on political terms aswell. He inspires the public ingeneral and young generation in particular not just by words but actions also. From world cup to shaukat khanam and NAMAL, he is probably the only political personality alive who actually has done and is doing something real on ground. The level of his popularity can be measured from the number of television shoes he is invited . There is very unfortunate thing that I have noticed that despite being so much popular all over the country he has not been able to mobilize masses to vote for his party at the time of elections. I can not understand why this happens. Meanwhile this should be kept in mind that the process of elections in our country is not an ideally fair and transparent one. Rigging is witnessed during the elctions on a regular basis. Provided and fair and free election, Imran khan might win some seats.

  5. Maya Jadgal says:

    It seems in Pakistan, especially in Karachite, have no idea of the division of population.
    Most of the numbers quoted in NP’s article are wrong, and not matching the actual. It is
    Dwan’s duty to fact check before it goes to publish. Person like NP who used show his
    hold on many matters, lost the plot when it came to different ethnic groups. Please do not micro scoop – must travel to all the localities before stating the numbers. Especially when it comes to Baloch living in Khi – they are there for ages, migration took place even before English came to India. Please make the facts right. For God Sake – just to make happy an ethnic, do not exaggerate the numbers. By the way:
    after 60 years living in Khi – one should not be called Mohajir.

    God Bless You.

  6. Sahil Baloch says:

    I think Mr. Paracha is not aware of Karachi’s population well enough, he made some serious error in his %. He only counted Baloch from Layri area, ignore or forgot Malir (from Malir City to Ghadap), Landi Area (Sharafi to Manazal Pump area), and some localities in Golimar areas. Secondly, allof them are not Sheedi (basically they are Baloch too – do not discriminate them by the color). This is a major issue with our society who goes with color of skin. Thirdly, this is fourth or fifth generations, which was born in Karachi, therefore migration took place over 200 years back. Please do not compare it with Urdu Speaking people who migrated only 60 years back (last 2 Generation were born here in Khi). Person like Mr. Paracha, whom I have a lot regards for his witty writings – must do some home work when it comes to these kind of work.

  7. majid maqsood says:

    its so informative and one should read it whole!

  8. Tim says:

    Well researched insightful article,good analysis.

  9. Adil Dalal says:

    well written article, providing a face and identity to the ‘other’ in karachi.

    that said, other ethnic groups such as the memon community (in particular) and gujarati’s (overall) have been left out in this piece, despite the fact that they are both vibrant communities in their own right that contribute to the social fabric of karachi from a business, social and importantly, philanthropic perspective.

    More importantly, these groups are becoming increasingly political in their affiliations with major parties, in the interest of survival. Their voice can no longer be ignored.

    • Mohammed Hassanali says:

      I fully agree with you Adil.
      Dear Nadeem, your articles are generally well researched and nicely said. Not this time. Atleast not in population counts. I myself am a member of a large Gujrati family who settled in this city almost 7 generations ago. That explains itself how old is the Gujrati presence.
      Quaid-e-Azam was a Gujrati. The founder of this distinguished newspaper (Abdullah Haroon) was a Gujrati. Then there are Adamjis, Habibs, Valikas, Mandviwalas and I can simply go on.
      I think you need to redo this article.

  10. GKrishnan says:

    Thanks Mr. NFP, wonderful article. I felt I was right there in Karachi while reading it.

  11. Ali from Karachi says:

    Very excellent article NFP…you summarized the cosmopolitan nature of Karachi beautifully

  12. Khusro Kamran says:

    Very very interesting, i guess its well researched article.. Good job!

  13. Naveed Khan says:

    The number of Mohajirs is exaggerated. I do wish that all the ethnic and religious group learn to live with each other and work for the better future of Karachi. If there is peace and harmony, Karachi has great potential to receive investment from Middle East. Karachi is an entrepreneurial city and world would invest in this city, if it learns to be peaceful.

  14. Main Hoo N aa says:

    I am saddened by NFP claim that majority follow barelvi peero gaadi nashin taaviz merchant khyalaat in Karachi/

  15. Ali says:

    It would be interesting if demographics given the article were supported by references.

  16. Tonks says:

    I’ve visited Mumbai and Karachi, the poor parts and the rich parts. Yes, they’re similar, but the class difference in Mumbai is just a tad bit more sickening than Karachi.

    For instance, much of the poor had taken to use the street as a toilet, this was beside a high rise building. Similar situations exist in Karachi.

    Both made me sick to my stomach.

  17. Analytical Engine says:

    Hope that Allah will make peace and tranquility return to Karachi.I sincerely desire to wish the city.Some of my relatives live over there.

  18. Sajjad Hyder says:

    Unbalanced and pro MQM piece. NFP should avoid writing about MQM cause he takes an appeasement stance to stay clear of trouble. Memons and Gujratis coming from Gujrat and Kutch have been ignored. Sindhis also constitute 12% of Karachi with new settlements such as Hadeed and Johar etc. NFP is brilliant when writing about the broad political canvas but when it comes to Karachi he’s always found leaning towards MQM with no justification.

  19. Salman Raza says:

    The term “muhajir” was used as a reaction to what others communities called the people who came from India. I know so many people in Lahore who said the native lahoris used to call them ‘Hindustani’ just coz they came from the provinces of UP BIHAR did not have a common language with the natives.

    The MQM later on dropped the word muhajir and now urdu-speaking is widely used as a identity for the migrants of UP BIHAR.

    As for the term that they use our passport and dont consider themselves Pakistani is all a misconception. URDU-speaking people are as much Pakistanis as anyone else.

  20. N FP Live Long. Readers…Please do not see this article as NFP is Census Expert, he has given us an overview of Karachi’s population and diversity of socio-economic and cultural patterns.All memon and Bohri brothers are part of mohajir group because they also migrated from Mumbai and around. So there is no big issue. They are all part of us and playing an important role in business and are veery entreprenure people.

    NFP has done an excellent job outlining very broadly different school of thoughts in Karachi. However, someone will write something on who are behind the scene characters encouraging drug mafia, war lords, and spreading multi dimensional social evils. We can’t leave all to NFP. Let us begin to ponder over how can peace and tranquality can be restored and what are the solutions. Both long term and short term.

    Congratulations, NFP.

  21. Zee says:

    Another great analysis. Thanks for all these informative pieces, NFP. You should write a book!

  22. Karim Javed says:

    Most of the people belongs to MQM saying them self as Mahajir but they work, live, earn in Pakistan but don’t know they still saying them self Mahajir instead they have Pakistani citizenship and right to vote.

  23. vinod, India says:

    Very interesting and informative. Thanks NFP

  24. Rashid Saleem says:

    I don’t agree with NFP for once. The terror is more on political supremacy than ethnic supremacy. But whatever the case its violence which is getting promoted through such differences. Democracy is not about having a no difference environment but the attempt to find common ground amongst all differences and this is what we should be doing.

  25. Syed Faseeh says:

    Mr. Paracha very informative article but you forgot to mention an important part of Karachi’s fabric which is the Memon/Gujrati community even though they are mostly apolitical despite the fact that most of them openly support the Sunni Tehreek. Apolitical or not, they play a very important role in the economic activity of Karachi’s commerce and trade and also charitable organisations. I would estimate that there are close to half a million Memons living in Karachi today which is close to the number of Sindhis living in the great city of Kolachi!

    • Karachi Chalo says:

      Top article again by NFP.

      As far as I remember, Memons were very pro-MQM in the 1980s and 1990s. But you are right, in the last 10 yrs or so, many of them have become attached to Sunni Thereek.

  26. enkay says:

    “working class Bengalis, most of whom now have Pakistani citizenship..”
    I think suffice to say that was not my experience from when I had recently visited Karachi where most of the Bengalis I found did not have access even to an NIC and those that did were fearful that many would not get new NICs because they are supposed to be registered with NARA.

  27. Yahya says:

    You excluded Memon community from your article.

  28. AHR says:

    Good article, however, u tend to over-simplify things by treating the shia minority as something exclusive of ethnicity. Shias in Khi mainly are mohajirs followed by shias hailing from sindhi families, punjab, giligit etc. What I mean to say is that it’s a combination of religion plus ethnicity. Anyways, good analysis

  29. STARZ says:

    Very Informative piece based on history & facts. Need to be spread /sharing/Awairness Well done Good work Nadeem

  30. dodo says:

    Just a half baked analytical piece which is not detailed enough. Breakdown of religious orientation of muhajirs (UP, bihari, memon, deccan & other indian states like CP, kokan/Goa, karnataka) will reveal interesting patterns.

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