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The Muttahida Qaumi Movement Conundrum



By Nadeem F. Paracha

07 Mar 2014

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) remains to be an enigma to most Pakistanis outside of the Sindh province, especially those residing in the Punjab.

Firstly, the understanding of the MQM beyond Sindh is still rooted in the perceptions as well as in actual actions of the party during the turbulent 1990s when it saw itself rise as Karachi’s largest political party, only to stumble and then face a long-drawn operation against its cadres by the military, police and para-military forces.

Secondly, the eccentric antics of the party’s chief, Altaf Hussain, have been such that it’s been quite a daunting task to comprehend exactly what he stands for.

Three years ago graffiti appeared on the walls of Karachi with the word ‘Altafism.’ To be precise it went something like this: ‘Altatfism = Realism.’

When I approached a few of the party’s senior leaders and asked them what this realism was about, they proposed that the party stood for ‘progressive pragmatism.’

Some further inquiry into the matter suggested that the party was trying to rationalize some of its policies and actions that had seemed contradictory.

For example, though the MQM has been the most overtly secular mainstream political party in the country in the last decade or so, and also vehemently vocal against extremist and sectarian outfits and mainstream religious parties, it surprised many people when three years ago it held a large public rally in support of Aafia Siddiqui.

MQM held a large public rally in support of Aafia Siddiqui, a convicted felon

Siddiqui is a convicted felon in the United States where she was sentenced to a long jail term for taking part in terrorist activities and aiding extremist outfits against the US. In Pakistan however she became a darling of the country’s right-wing groups and parties.

At the time of the rally a leader of the MQM had told me that the party did not want to be straitjacketed to a dogmatic ideology and wanted to remain flexible and pragmatic.

‘The party and its support-base are inherently liberal,’ another MQM leader, the articulate Faisal Sabzwari, had told me. ‘But you have to understand that this liberalism is not Western in context. It is Pakistani, or more specifically, the kind that has been inherent in Karachi’s middle and lower middle-classes.’

The native liberalism of Karachi’s Urdu-speaking (Mohajir) middle and lower middle-classes (that constitute MQM’s main vote-bank) is basically rooted in the memory of this community’s historical co-existence with the Hindus in those areas of India where the elders of the Mohajirs had migrated from to the newly-formed Pakistan after 1947.

Secondly, this liberalism is also linked to the fact that even though ever since 1947 the Mohajirs have been a majority in Karachi, the city has increasingly boasted of hosting a number of other ethnic groups as well, especially the Pushtun, the Punjabis, the Sindhis and the Baloch.

Though Karachi is the country’s largest city, its economic resources have been continuously under stress and off and on tensions and violence have flared up between the Mohajir majority and other ethnic groups living in this city.

But despite the ethnic tensions that still simmer under the diverse frontage of the city, anyone willing to settle in Karachi quickly understands that to survive in this city one requires a certain degree of pragmatic acceptance of ethnic, religious, sectarian and sub-sectarian tolerance.

Ignoring this leads to ghettoisation that in turn leads to being cut-off from what Karachi as an economic hub and diverse cosmopolitan centre has to offer.

This can be seen in the way certain sections of the city’s Pushtun and Baloch populations have been suffering as they have increasingly ghettoised and insulated themselves from the dynamics of the city’s inherent economic and social diversity.

Much of the recent violence related to extremist and sectarian groups is emerging from the Pushtun-dominated areas of the city. And this violence is also targeting the city’s older Pushtun communities that had begun to arrive in Karachi from the 1950s onwards.

These older communities that, on the political level, have been backing secular Pushtun nationalist groups like the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), or mainstream Deobandi Islamic parties such as the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUP), do not relate to the growing number of Pushtuns who began to arrive and settle in Karachi after large areas of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the tribal areas became highly volatile (after the US attack on Afghanistan in 2002).

Pushtuns in Karachi from the older communities were/are highly integrative and enterprising. The newer lot on the other hand has been infiltrated by religious extremist groups.

The existence of these extremist groups as clandestine but politically influential outfits, and stakeholders in the activities related to the city’s complex black economy, depend on keeping the infiltrated swaths of new Pushtun arrivals isolated from Karachi’s inherent dynamics that encourages integration and an acceptance of diversity.

This is why this portion of the city’s Pushtun population as well as one of the city’s oldest inhabitants, Lyari’s Baloch (who have been ghettoised by the area’s criminal gangs for similar purposes), have become increasingly isolated and desperate.

This isolation and disconnect with the city’s inherent social and economic dynamics is breeding anarchic forms of religious and criminal violence in these communities.

Interestingly, the same thing had already happened to the Mohajir majority of the city.

When violence erupted between the Pushtuns and Mohajirs in the mid and late 1980s (an outcome of tensions arising from the city’s resources coming under sudden stress), MQM rose to become the first full-blown political expression of Mohajir nationalism.

By 1992 as the MQM had become the city’s largest political party, its rise created grave cleavages in the city’s traditional political epicentres that had been largely driven by parties such as the PPP, the Jamat Islami and Jamiat Ulema Pakistan.

