No contemporary accounts of ethnic violence contain any mention of the MQM's exclusivist politics, which perhaps is the primary reason for Karachi's perennially precarious ethnic situation
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
The latest orgy of violence in Karachi needs to be understood for what it is, because it provides perhaps the most poignant warning of the civil strife that is to come if things do not change, and quickly. Amazingly most accounts of what happened on April 29 and 30 are so vague as to be almost meaningless. The prototypical news report and editorial highlights 'ethnic' and 'communal' clashes without venturing anything about the historical-political context that have given rise to these clashes. In other words, it would appear as if Karachiites of different ethnicities suddenly decided to raise arms against one another.
Of course there is a long history to ethnic discord in Karachi that can be traced back to the early 1980s. It speaks volumes about the virtual monopoly power that the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has come to acquire in the city that no contemporary accounts of ethnic violence contain any mention of the MQM's exclusivist discourse and politics, which, in my view, is the primary reason for Karachi's perennially precarious ethnic situation.
The MQM is no ordinary phenomenon. Since 1992, its undisputed leader has been in self-imposed exile yet the organisation still manages to gather crowds in the hundreds of thousands to listen to Altaf Husain deliver his by now famous telephonic addresses. The MQM is a genuinely populist party, but one which at the same time employs coercive force freely to douse any challenges to its authority.
Ideologically the MQM is statist insofar as it claims that Urdu-speaking migrants are the bearers of the Pakistan idea, and that only they have the genuine right to rule this country given the sacrifices they made by leaving behind everything and migrating to the promised land. In some of the party's literature, the 1947 migrants are even compared to the Prophet and his companions in the course of their historic migration from Mecca to Medina.
The MQM emerged only after the relative privilege in political, economic and cultural realms enjoyed by the Urdu-speaking communities of urban Sindh began to be eroded. The Muhajir consciousness was triggered by the coming to power of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1972, and the latter's decision to make Sindhi the official language of Sindh province. Sindhis were given access to the state unlike at any other time in Pakistan's history. Meanwhile, broader objective changes in the Pakistani society had resulted in massive migrations of Pakhtuns and Punjabis into Karachi from the late 1960s onwards, which meant increased competition between the new migrants and the well-entrenched Muhajir community in the city.
After Zia took power, sectarian and ethnic identities were given new impetus. It is naïve to dismiss the MQM purely as a creation of the intelligence agencies, because, as I have just noted, there were broader objective factors that piqued a sense of marginalisation within the Muhahir community. Nevertheless, it is true that the military regime benefited from the emergence of, and openly patronised, the MQM because the latter -- and many other organisations that operated along parochial lines -- helped displace the expansive politics of the 1960s and 1970s in which multi-ethnic trade and student unions predominated.
The rest is history. 20 years on, the MQM exercises definitive control over the city's political life. The Pakhtuns have always represented a threat to the MQM because of the former's domination of aspects of economic life, including transport. But in recent times the antagonism has become qualitatively more pronounced. It is a known fact that on May 12, 2007, MQM goons targeted any and every political community that it felt was challenging the government's authority, and in this virtual pogrom Pakhtuns were the biggest losers. Subsequentl,y a relative peace was negotiated between the MQM and Awami National Party (ANP), which claimed to be representative of the Pakhtun voice in Karachi.
Whether or not the ANP can speak for the Pakhtun community at large -- and perhaps more importantly for Pakhtun economic interests -- is a moot point. The present spate of violence is a direct result of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Pakhtuns from their homes in the NWFP and FATA due to the so-called 'war on terror'. A significant number of those displaced have come to Karachi to shelter with relatives or simply because there are at least some prospects of securing a livelihood there. Altaf Husain has been spewing out rhetoric about the 'Talibanisation' of Karachi since this wave of displaced Pakhtuns started flowing into the city some months ago. For all intents and purposes, the MQM leader has been exhorting Muhajirs to take action against the Pakhtun community, under the (unsaid) pretext that all Pakhtuns are Taliban.
This is xenophobia of the worst kind. It has resulted in ethnic profiling and ultimately, as happened on the night of April 29, wanton violence. Shamefully, many otherwise progressive elements in Pakistan have lauded Altaf Husain and the MQM for adopting a 'principled' position vis-a-vis the so-called 'Talibanisation'. In fact, Altaf Husain is stoking the fires of ethnic violence as he has done consistently in the past. Such rhetoric will serve only to polarise Kararchi (and society more generally) and ensure that what is called 'Talibanisation' becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It would be yet another tragedy if the Karachi violence provides an indicator of things to come in the rest of the country. If such an eventuality is to be prevented, it is absolutely essential that common people are informed about what is actually happening in the country's biggest city. Too many people for too long have remained silent in the face of the intimidation of the MQM and the permanent state apparatus with which it enjoys a symbiotic relationship.
The media must also take the initiative; otherwise, it too will be complicit in this slide towards anarchy. To put things into context, the lack of information about displacement of common Pakhtuns from the NWFP and FATA provided to the general public has been scandalous. The boat is sinking but it has not sunk yet; there is still time to save it from going under!