November issue 2010
Interview: Wasim Akhtar, MQM
“The ANP thinks Karachi is a bazaar, ripe for plunder”
– Wasim Akhtar, MNA, MQM
Q: Given the demographics of the city — with the Mohajir community in the majority by a huge margin — it would be fair to assume that the MQM largely “controls” Karachi. Why can’t it stop the killings?
A: No, it’s the government that controls Karachi. Look at the ministries and portfolios — the MQM only has the ministry of industry and some other small ministries. The home ministry controls Karachi.
Q: Yet the MQM has the power to bring the city to its knees. One call from Altaf Hussain and the city shuts down.
A: Control of the city means [to be in control of] its development, [the authority to make] major decisions. Yes, we can call for a strike, but we don’t have real power. I was home minister, but I didn’t have any power, because there’s the ISI, the MI — the intelligence agencies — the centre and others who were actually calling the shots.
Q: You acknowledge that the party leadership can effectively bring the city to a halt, but simultaneously contend it does not wield the power to convince the community to maintain peace…
A: Altaf Bhai has been repeatedly issuing statements asking the perpetrators of the violence to desist from this line of action, to come to the table and talk. The MQM is not involved in the target killings in Karachi. In fact, 17 of our men were made victims of target attacks in three days.
Q: There have been casualties across the ethnic divides: Mohajirs, Pathans, even Baloch.
A: Yes, but the MQM is not responsible. The killings are due to the gang wars being fought in Lyari. It’s those people and the land-grabbers from the ANP who are responsible. We are, in fact, trying to maintain peace. If we had decided to react, the city would have shut down — schools would have been closed, bazaars shuttered. But we don’t want disturbances.
Q: The general perception however, is that the current conflict is part of an ongoing turf war between the Mohajir and Pathan communities — a battle for Karachi.
A: There is no turf war. If you look at the election results since 1988, you will see who has won what. The MQM doesn’t have to fight for control of Karachi — the party has the support of Karachiites. The Pathan community is scattered. They are not from Karachi. They can’t vote. Yes, they are working here, but they can’t qualify as Karachiites. If that was the case, they wouldn’t have only mustered four councillors in the last election. They would have won more seats. The ANP — and I’m not talking about the Pashtun community — is trying to [lay permanent claim on] certain areas, such as Sohrab Goth. They are involved in the drug business, in the arms business, in land-grabbing. Check out the background of the local ANP leader. He was a known land-grabber before entering politics. That’s how he went from being a rickshaw driver — and there’s nothing wrong with that — to making so much money. And all his companions are still involved with land-grabbing.
Q: Whatever his personal credentials, Shahi Syed is leading the ANP in Karachi. Thus, in effect he leads the Pashtun community in the city — which given your party’s antagonism with him, squarely pits the MQM against the ANP, does it not?
A: No, the Pakhtun community is divided. If Shahi Syed represented the Pakhtun community, the ANP wouldn’t have won just two seats, because there is a large Pakhtun community in Karachi. There are Afghan Pakhtuns, there are the Hazara Pakhtuns. There is also Irfanullah Marwat’s PPI, none of whom support the ANP.
The real Pakhtuns, the labour class, hate him. They feel he incites their community, creates hate.
Q: The MQM’s reservations about the ANP leader notwithstanding, you are with the ANP at the centre — part of the coalition government, even if by default. Why can’t you devise a civilised modus operandus to resolve the conflict?
A: The MQM and PPP are talking, but the ANP doesn’t want to sit with us, to talk to us. We have tried many times. Our people have been to Shahi Syed’s residence several times with the intent to initiate a dialogue. It’s on record. He said he would look into reports of land-grabbing by his people, he promised he would try and stop them. He makes a lot of commitments, but does not honour them. To put it simply, his interests are only land and money.
