April Issue 2009
Kings of Karachi
Reports that the MQM is joining the ruling alliance comes as good news. Very few people were sure that the new government, especially in Sindh, could have survived for long without partnering with the ethnic party representing the mohajirs of urban Sindh. Initially, it was feared that the establishment might not let the MQM join the ruling coalition and use the party to create instability. It was heartening to know that the establishment finally seems to have given up. Or perhaps, it needed to get the MQM into the coalition to keep a watch over the new regime and to keep it on its toes. Many Pakistan observers consider this particular coalition a double-edged sword precisely because of the MQM’s affinity with the establishment. Some people are even of the view that the ethnic party played a critical role in brokering a deal between the new regime and the establishment as a result of which the new PPP chief is now allowed to pursue life more normally without any court cases to divert his attention.
Being part of the coalition is certainly advantageous to the MQM because this will allow it a share in the resources of the province and keep its control over the urban centres of Sindh. The new regime provides the party with yet another opportunity to partner with the political parties rather than just with the establishment. The MQM will continue to have two partners, a strategy which it considers vital for its survival. It is probably conscious of the fact that the establishment, especially the intelligence agencies, have a lot of power to activate rival groups such as the MQM-Haqiqi or the religious groups to counter the MQM’s influence in the urban centres of Sindh.
The relationship between the MQM and the establishment is as much a reality of today’s Pakistan as the party’s presence in the urban centres of Sindh. These are the two realities which the country will have to deal with the foreseeable future. The current MQM-establishment alliance has both tactical and strategic reasons. Tactically, this is due to the ethnic affiliation between the party head and the president. After all, when most parties dumped Musharraf before the onset of the recent political crisis, he hung on to the MQM, particularly during the May 12 mayhem in Karachi. This resulted in a lot of people commenting on the ethnic links between the party and the president. Surely, some commentators went overboard, but the linkage cannot be disregarded.
From the MQM’s perspective, in particular, personal linkages are historically important. During the early 1990s, the army chief General Aslam Beg had brought up the issue of the repatriation of stranded Biharis from Bangladesh, which is considered critical to boosting the numbers of Urdu-speaking mohajirs in Pakistan. General Beg, it must be remembered, was the first mohajir army chief. Reportedly, he was the only mohajir officer serving in the higher echelons of the army after a long time. The mohajir community was well represented in the country’s establishment until the 1970s. In 1968, 11 out of 48 senior positions in the army were held by the mohajirs. The situation changed with Pushtoon generals like Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Gul Hassan Khan making it to the top of the largest service of the armed forces. This equation did not change until Beg’s arrival as the chief of army staff. Today, there is again a considerably greater number of mohajir officers serving in senior positions, a situation which is probably owed to the command of Generals Beg and Musharraf. Given the fact that the military is an influential organisation, the service chiefs have played a critical role in keeping the MQM close to the establishment.
The other tactical reason for the connection between the MQM and the establishment pertains to the need for the party to survive socially and politically. The military operation during the 1990s, which resulted in the killings of a lot of MQM members, made the party conscious of the need to remain on the right side of the establishment (and also build contacts with mohajir officers). Moreover, the party is conscious of the establishment’s ability to launch other actors in Karachi and other urban centres such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, which had replaced the MQM during the 1990s, after the party fell out with the military and its intelligence agencies.
Strategically, the MQM-establishment alliance is understandable. This is probably the approach adopted by most parties or groups which try to survive as a minority or are unable to become part of the mainstream political discourse. Although many believe that the MQM was the brainchild of the military intelligence agencies, the fact is that during the mid-1980s, when the ethnic party was created, it got a lot of explicit and implicit support from the larger mohajir community.
The 1970s marked a shift in the thinking of this ethnic community, which found itself unable to thwart the advances of the other ethnic communities in urban Sindh. The mohajirs were part of the establishment, even before the 1970s, due to their involvement in the civil and military bureaucracy of the post-colonial state. However, after the rise of the PPP, the mohajirs found it difficult to retain the space they had occupied earlier in the larger state apparatus. The PPP got votes in the Punjab and interior Sindh and was keen to satisfy its other constituents. The mohajirs had a problem of being a minority in a country which they had made their own in 1947. However, they could never change their status as a minority and, thus, had no legitimate way of creating greater political space for themselves.
MQM was born in this vacuum. While the Zia regime saw the MQM as a conduit of its policy to counter the PPP, the MQM latched on to the regime to build itself and become a politico-militant force. One cannot forget the days of absolute horror during the 1980s when any criticism of the MQM leadership would prove costly, in terms of the security of life and property.
Since the 1980s, the party has expanded its network. Generally known for extracting money from local businesses in urban Sindh, the party reportedly has similar networks in other parts of the world as well, including the US, Canada, Europe and South Africa. Like a state, the party ensures that it extracts resources in return for protection and providing opportunities. The militancy makes the party more of a mafia than just a political party. Its followers include the youth who continue to support the leader, Altaf Hussain, and are willing to kill for him or get killed because they find the party and its leadership as the only source of hope in a place that does not guarantee them any political space.
The MQM has managed to create a support base among the lower class and the lower-middle class mohajirs. The youth from this particular segment of the mohajir community probably have a sense of empowerment through aligning with a party which seems to have given them guns instead of books. There is a clear class divide within the mohajir community of the urban centres of Sindh. In Karachi, areas like the Federal B Area or Lalu Khet have turned into ghettos as well as recruitment centres for the MQM. The party leadership probably benefits from the situation because it is the lower classes, which not only willingly become the fodder, but also serve as the major support base for Altaf Hussain. It is this particular class support which makes it difficult for the more educated leadership of the party to come to the top. At the end of the day, it is about the politics of charisma which always works better in limited political spaces.
Unless there is willingness among the other ethnic groups to talk to the mohajirs and for the national parties to solve the ethnic problem in the country, it is difficult to visualise the MQM without Altaf Hussain, guns or the establishment.
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter