Effect of Ethnic Discrimination on the Development of Karachi


After the Partition in 1947, the city of Karachi faced a major change in the ethnic demographics of the city; forcing it to morph to cater for the onset of refugees that had made their way into the country. This paper shall study how the prejudices against these immigrants had affected their right to the city, and how the deep rooted and previously existing social structure kept the immigrants from fully becoming part of the city. The paper shall study how the immigrants, muhajirs, responded to the compromise of their right to the city and how it has affected the social and urban development of the city of Karachi and how these prejudices took form spatially..

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Keywords:  muhajirs, ethnicity, prejudices, discrimination, Karachi, development

Effect of ethnic discrimination on the urban development of Karachi

The partition of 1947 brought about major changes in the ethnic demographics of Pakistan, affecting the area of Sindh in particular. From the total population of Pakistan, 48% were those who had migrated from India. This mass migration caused a massive change in the socio-political situation of Pakistan (specifically Sindh as will be explored in this paper); with the complete collapse of the previously existing societal constructs (based on culture, caste, and nativity of the people). The change in the socio-political situation was a direct result of the migration, and can be observed from the change in demographics within the city of Karachi: the city went from having 61.2% of its residents as Sindhi natives in 1941, to having only 8.6% of them in 1951. The population of the Urdu speakers went from 6.3% of the total population of that area in 1941 to 50% in 1951 (Hasan & Mohib, 2010, refer to Fig. 1).

The Muhajir Identity

The migration that took place across the Indo-Pak border in 1947 came with many obstacles, one of them being the identity of the people that migrated there. Pakistan, although based on the ideology of unity solely on the basis of religion, was home to multiple areas each having their own cultural and historical identity. In a land where culture and identity and roots affected your place in society, the 48% of the population that had migrated suddenly faced the issue of their own identity. These people however, eventually became an identity on their own: the muhajirs. These were the people who held no cultural or historical attachments to the newfoundland, and hence were instantly faced with the discrimination that came with the lack of belonging. In a country where ethnicity and the land that you belonged to defined your identity and right to the land and city, the muhajirs had little rights and place in the societal system of the new nation.

Despite agreeing that muhajirs are scattered all across Pakistan, the area most densely populated by them is Sindh, more specifically Karachi, Hyderabad and neighbouring areas.

The muhajirs were highly educated and literate people, and though discriminated against they were undeniably the part of the upper crest of the society at the time and it was no surprise that they had majority in the civil services and jobs as well.

The Socio-Political situation

The major discriminating factor between the Sindhis and the muhajirs was the lack of connectivity between the people and the soil. It was a source of insecurity (on the side of the muhajirs) and distrust (on the side of the natives of that soil). The majority of the muhajir population being highly educated resulted in them quickly becoming one of the ruling elites of the nation, causing even more distrust and prejudices to rise among the natives and the muhajirs.

As the only uniting factor between the muhajirs and the locals was the religion, the muhajirs political stance backed the states’ attempts at creating a national identity that did not take into concern the ethnic sentiments of the people.

With the regime of Ayub Khan, and the replacement of the capital from Karachi to Islamabad, the muhajirs saw a loss in their elite power. Some took the political situation of the time and concluded that the muhajirs had been exploited (as they made a large percentage of the civil work force) and started their own political movements and parties (MQM). This further increased the gap between the natives and muhajirs as the muhajirs came together as a separate identity and ethnicity. This gave rise to further discrimination and prejudices among the people.

The city of Karachi

The city of Karachi hosts people of multiple ethnicities over a smaller, more condensed area, including Hindus, Sindhis, Muhajirs, Balochis and Pashtuns. After the partition, Karachi, having experienced a population increase of 161% during the 1941-51 period (Hasan & Mohib, 2010), faced a major change in the distribution of and development of the city and its residents. These settlements were condensed around water supply areas and train tracks, and dotted around pre-existing commercial centres. Although efforts were made in the 1960s to have the settlements regularised and some of the residents relocated, the effects weren’t as long lasting. Orangi town is one of the largest informal divisions in Karachi and has a population of around 2.5 million people, a significant population living in kachi abadis.

However, with the changing socio-political dynamics of the nation, and just the area of Karachi, we see a change in the development as well.

The muhajirs being treated as outsiders, they were made to feel like they had little right to the city despite the fact that most of the workforce at the time was from the muhajir community. Their right to the city would be compromised and they would not be freely allowed to take part in civil activities, due to this we see them forming a community within themselves and there we saw the growing support for political parties and movements such as the MQM.

Spatial manifestations and effects of the prejudice on Karachi


During this period, the muhajirs were shifted from the informal settlements to small townships on the peripheries of the city, a 20 km radius from the city centre. However, as the work force had to travel long distances, there was an increase in the infrastructure and transport issues and gave rise to even more conflicts among the people. For example, an instance arose when muhajirs who worked in factories as labourers and did not own cars or personal vehicular transports. As compensation they were provided with a public transport system (a specific example being Orangi Town). However, the public transport had limited routes to the city, and as Karachi was a city prone to strikes and hartals, these routes would most often be closed resulting in these workers being unable to work and earn for their families. Hence, as people were unable to work, they were hindered from their abilities to work and improve their own living conditions. These were signs of prejudices, discrimination which kept the muhajirs from being able to work and earn their rights. This, therefore, limited their right to the city and made them feel even more as an outsider in the nation.

1988 – onwards

Due to the rising unrest as a result of the exploited ethnic differences between the muhajirs and the natives, the was an increase in violent activities, targeted killings and strikes and street violence that the development of that area became stunted as the industries shifted to other parts of the country for urban development. Due to this, there was little to no urban and housing development within the city and due to the rural urban migrations Karachi saw an increase in the kachi abadis and inner-city slums.


As the muhajirs had been previously situated away from the city centre to the outskirts, they were more educationally abled, had higher employment rates and lied in the upper crest of the Pakistani society, hence they were able to form a community and society of their own that was independent of those that they had come from. The Muhajirs had faced social desertification and discrimination from the locals since the days of partition, and hence after developing societies of their own they in turn decertified the natives. The settlements they occupied became high income settlements, with facilities that included educational institutes, shopping areas, sports facilities, etc. They did not feel the need to go out of the city anymore for work, and hence the connection between the two townships within the city of Karachi weakened and we now see a clear ethnic, border line to where the two areas begin to differentiate. The muhajirs have now made their own community, and have restricted the rights to that community to the locals that had previously discriminated against them and suppressed their right to the city.

These communities now are self-sufficient and independent of the previous township that they were related to. Such towns and areas include Gulshan-e-Iqbal Town, Defence Housing Authority, Gulistan-e-Jauhar and many more.


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