The ANP is not interested in making peace in Karachi, or for that matter even doing anything positive in its own province. The ANP has all the power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but what have they achieved? Corruption is rampant. There is a lot of money in land-grabbing, so they grab land everywhere, and then divide the spoils among the [ANP’s] top eight people, beginning with Asfandyar Wali. As a result, everyone in KP has started hating the ANP, and the labour class here hates them too.
The fact is, the ANP thinks Karachi is a bazaar ripe for plunder. They come to Karachi and destroy even what infrastructure exists here.
Q: On account of the changing demographics courtesy migration, some analysts predict that by 2015 the Mohajirs will no longer be the dominant community in urban Sindh. According to some analysts, this is why the MQM is so opposed to migration.
A: We are not against migration, but we believe all settlers should be registered. Every Pakistani has the right to come to Karachi and live here, but because of the terrorism today, it is vital to know who these immigrants are and what their background is.
Q: The MQM is also now at war with the Baloch community in Lyari — who are ironically, members of your coalition partner, the PPP. Farooq Sattar squarely laid the blame for the Shershah killings on the Jabbar Langra and Baba Ladla gangs operating out of Lyari…
A: They are not Baloch. Their forefathers settled here, but they are Makrani, not Baloch. The real Baloch live in Balochistan. These people just use the Baloch card when it suits them.
Q: That is moot, but what is not is the fact that the MQM seems to be engaged in hostilities with all the ethnic communities — who also happen to be its coalition partners.
A: Well, even the PPP doesn’t accept these people as theirs. In any case, we are at war with criminals, whatever party they belong to. There is no ethnic conflict here. There are two Lyari gangs who are criminals. They are drug peddlers, they are fighting each other for bhatta, for capturing the heroin market, etc. We are in opposition to them.
Yes, we have had some problems with the PPP. But that’s because there are a few ministers that are supporting these criminals. There are actually banners in the city featuring known hoods, Rehman Dakait and Dalmia on one side and Zulfiqar Mirza on the other. We aren’t against Asif Zardari or PPP policy.
Q: Clearly you have no working relationship with the local home minister.
A: No, we don’t. He’s not even on talking terms with us. During PPP-MQM meetings, he looks the other way.
Q: The MQM does not support the army being brought in to control the situation in Karachi — you are asking for more powers for the Rangers — yet Altaf Hussain has called for the army to “clean up” the mess in the country. Isn’t this a contradiction?
A: No, there is no contradiction. Go back to Altaf Hussain’s statement — he said no martial law, no interference [by the army] in governance. But others are asking the army to be given total control of Karachi. Altaf Bhai said good generals should cleanse the country of the corrupt — of those who had breached dykes and submerged the lands of the poor.
Q: And via which formula, in a constitutional framework, in a democratic order, would the generals operate, and how would they do so without interfering in governance?
A: When the army comes, there is no constitution. But there are judges, there is Article 190, through which the Supreme Court can order any department or institution, such as the army, to work on a formula, to address [specific] crimes, for example the loan write-offs or the breaching of dams. That is what we want, not martial law. We don’t want the army interfering in our daily business.
Besides, the army is involved with fighting the Taliban. They are involved with post-flood rehabilitation. So if India were to create a problem, or there was an issue with Afghanistan, the army’s attention would be diverted elsewhere and the country would be in real trouble.
That’s why we say, enhance the Rangers’ powers and let them operate outside the ambit of political affiliations. Give them full control, and allow them to work without any interference.
Zulfiqar Mirza gives the impression that he can’t do anything because his hands are tied due to being in a coalition with us. He contends that if he takes action against any members of the MQM who are responsible for the violence, we threaten to leave the coalition, we blackmail the government.
He says we demand that perpetrators of crimes who hail from the MQM be released, and if he did not have these constraints, he would hang all those responsible for the killing.
The truth is quite the contrary. We, in fact, have openly said to the Sindh government, don’t come under any pressure. If any member of the MQM is found committing a crime, please catch him. So Mr Mirza, do it, catch the criminals. The fact is he is only interested in holding on to his seat.