As the city’s economics and resources continued to come under stress due to the increasing migration to the city from within Sindh, KP and the Punjab, corruption in the police and other government institutions operating in Karachi grew two-fold.

The need to use muscle to tilt the political and economic aspects of the city towards a community’s interests became prominent.

Thus emerged the so-called militant wings in the city’s prominent political groups that even by the early 1990s had begun to moonlight as fraudsters and violent criminals.

These cleavages saw the MQM ghettoising large swaths of the city’s Mohajirs in areas where it ruled supreme.

The results were disastrous. It replaced the inherently integrative, pluralistic and enterprising disposition of the Mohajirs with a besieged mentality that expressed itself in an awkwardly violent manner attracting the concern and then the wrath of the state and two governments.

Between 1992 and 1999, the MQM faced three full-fledged operations from the military, police and para-military forces.

The perceptions about the party emerging from these eight turbulent years are the ones that have stuck in the minds of a majority of Pakistanis living outside Karachi and especially outside of Sind.

What gets missed in most analyses about the MQM by political commentators and most non-Karachiites is the evolution and metamorphoses that the party went through when it revived its fortunes some three years after the operations against it stopped.

The MQM emerged on the scene as a Mohajir nationalist party with a narrow agenda of looking after the economic and political interests of Sindh’s Mohajirs. It was nothing like what it is today.

Its secularism at the time was not as pronounced and in fact it never even used that word. It was simply an ethnic party that just had to compete against two religious parties (JI and JUP) only because the Urdu-speakers of Sindh were (politically) close to these parties (before MQM’s rise).

But this competition and the rise of a more violent form of religious extremism in Pakistan after the 9/11 episode, navigated the party’s evolution towards becoming a more consciously secular and liberal political party when it began to regenerate itself in the early 2000s.

As a policy, and due to the need to revive itself, the MQM allied itself with the General Musharraf dictatorship that gave the party the chance to start with a clean slate.

Though the party retained its militant aspects, the economic boom witnessed during the early periods of the Mushrraf regime saw the Mohajirs of Karachi begin to return to their original disposition of being a more pluralistic and integrative community.

This was the time MQM had struck a productive working relationship with Musharraf and was able to preside over the de-ghettoisation of the Mohajir community and revive its status as the community’s leading political expression.

This time however, the MQM offered itself as being the reflection of Karachi’s new-found economic and political confidence, also symbolised by the large-scale developmental projects undertaken by the MQM-run city government between 2004 and 2008.

The confidence brought with it a pride and deeper understanding of Karachi’s pluralistic and diverse dynamics and eventually the owning of these dynamics (by the MQM).

Thus, MQM became a declared secular and liberal outfit that however happened to also retain a clandestine militant wing.

“Today they are more well-armed and violent than we ever were”

One MQM leader defended this (while talking to me early last year). He said: ‘MQM would have loved to get rid of its militant dimension, but we knew the stability and prosperity that Karachi witnessed during the Musharraf government would not last. We knew that with this prosperity more and more Pakistanis were coming to Karachi and many of them began to arm themselves to secure their share of the pie. Today they are more well-armed and violent than we ever were. Had we totally done away with militancy, we would have been wiped out!’

Another much debated aspect of most analysis of the MQM revolves around its birth.

The most common account of the formation of the MQM involves claims that it was a party conceived in 1984 by the military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq as a way to counterbalance the influence of certain political forces in Sindh.

However, there is precious little clarity or evidence on the part of those political historians who peddle this claim.

Nevertheless, if one were to summarise the collective thesis on the subject by academics who have written extensively on the MQM – such as Muhammad Wasim, Laurent Gayer and Oskar Vaarkaik – one can suggest that, though, there was some involvement of Zia’s agencies in the formation of the MQM, this experiment soon backfired when the MQM quickly spun out of the agencies’ orbit and became an aggressively independent entity.

However, the much overlooked reason behind the emergence of the MQM is an economic one. According to famous Sindhi scholar, Ibrahim Joyo, ‘Punjabi economic hegemony’ increased immensely in Sindh during the dictatorship of Ziaul Haq.

This situation had a negative impact on Karachi’s leading business communities (Memons, Gujaratis and other non-Punjabi business groups).

In such a situation these communities formed the Maha Sindh (MS) — an organisation set up to protect the interests of Karachi’s Memon, Gujarati and Mohajir businessmen and traders.

According to celebrated Sindhi intellectual Khaliq Junejo, the MS then encouraged and financed the formation of a ‘street-strong’ Karachi-based party. This party soon emerged as the MQM.

It can be argued that it is this aspect of the MQM’s formation that sometimes gets mistaken into meaning that the party came about with the help of the Zia regime. This is so because the business communities in Karachi (stung by Bhutto’s nationalisation policies) were anti-Bhutto and had hailed his overthrow by Zia in 1977.

But by the early 1980s, they had been deluded by Zia’s supposedly ‘pro-Punjabi’ economic manoeuvres in Sindh and felt the need to have their own political outfit. MQM was the result.