The Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) announced on 26 July that it was changing its name to Mutahida Qaumi Mahaz (United National Movement). The proposal is not new. It was first floated in 1991, and party chief Altaf Hussain had even appointed a “Chief Organiser” in Islamabad to oversee the opening of national offices in the other provinces. Soon afterwards, however, Mr Hussain had to flee to London, following a split in the MQM which made it unsafe for him to remain in Karachi. (The split delivered Mr Hussain´s MQM-Altaf and MQM-Haqiqi, led by former party stalwart Afaq Ahmed. Both factions have their political base in the Sindh cities of Karachi and Hyderabad.) The name-change was formally announced at a press conference by Senator Ishtiaq Azhar, convenor of the MQM´s Coordination Committee. The 30-member committee has been expanded to include three more people, one each from Punjab, NWFP and Balochistan.
The change of name may be viewed by some as a positive step in the context of Pakistani politics, for it clearly represents an attempt to have a wider ethnic appeal than the Urdu-speaking ´refugee´ community which forms the group´s base. Certainly, the announcement was welcomed by parties like the right-wing Jamat-e-Islami, from the ranks of which a great proportion of the MQM membership is drawn. In fact, the rise of the MQM in Hyderababd and Karachi meant the Jamat downfall in those cities, and this may explain why the Jamat would welcome the MQM announcement. A nationwide focus would dilute the MQM´s support base in the two urban centres.
Meanwhile, the name-change could help save face for MQM-Altaf´s coalition partner in Sindh, the Nawaz Sharif-led government. With violence in Karachi having resumed, the intelligence agencies are once again gunning for the MQM, which they hold responsible. This has been a trifle awkward for the Sharif government, which has had to hold high-level meetings on the law and order situation in Karachi minus MQM representation, to stop information leaks. Many believe that the change of name is an eye-wash to release pressure on the Sharif government, since it can now claim that its junior coalition partner has rejected ethnic politics and its old programmes.
The slogans raised by MQM-Altaf supporters at the press conference called by Mr Azhar were quite different from those they used to recite earlier. Now, rather than focusing on the mohajir identity, they were calling for unity between Pakistan´s various ethnic groups: “Sindhi Punjabi bhai bhai”, “Mohajir Pathan bhai bhai”, and so on. But will the name change really mean a parting of ways with the politics of ethnicity? After all, the MQM´s 24 sitting members in Sindh Provincial Assembly and 14 in National Assembly were all elected on the basis of their mohajir (refugee) identity.
How far this new sentiment will wash will be evident when and if the new MQM (retaining its old initials, and its old flag) starts a membership drive in all the provinces. However, an earlier effort, in late 1991, to increase membership through a change in policy while retaining the old name yielded no results. Then, a rather convoluted attempt was made to revise the definition of mohajir – which in Pakistan has come to mean Urdu-speaking – to include all refugees and migrants, including the Punjabis who had migrated from Jullunder in India, for example, or the Pathans who had come to Karachi from their native NWFP.
That attempt at widening appeal failed abjectly, and it seems unlikely that a new name with old acronym and flag will succeed. Meanwhile, the MQM-Haqiqi has said that if Altaf Hussain´s MQM changes its name, it will drop the ´Haqiqi´ from its own and be known simply as the Mohajir Qaumi Movement. In that case, there will be two MQMs, one apparently standing for national unity and the other for the rights of the Urdu-speaking mohajirs. Since the latter ideology is what forms the support base of Mr Hussain´s faction, the change may end up benefitting his rival, who presently heads a much smaller group.