Q: Don’t you think that this once thriving cosmopolitan city has been ruined due to the ghettoisation of ethnic communities? As one of the leading players in Karachi, doesn’t your party have a moral obligation to break the ethnic barriers?
A: The MQM is the only party that largely brokered peace between the Sunnis and Shias. The party intervened, spoke to the ulema on both sides. So now there are rarely any Shia-Sunni riots in the city. We also keep holding meetings with representatives of the other sects to the same end — to spread tolerance.
Ethnically too, the MQM has all communities in its fold — Sindhis, Punjabis, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus. They are all with us, and not just in a token capacity. They’re MNAs, members of the Rabita Committee. Yes, there may be ghettoisation in the urban areas, but we are trying to end it by reaching out to all.
The problem is the perception people have of the MQM as an ethnic party. In fact, the ground reality has changed. We are now in all districts of the Punjab and in interior Sindh. We have offices all over and they are staffed by locals. We are trying to address national issues across the ethnic divide. And today, when Chaudhry Nisar got up in parliament and said there should be an agriculture tax, it’s a feather in our cap because that has been one of our longest-standing demands.
Q: We know what problems confront Karachi. What solutions can you offer for restoring peace to this city and how would you implement them?
A: Well, all the city’s stakeholders should work for Karachi, and let the educated people that constitute the public decide on the merit of that work. Hollow slogans like roti, kapra, makaan will no longer work. Today it’s what you have done that will determine your popularity. Mustafa Kamal delivered, money was utilised properly, and you can see this. So people will vote for him, for the party.
The fact is that for the first time with the city government the MQM enjoyed real power, at both the administrative and financial levels. So we could deliver. In the past I have been a minister thrice, but have had virtually no power. And it is the same situation now. There is interference from the centre. The chief minister belongs to another party, he’ll hold on to files, won’t let you work, funds are not released and without money you cannot work. When Musharraf was there, he released money for Karachi, so programmes could be implemented.
Q: Does your party support de-weaponisation?
A: Talking about de-weaponisation is very easy, but actually doing it is next to impossible. You can work on getting rid of illegal weapons in Karachi, but leave the legal ones — those that have licenses and are registered. You can only do de-weaponisation across the board when the government protects the lives and rights of the people of Karachi. But in this situation, people have to protect themselves. And as far as registered arms are concerned, it is a citizen’s right to own them, it is provided for in the constitution. If you allow criminals to keep arms, if you allow the gangs in Lyari to have all manner of weapons, including rocket launchers, and then you want to disarm me and take away my little pistol, would this be fair?
Q: Okay so let’s imagine a hypothetical “ideal” situation: there is an MQM government in Karachi, enjoying “real” power, receiving adequate funding. In this perfect framework, what blueprint do you have for a safe, prosperous Karachi?
A: Police reforms for one. Select police personnel on merit and get local recruitment, people who have a stake in the city. Then empower them. If you pay the police well they will not need to be dishonest. Let police functionaries work without constant interference from Islamabad, government departments, intelligence agencies, other players with their own agendas. Bring the police and land control, including cantonments, under the city government. If we could have all of this, you would see a safe, prosperous Karachi.
Q: You say if the MQM was given a chance to run the city with no constraints, it could achieve a great deal. But how do you build up the trust deficit against a backdrop of reports of extortion, blackmail and murder, allegedly committed by the MQM?
A: That is just not true. I’m not saying we are angels. There are bad apples everywhere, but we have worked very, very hard to cleanse our house. If anyone is found involved in any of those activities, he is immediately taken to task. We have asked everyone who knows of such criminal elements to come forward and apprise us of them. Certainly, people may use the name of the MQM to commit such crimes, but they are not our party boys. Today — and ask industrialists this — if there are people involved in bhatta collection for example, you will discover they are more likely to be Pathans and members of other ethnic communities, not our people.
This interview accompanied the November 2010 cover story, Karachi’s Mean Streets.